Paris La Chapelle: Defending Women or Attacking the Poor?
It’s easy to just look out for yourself. It’s easy to want to push hardship out of sight when you don’t feel affected by it, when the system favours you. It’s easy to find excuses not to be in solidarity in these democracies that have found ways to dress themselves up, “liberty, equality, fraternity” (1), and relegate cruelty to a darker past or to far-away lands, to cover your eyes and not see what’s going on outside your door. It’s easy to be contemptuous of those who struggle to survive, at least for those whose money allows them so much. But it’s also easy to brag about your success, your cash, your social position that’s held up as a model, as a way to conceal your own existential and emotional misery, the disappointment in the face of our childhood dreams of freedom and self-fulfillment, this frustration that all the money in the world couldn’t take away. And yet, there are those who feel no shame in pushing these plain truths aside with their arrogance.
Last May, a series of articlesin the newspaper Le Parisien (2) took up the disgusting campaign waged by some politicians and citizens in the La Chapelle-Pajol neighbourhood between the 10th and 18th districts of Paris. On May 19th, a so-called “Women’s march against Obscurantism (3)” organized by the right-wing Republicans party in the lead up to the legislative elections had at its head Babette de Rozières (the local candidatea) and Valérie Pécresse (the party’s president in the Paris-area). This event took the shape of a small rally at the La Chapelle metro, with as many journalists as “demonstrators” to elaborate (for the media) their ideas about how it feels in the neighbourhood’s streets. The rally was pushed back by a counter-demonstration until these celebrities had to take refuge in the lobby of a building. In practice, these politicians from the Republicans party were taking advantage of the sexism in the area (the harassment of women by many men either alone or in groups) and deliberately exaggerating it to denounce without distinction “street vendors, dealers, migrants, and traffickers” as being clearly responsible… Easy scapegoats for these partisan reactionaries of the dominant order, of police occupation, of empty, sterile streets (also known as public order), of gentrification and the attacks on the poor that come with it. Easy scapegoats too because these are often people who spend lots of time in the streets, whether by choice or from necessity, rather than just spending all their time commuting, working, or sleeping as they would like us all to do. At last, they concluded that the 18th district is a “lawless zone” (as though the law prevents sexism…) and called for more cops, more ID checks, arrests, ticketing, and targetting of undesireables (undocumented and homeless people).
At the same time, a petition started by the associations SOS La Chapelle and La Chapelle Tomorrow entitled “La Chapelle and Pajol: Women are an endangered species in the heart of Paris” picked up a number of supporters and didn’t bother to mask that, apart from its title evoking street harassment, its demands are clearly concerned with security and are anti-poor andanti-migrant . They also add to the list of the so-called guilty parties pickpockets and forged document dealers while denouncing “dealing, public drinking, garbage everywhere and the dizzying stench of urine”. They call of course for more cops, investigations of “networks”, and more generally to “make it so that at last laws and regulations are respected”. The reaction from Paris city hall wasn’t long in coming – Anne Hidalgo (4) quickly replied to these demands for the militarization of the area, justifying herself with the past few months’ figures on number of police, stops, arrests, etc. She also promised that in the future the space beneath line 2 of the metro would be redeveloped in consultation with associations and citizens groups. This would be similar to what was done along Flandre Avenue after the eviction of the enormous camp that had set up there (5), with the goal of preventing migrants from returning and to spare the residents the sight of such poverty. They would rather forget all the migrants in holding centres or Orientation Centres (after being “sorted”) than be confronted with these reality on their doorsteps. The pretty face of gentrification.
When reading all this in the newspaper, their two-pronged campaign stinks of trickery from miles away: to attract more people to their demands for security and to seem less despicable, these projects play on a more sensitive subject, sexism. But it’s easy to see the clumsy manipulation and racist,anti-poor recuperation in their games. They’re hardly discrete about what they’re conflating: that those who harass (usually just in small ways, but it becomes harassment through repetition and accumulation), insult, who remark on people’s appearance or make more or less explicit sexual advances, who stare, intimidate, and mock must necessarily be illegals, dealers, or migrants. And not because they’re the ones who fill the streets of these last working-class neighbourhoods of Paris (6), but because it’s part of who they are, it’s their mentality… Because, according to them, there’s no sexisum among the rich, right?
Unlike some reactions from alternative media or associations, I won’t try to deny the reality of harassment that women who regularly walk through these streets experience, though the media campaign makes it charicatural and shamelessly amplifies it to drive build their macabre buzz (“Women banned from the neighbourhood”, “Some women no longer leave their homes”…) Yes, sexism is present in the street as it is elsewhere, especially when the street has some life, is inhabited, when there are people out walking, hanging around, or sleeping, and not just a few super polite suits who run for their taxi indifferent to what’s around them because they’re so proper, put together, modern, and in their routine, except when they go drool over the window displays of luxury boutiques (for which you of course need clean windows!). That the rich are quieter, more impersonal, sanitized and polite doesn’t make the sexism any less strong. Their “good upbringing”, as it’s known, helps hide their less-than-glorious side – no doubt that in well-off homes, behind the doors of their mansions, behind the closed blinds, in their hotels, ministries, embassies, churches or in the offices of bosses and leaders, women, usually those lower on the hierarchy, experience put-downs, mockery, humiliation, and are thought of as maids and objects to be coveted or pursued, or even assaulted in secret from time to time in the intimacy of the family.
We’ve all heard about stories like that of Dominique Strauss-Kahn (who raped a hotel cleaner in New York in 2011) or more recently Denis Baupin (a Green Party member of parliament who harassed and assaulted his female colleagues), or all the stories of procuring sex workers who are sometimes assaulted or killed… But the stories talked about by the media are just the tip of the iceberg and it’s clear that domestic violence or other forms of sexism, invisible to those who might be outraged, don’t spare any social milieu. Street harassment of women is thus only the tree that hides the forest.
So let’s be clear that this campaign aimed at the La Chapelle neighbourhood is shamelessly making use of anti-sexism for less noble ends with less popular appeal, namely as a pretext to ask the authorities to “clean up” the neighbourhood to justify its occupation and the harassment, this time by police, of those capitalism, the state, and their gentrification consider undesireable.
As a text reacting to this affair said, “It’s too easy to only remember women when you want to kick out poor people and foreigners. Yet again, they’re being used, WE’RE being used!” (7) We won’t get rid of sexism by looking for a few guilty parties, it’s the collected mentalities and stereotypes we all have, men and women, that need to be called into question.
1) The motto of the French Republic
2) Le Parisien is the most widely read daily in the Paris area. Although never politically interesting, it has taken a decidedly more conservative slant since being bought by the company that owns the car manufacturer Citroen and Louis Vuitton in 2015.
3) Obscurantism here means an opposition to enlightenment values. I could have translated it as “backwardness” or something
4) The mayor of Paris, member of the Socialist party of the former federal government
5) Following the eviction of the big migrant camp in Calais, several camps in Paris grew in size, notably this one at the Stalingrad metro, on the median between two lanes of traffic
6) Paris proper is a relatively small area that is heavily gentrified, though it is surrounded by and bleeds into many other cities, the banlieue, that are often much more working class or poor
7) This text was from a text that circulated online and as a little poster in the revelvant neighbourhoods. Here’s a link: https://www.infolibertaire.net/nous-femmes-du-18eme-la-chapelle-pajol-barbes/