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In Paris, police step up encampment evictions ahead of the Olympics

Human rights groups say that in the approach to the Paris Olympics, police have stepped up evictions and deportations of people living and working on the streets of the capital and surrounding suburbs. They say law enforcement is targeting the city’s most vulnerable, in what some activists describe as social cleansing.

'The goal is to have a postcard Paris'

Police officers stand by as people take their tents down and exit an encampment.

On a Tuesday morning in late May, at least three dozen police officers surrounded an encampment in central Paris. The streets above the banks of the Seine were virtually empty and the cafes still closed when they evicted more than 100 boys and young men, many from West Africa. It was just past 7 a.m.

"It's always the same," said Tomster Soumahfrom Guinea, who has been moved on more times than he can count. The stoic 16-year-old gathered his belongings in a plastic bag and joined his friends in search of a new spot on the other side of the city.

As he left, he marvelled at the irony that Paris will host an estimated 10 million spectators for the upcoming Olympic Games. "They tell everyone, 'Come!'" he said. "'France is a land of liberty, solidarity and fraternity!' But that's not the reality, not for us."

Some 3,500 people were estimated to be homeless this year in Paris (likely an underestimate), a 16 per cent increase on last year.

Human rights groups say that in the approach to the Paris Olympics, police have stepped up evictions and deportations of people living and working on the streets of the capital and surrounding suburbs, in what some describe as social cleansing.

"I have police officers who have told me their mission is to evict people quickly," saysPaul Alauzy, Doctors of the World co-ordinator.

"The goal is to have a postcard Paris, and normally, that's not something we would oppose. But this was a missed opportunity to find more dignified solutions, where people are not simply moved on and cut off from access to care."

Blue tents line a courtyard.

An increase in encampment evictions

Alauzy is also a spokesperson for Le revers de la médaille, or "the other side of the medal," a coalition of more than 100 human rights groups advocating for marginalized people in the approach to the Olympic Games.

The collective found in a June report that evictions have been steadily rising, from 121 operations in 2021-22 to 137 in 2023, accelerating at the end of that year to 16 evacuations in 17 weeks.

Although many evictions are carried out in Paris, a city spokesperson stressed that the French government plans them, and that emergency accommodations are the federal body's jurisdiction.

Two police officers in black uniforms walk behind a man carrying a large blue bag over his shoulders. On their right is a parked blue motorcycle.

Paris "is calling for the State to … shelter people in the many vacant buildings," the spokesperson said.

Many hotels once renting out rooms to the homeless under government contracts are now returning to tourism, contributing to the steep decline in available beds.

To relieve the pressure, the Greater Paris prefecture arranges to have homeless migrants bussed to other regions, like Bordeaux and Lyon.

"It's intolerable that they should live this way," said a prefecture spokesperson. "In the greater Paris area, there is shelter for up to 120,000 people, and we've reached a saturation point."

A continuing cycle

That Tuesday, only three out of more than 100 people boarded the bus bound for Lyon, according to rights workers on site. Few ever take them.

After previously taking one, Arouna Sidibe, 41, from Côte d'Ivoire, vowed never to do so again. Sidibe fled his country in 2016, fearing for his life after falling out with a powerful family member.

He was among more than 150 people evicted from a Paris gymnasium last fall. Having been homeless for more than seven years, he and his partner Ramatou Koné, 26, boarded a bus for Normandy in the hopes of getting shelter until his refugee application was settled. But after just five months, they were told to leave the hotel room there, paid for by the government.

A man stands wearing a grey jacket. To his left is a woman with her back turned.

They returned to Paris, where Sidibe works as a carpenter.

He now awaits a ruling on his appeal to the rejection of his refugee status. "It's so tiring," he said. "We've already been here for eight years, and we're going to leave the country? To go where?"

In addition to waiting on court decisions, many people remain in Paris to work or study, or have friends and family here. So the cycle continues: They sleep somewhere until the police dislodge them, then they find a new place until they're discovered again.

In 2023, under pressure from the fast-rising far-right National Rally, French President Emmanuel Macron's government passed immigration legislation so tough that NR's Marine Le Pen called it an "ideological victory."

"The most precarious people are being criminalized, as street vendors, sex workers and homeless people are being issued with fines and deportation orders," said Aurélia Huot, a member of the Paris Solidarity Bar association and of Le revers de la médaille.

"They are appearing in court for misdemeanours that normally wouldn't be penalized."

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Most policed event in Paris history

Spikes and rocks have been used to ward off people sleeping rough, such as under the bridge near Gare d'Austerlitz, where the Olympic Opening Ceremony will occur on July 26.

"I was shocked to see these anti-homeless measures," says Olivier Le Marois, 63, an entrepreneur who lives nearby."I read about the evictions, and it's like we're in the early Soviet Union, where they show you a model city and hide everything that's wrong!"

Rocks line a path under a bridge. A grey fence has been placed around it.

Recent surveys indicate that half of those polled intend to follow the Games this summer, with views of the event — and preparations — decidedly mixed.

"It's a big challenge, of course, but it can give a beautiful reflection of Paris, of France," said Jean-Christophe, 43, a restaurant head waiter. He provided only his first name.

"In terms of security and hygiene, [the clearing of camps] is something that absolutely had to be done," he said. "Of course, it would be ideal to find alternatives for these people."

Residents near the Olympic village have also been forced to move. Thousands of students in the north of Paris and neighbouring boroughs had their lease agreements cut short to make way mainly for Olympics personnel. That sparked a protest and campaign to resist eviction.

Police officers in blue uniforms stand in a group as they evict a group of people living in an encampment.

It will be the most-policed sporting event in the capital's history, with up to 45,000 law enforcement officers deployed in and around Paris.

"The closer we get to the Olympics, the more we will saturate public spaces with police officers," Paris Police Chief Laurent Nuñez told le Parisien newspaper.

None of this has stopped France from billing Paris 2024 as being inclusive and "open to all."

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Not unique to Paris Olympics

"This isn't new — we see this in all the Olympics," says Melora Koepke, a Paris-based Canadian human geographer. "People designated as 'undesirable' in public space are … controlled by police forces and political pressures."

Earlier this year, Koepke held workshops in Vancouver and Paris, where Canadian and French community organizers, scholars and those with lived experience examined the impact of the 2010 Winter Olympics on vulnerable people in Vancouver.

A woman stands in front of a plant, wearing black jacket and blue shirt.

As early as 2008, police were criticized for carrying out a "ticketing blitz" for such things as loitering and panhandling, targeting marginalized people in the Downtown Eastside.

"The patterns are the same," said Caitlin Shane, a Vancouver-based lawyer who spoke at the workshop.

"Displacing people from encampments … but never actually dealing with the systemic issues, which is an ever-increasing housing crisis — it's all about optics."

People stand together and smile.

Le revers de la médaille says the Olympics Organizing Committee and corporate sponsors rejected its request for a "solidarity fund" of €10 million. It would have helped fund shelter, food and health care for people in need during and after the Games, and would have amounted to just over 0.1 per cent of the Games' estimated €9-billion budget.

While Alauzy says the coalition has managed to "slow down the machine" of law enforcement by monitoring evictions and pressuring officers, he wants future hosts of the Olympic Games to go further.

The group isn't opposed to the Games as a whole. But as a warning, Alauzy cited Denver, which cancelled its Games in 1972 in the wake of protests and public opposition over environmental concerns.

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The coalition may not be able to stop the cycle of evictions in Paris. But its message is already spreading as far afield as Brisbane, which is holding the Olympics in 2032.

"It's a bit dizzying to be interviewed on Australian television about our little collective," says Alauzy.

"So we share our activist adventure, and tell them, 'Build coalitions now, make sure you identify the risks, make demands and ensure that the promises are kept.'"

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kyle G. Brown is a freelance journalist based in Paris. Specializing in development and human rights issues, he has reported from Latin America, Europe and Africa for the CBC, BBC, the Guardian, the Toronto Star and other outlets.

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