Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Will there be a crazed mob at the illegal market in Belleville?

I'm a former council member, and still an active participant, in the Conseil de quartier de Belleville. A conseil de quartier is a neighborhood council or community board which seeks to link inhabitants, businesses and visitors to a neighborhood with the local government and other official bodies. It is supposed to propose projects, bring people together, let grievances be heard, suggest solutions, organize concrete actions. Belleville is one of the 7 Conseils of the 20th Arrondissement of Paris, and covers a territory with over 20,000 people. Members are volunteers, drawn from among the lists of registered voters, designated by local associations, named by the political parties present in the Conseil d'arrondissement of the 20th.

About three times a year a public meeting is held. They usually attract a group of 50 regulars, sometimes the double if a point of great public interest is on the agenda. More often than not, these become occasions for residents to complain about crime, violence, dirty streets, dog poop, and the like, taking advantage of the presence of local elected officials, usually including the mayor.

The agenda for tonight's meeting didn't look very attractive, so I didn't anticipate to find many people in the elementary school activities room. To my great surprise, it was packed with hundreds of people, more than I've ever seen at a public meeting in the 20th. The reason was not a status report on construction projects in the neighborhood, nor an update on outstanding grievances, but rather, the "marché de la misère".

I write "marché de la misèré" but in doing so, I'm making a political choice. This "market" is located on the boulevard de Belleville and surrounding streets. It is an illegal market that began as a "marché des biffins". Biffins or chiffoniers are scavengers who resell "found" objects from the street and garbage cans. Among them you can also find old people who slowly sell off their meager store of personal effecst to earn a few euros.

That's how this market started about three years ago, with a push from the great recession. In our neighborhood, there are some "traditional" biffins, but the ones I see in the garbage cans of my own building are Chinese, illegal immigrants who earn a pittance by finding objects in the garbage, cleaning them, fixing them, and selling them on the street.

Once they settled in, supported by many soft-hearted people who couldn't imagine depriving poor people from making a few euros, and offering other poor people clothing or other items they could never afford new, they were quickly overwhelmed by other kinds of merchants, selling stolen goods, contraband (cigarettes, in particular), drugs and more. They have invaded the center platform of the boulevard and the wide sidewalks on either side. They threaten local people, they have caused great harm to the already suffering businesses located on the boulevard, they fight among themselves, the shit and piss on the street or in the lobbies of the surrounding buildings, they leave the streets covered with waste, spit, vomit, and worse.

The neighbors, as you can imagine, are irate. Last year, after many protests, the French government in the form of the Police Prefect finally sent in the riot police, bringing a brigade from far-off Montauban to provide a non-stop presence on the boulevard. The illegal market moved, until the riot police left. After that they quickly returned, first to the area around the Belleville métro station. When the Police Prefect finally decided to react to ongoing problems of the neighborhood around the métro by creating a special territorial brigade, the illegal market simply moved down the boulevard a bit, away from the territory covered by the new brigade, which in any case lacked the numbers and equipment to dissuade the "merchants" from setting up shop ("shop"is usually a dirty sheet on the pavement, where goods, which now include raw meat, are sold off the ground).

It's a situation totally out of hand, made worse by a legitimate feeling that it would never be allowed in the wealthier parts of the city. Poverty and crime are acceptable in the East, unimaginable in the West. Nor are people satisfied with the hot potato treatment this matter receives. The boulevard divides the 11th and the 20th, and on the otherside of métro Belleville you find the 10th and the 19th. The special police brigade can't act, the police of the 11th tell the police of the 20th to act, the police say they can't act anyway, since this activity is only a "contravention" and not a "délit", limiting the kind of response they can make. The mayor of the 20th asks the mayor of Paris to act, the mayors respond that they don't have control over the police (which is true: Paris, Lyon and Marseille don't have local police, but only national police, under direct control of the Ministry of the Interior), the police say they don't have the resources, bla bla bla and in the meantime the people are getting angry.

And so a huge crowd was present tonight, and the regular agenda was swept away by a giant bitch fest. What was done in the period when the riot police were present to ensure a long-term solution? What solutions does the mayor have?

Among those speaking, we heard a Green party member. They are among the softies the mayor laid into in her opening remarks, saying that there were dissensions in her majority, which includes the Greens. When the Green guy said that they had been talking to a variety of people, and he said that among those persons were "researchers in social sciences", the room started to boo. American-style anti-intellectalism? Perhaps. Certainly frustration that this was not a situation to be studied, but a problem to be solved. Local business threatened to close shop for a day: Belleville, quartier mort. Others brought up the coming elections next year, and threatened that Belleville, which has been a stronghold for the left, would abandon both the city's socialist majority and the state's Sarkozist majority, and vote for the neofascist right. It's not an idle threat: there is such great frustration with the parties in power locally and nationally, that an extremist vote is quite possible, even here.

The mayor of the 20th offered her "solutions". First, to get the riot police back. To do so, she is supporting the "Belleville quartier mort" plan, and calling for a mass demonstration against the Police Prefect and the State Prefect. She has obtained funding for a "ressourcerie", a recycling center that would be located at the Porte de Montreuil, the other part of the 20th affected by this problem. And she is seeking funding for a renovation of the boulevard, which the Conseil de quartier has been calling for for over three years, and for which we have organized any number of public meetings and workshops, carried out a survey, held a street party, etc., and which the mayor of the 20th has consistently ignored, claiming that the city of Paris has no money (a lie).

I left the meeting at this point, in part because I feared fainting in the stifling heat of an unseasonally warm spring day, in a room stuffed with hundreds of people instead of the few dozen children who usually occupy it.

And I can't help but fear that sooner or later, if the situation doesn't change, the locals will get out their crowbars and baseball bats, and blood will flow...








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