Down and out in Paris, 2010

Postcard from Paris: 1 

Paris, city of light, rich, elegant and of a rare, lively and intimate beauty, also has its dark side. And none more so than the sight of the big homeless and beggar population which seems if anything to have multiplied in recent years..

Light snow like crumpled bits of tissue paper has been falling today, the Seine flows cold and murky winter-brown, yet still the homeless men, the ‘clochards’ as they’re known in French, are there on the sweeping grandeur of the Rue de l’Hôtel de Ville tonight, huddling in skimpy sleeping bags over hot air vents or setting up makeshift tents in the bitter air. The men huddling over the air vents don’t beg, they just clutch bottles of pastis and occasionally tinfoil dishes of something unappetising and never meet your glance. But there are plenty of beggars as well, and in the last couple of years since I’ve last been here, there’s been a change: the young men with stoned eyes and patient dogs, the gypsy women in scarves with hesitant yet insistent voices and the cheeky musicians who force you to listen to their music in the Metro trains and if you don’t give them money, tell you you’ll end up in hospital because you’re too stressed by city life are familiar enough. But now there is another kind, the pathetically sad sight of whom transports you right back to the Paris of the Hunchback of Notre Dame. These are the handicapped beggars, most with limbs missing, some displaying bare feet so deformed they couldn’t possibly walk on them, some with arms that end at the shoulder with vestigial hands, some with no legs below the knee. It is a startling sight in a country where the disabled are well-looked after but also kept right out of sight — unlike in Australia, where disabled people are ‘mainstreamed’ in France they are still mainly expected to live in institutions.

Someone tells me these beggars are probably Eastern Europeans, Romanians perhaps, and that they’ve started appearing in Paris streets since their country’s entrance into the EU. Somebody else thinks they’re North Africans. Nobody seems to know for sure. Unlike the clochards, but like the gypsy women, they don’t seem to be homeless; they disappear from the streets at the end of each day.

At the Montreuil flea market, there’s another sign of distress: outside the flea market proper, with its regulated stalls and piles of new and old tatt, the avenue just above the ‘périphérique’ is lined with many people setting out blankets on which they display pitifully inadequate wares: a pair of old sneakers, a limp coat, some rusty bits of wire, an old toy. Each one would have no more than ten or twenty euros’ worth of goods to sell, if that: and it’s hard to imagine why anyone would want to buy any of it. In fact, a lot of it ends up just thrown away; the verge above the périphérique is crammed with rotting clothes, old shoes, detritus of all sorts. It’s a new sight, too, this pathetically small buy-and-sell; a sign of the times, of the precarious nature of many people’s situations at a time when rents have been rising — not homeless, huddling over air vents, but not quite making ends meet, and desperately wanting to make even a few euros out of a few sad old bits of junk..

‘Sans-logis’, ‘Sans-papiers’, ‘Situation précaire’ – Homeless; without papers; precarious situations; these are tags bandied around constantly in officially-concerned France, with its constant talk of human rights and social solidarity. There are conferences on these subjects, inquiries; even exhibitions of photos which somehow are presented as a manifestation of solidarity with people in ‘difficult situations.’ Those are all neatly-regulated, crisply postered, attended by earnest people in smart coats and good haircuts debating which words should be used to describe being down and out in Paris in 2010, while just outside the conference rooms and exhibition spaces, their subjects sit out yet another winter. Plus ça change..

Sophie Masson is writing from the Cité Internationale des Arts, in Paris, where she is undertaking a 6-month writer’s residency through the Literature Board of the Australia Council.

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