'No-go zone' for women? How street harassment in Paris boiled over
Some blame migrants for the harassment of women in the La Chapelle-Pajol neighbourhood, others cry racism. But has all the political mud-slinging distracted from the real issue – of women’s safety?
Few dispute that street harassment of women is widespread in the French capital. Source: Alamy
Caroline says the harassment occurs on a daily basis. “Being whistled at is almost constant.”
Walking through the La Chapelle district of Paris, where she lives, Caroline (not her real name) says she has been called names and asked: “What’s up your skirt?” After glancing at a man in passing 10 days ago, he told her: “Lower your eyes, slut.”
Street harassment is “everywhere for women”, she says. “But it happens much more in this neighbourhood.”
The question of the treatment of women among the jumble of streets surrounding the Place de La Chapelle in northern Paris has divided local residents in recent weeks; so much so that Caroline asked to use a pseudonym, after being insulted and threatened on social media.
On one side are those who claim that this small slice of the 18th arrondissement, known as La Chapelle-Pajol, has become a “no-go zone” for women. On the other are migrants’ rights groups, who say these complaints are motivated by xenophobia towards the district’s itinerant migrant population. The issue is causing rifts between neighbours – often those who live in the same building.
The dispute began with a petition, launched by a small group of women with the support of two neighbourhood associations: SOS La Chapelle and Demain La Chapelle (Tomorrow La Chapelle). Provocatively titled “Women: A Threatened Species in the Heart of Paris”, the petition attracted nearly 20,000 signatures in less than two weeks, and has had a huge impact in an already febrile political environment.
A document written by an association of women explaining their concerns over harassment in La Chapelle. Source: AFP/Getty Images
The petition claims that women are insulted “in all languages”. It also says the area is beset by drug and human trafficking, pickpockets and alcoholism. An article in Le Parisien newspaper the same day pointed the finger more directly at the “dozens of migrants” in the area.
La Chapelle has become host to a large number of homeless migrants and informal economies that can spring up around them. In part, this is due the recent installation of an official refugee camp on the nearby city limits, the flow of migrants between Paris and Calais – accessible from the nearby Gare du Nord and A1 motorway – as well as historical ties for newcomers in this part of the city. The groups are almost exclusively male.
The political response has been swift. The day after the petition was launched, local candidates for the rightwing Les Républicains party arrived at a demonstration at Place de La Chapelle to denounce “illegal occupation of public space and street harassment”.
At the same time, posters popped up along hoardings outside public buildings, displaying an open letter from “The women of the 18th”.
“We are against the instrumentalisation of feminism to racist and anti-poor ends against the background of the electoral campaign,” it reads.
The local mayor, Eric Lejoindre, says street harassment is a problem, but “the presence of migrants in the area has no direct link with the issues and concerns of women in public space”.
“I do not want to take advantage of the media coverage of the neighbourhood to stigmatise a population,” he said by email.
France’s parliamentary elections take place on 11 and 18 June, and with the introduction of many new players, including new president Emmanuel Macron’s party, La République en Marche!, the field is the most open France has seen in generations.
“We have seen a lot of political reclaiming [of the issue], from the extreme left to the extreme right and in between,” says Loïc Guzman, the acting president of Demain La Chapelle.
Guzman says he took on the presidency of the organisation after his predecessor left the area with her two children because she felt unsafe.
He is careful to state that he does not consider this issue of street harassment to be a migrant problem per se. “The topic is really just street harassment of women in the district,” he says. “We are not targeting migrants.”
Still, he says the problems began when an informal migrant camp sprung up under the railway lines at La Chapelle station, and criminal networks moved in to cater to their needs. He says it’s these men – who continue to sell phone cards, contraband cigarettes, fake papers and drugs – who are the main issue.
Casual traders, sellers of illegal cigarettes and new migrants have all been blamed for street harassment of women in Paris. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
Asked what the solution is, he says: “For some, [it’s] law enforcement; for some, education or sharing values, for them to be able to understand where they are and how they can find their way in France.”
Caroline also says it’s not a migrant problem, and insists the initial petition has been misinterpreted by all sides. “I’ve tried to discuss it with people,” she says. “I think we agree, but our interests aren’t the same. I’m interested in defending women and they have other interests.”
After the petition was launched, Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo tweeted that she was aware of the issue, and was determined to act. The solution so far has been to dramatically ramp up police presence around the Place de La Chapelle, to the gratification of residents’ groups.
But some women feel increased police presence only makes matters worse. Anna-Louise Milne, who has lived in the area for 20 years, says the heavy-handed response is increasing tensions.
“Of course I want to be able to sit out in the street with my kids,” she says. “Do I want that at the expense of major police presence? Quite frankly, no.”
Milne is an academic at the University of London in Paris, and researches the refugee experience in Paris. She also spends her mornings providing breakfast to migrants living on the streets in La Chapelle as part of Quartiers Solidaires (neighbourhood solidarity).
On the issue of street harassment in Paris, she says: “It’s offensive and it’s appalling but it’s not because of the young guys who are on the street here. It’s certainly not the ones in the most precarious situations.”
She says the issue of vulnerable migrants in Paris is not one the UK can ignore, given that many of the men who are in Paris have fled from the now-razed “jungle” in Calais, and ultimately want to cross the channel. She puts it bluntly: “Calais is in Paris, and this is a Franco-British problem.”
Few dispute that street harassment is widespread in the French capital, and that it happens in the area in question. I live in the 18th arrondissement, and was harassed five times during the reporting of this story, sometimes within the La Chapelle-Pajol area, sometimes outside it.
No one is comfortable in this situation. No one wants to denigrate women’s experiences of harassment, nor does anyone want to be seen as racist for complaining about harassment in a context where migrants are in the spotlight.
Still, some feel the initial issue – women’s safety – has been lost. “It’s too mixed up,” Caroline says. “There are too many issues being put on the table here.”