On May 19, 2017, two Parisian neighborhood associations — SOS La Chapelle and Tomorrow La Chapelle — posted a petition online titled Women, an Endangered Species in the Heart of Paris.
The petition, addressed to the president, prime minister, minister for justice, minister for the interior, attorney-general, mayor and police commissioner of Paris is a plea for help from the residents of the La Chapelle district in the north-east of the city. It draws attention to the fact that over the past year, the area adjacent to La Chapelle subway station has turned into a dangerous no-go zone for women and girls.
This period, since 2015, corresponds to the arrival of a wave of Muslim migrants from Somalia, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Sudan and other war-torn countries. After years of tolerating the erection of mini shanty-towns and campsites along the subway line, railway tracks and parks in the neighborhood, Socialist Mayor Anne Hidalgo commissioned the construction of a vast reception and accommodation center at the Porte de la Chapelle with a capacity of 400.
The center cost $10 million to build and is run by a permanent staff of 150 social workers, backed up by a pool of 500 volunteers, for an annual operating cost of $9.2 million. The project, far from solving the migrant problem, has exacerbated it as it has become a magnet for the wave of migrants travelling westward across Europe. There are regular fights in the vicinity between rival ethnic groups trying to gain access and illegal camps have sprung up next to the highways that border the site.
One mile further south, the area adjacent to La Chapelle subway station has become an exclusively male preserve. There are no women to be seen on the streets or in the cafés and no children playing in the small park.
One woman, who has been living in the neighborhood for 30 years, told a reporter from the Parisien newspaper that the constant insults and lewd remarks women are subject to are causing them to change the way they dress and make detours when commuting to and from work or shopping.
Some are afraid to go outside. Another, who has lived there for 15 years, complains that the café in the apartment building where she lives, once a convivial bistro, is now a place frequented by foreign men only.
Even girls going to and from school are called “bitches” and “sluts” by the gangs of youths loitering on the streets. “My 12-year old daughter cannot walk to school anymore or even go outside alone” said one young mother, while another protested that her 17-year-old daughter is “continually harassed” and had her purse stolen. “Now, when she exits the subway, she pretends to be using her phone so as not to make eye contact and avoid being accosted.”
A young father related how his 5-year-old daughter asked him when she got home from school what the word salope [slut] meant.
In a video interview with the Parisien, a woman named Paula speaks of incessant sexual propositions while walking through her neighborhood. Sylvie complains of being jostled and touched repeatedly when she goes shopping. Philippe Girault, a member of SOS La Chapelle, says, “Around here there are 95% males. Women are no longer in a public zone.”
On Friday, May 19, local residents staged a protest that prompted a response from Mayor Hidalgo, who stated in a tweet that together with the police commissioner, she would implement an action plan aimed at stopping discrimination against women.
The next day a group of police officers patrolled the area, but there were still few, if any, native French women to be seen, and the Cyclone and Royale cafés were still men-only, in contrast to the thousands of other cafés throughout Paris where men and women mix freely.
The Attorney General scheduled a meeting with the mayors of the 18th and 10th districts with a view to setting up a local law enforcement unit to deal with the problem.
Above the Café Royale, there is a plaque commemorating Saint Louise de Marillac, who lived there from 1636 to 1641 and co-founded the Daughters of Charity with Saint Vincent de Paul. It is a sad state of affairs that four centuries later, French women can no longer circulate unmolested in this historic neighborhood.
See Clarion Project’s film Honor Diaries — Culture Is No Excuse for Abuse, which features nine courageous women talking about gender inequality in Muslim-majority societies.
Leslie Shaw is an Associate Professor at the Paris campus of ESCP Europe Business School and President of FIRM (Forum on Islamic Radicalism and Management).