• The Star Staff

Outcry in France after police clear Paris migrant camp


By Aurelien Breeden


Police cleared out a temporary migrant camp in central Paris, forcing people out of tents, chasing them in the streets and firing tear gas in a crackdown that fueled growing outrage over the government’s tough new security policies.


Housing and integrating migrants living in makeshift camps in Paris, especially on its northern edge, have become a chronic problem. Police regularly clear out hundreds or even thousands of people from such camps.


But the violent evacuation of mostly Afghan migrants Monday evening from the Place de la République was covered widely in the media and struck a nerve, coming as Parliament voted Tuesday to move forward with a new security bill. Critics say the bill would make it harder for reporters or bystanders to film instances of police brutality.


The outcry over the evacuation comes at a time of heightened tensions around President Emmanuel Macron’s broader security policies, which opponents say increasingly restrict civil liberties. Part of that debate has played out after a string of Islamist terrorist attacks over the past few months.


Footage from Monday evening showed that as tensions rose and scuffles broke out with some protesters, police officers trying to clear the square shoved people with riot shields before using tear gas and dispersal grenades, which explode and spray smaller rubber pellets. Police also chased some of the migrants through side streets.


In one video widely circulated on social media, a police officer is seen tripping a fleeing man, who tumbles to the ground. Another video appeared to show a journalist being cornered in the street by baton-wielding officers.


Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, expressed shock Tuesday in a letter to the French interior minister, accusing police of a “brutal and disproportionate use of force.”


“This unacceptable incident is unfortunately not without precedent,” Hidalgo wrote in the letter, which she shared on Twitter.


Gérald Darmanin, the interior minister, toned down his usual tough talk Tuesday, acknowledging on Twitter that certain images of the evacuation were “shocking” and saying that the Paris police chief had handed him a report documenting “several unacceptable events,” without giving further details on those events.


Darmanin said he had asked an internal police watchdog body to investigate over the next 48 hours and he vowed to make the results of that inquiry public. But critics were not convinced.

“You are importing methods that were developed in Calais to Paris,” Doctors Without Borders responded to Darmanin on Twitter, referring to the northern port city where police have been accused of hostility and mistreatment in their handling of migrants trying to reach Britain from France.


In what has become a seemingly never-ending cycle in and around Paris, police regularly clear out hundreds of migrants and raze their tents and shacks, theoretically to offer them temporary accommodation. But a lack of emergency housing and slow asylum procedures have left many still living under bridges or on vacant lots.


Then Monday evening, roughly 450 blue tents sprouted on the Place de la République. Aid organizations like Doctors Without Borders said that the goal was to protest against authorities’ failure to provide housing for 700 to 1,000 migrants who were left to roam the streets after 3,000 people were cleared last week from a camp in Saint-Denis, a suburb north of Paris.


Aid organizations said that the migrants, many of them young asylum-seekers from countries like Afghanistan, Sudan or Ethiopia, are harassed and chased by police.


On Monday evening, the hundreds of migrants were joined on the Place de la République by left-wing politicians, lawyers and activists. Police quickly encircled the tents and started dismantling them as protesters shouted and jeered.


Most migrants appeared to leave peacefully. But videos showed that police forcefully ejected some of them who refused to exit their tents.


France’s left-wing parties swiftly criticized the evacuation.


“I was stunned by what I saw,” Olivier Faure, head of the Socialist Party, told France Inter radio Tuesday. “We are a country that is supposed to be the country of human rights.”


The ministers in charge of housing and citizenship said in a statement Tuesday that “migrants are people who must be treated with humanity and fraternity,” adding that authorities had freed up temporary housing for 10,000 people since mid-October, with funding for 4,500 additional spots next year.


In 2017, Macron himself said, “I do not want to have men and women on the streets, in the woods, by the end of the year.” But the number of asylum-seekers has increased since then, with nearly 178,000 applicants in France last year, up 9% from 2018.


Critics accuse the government of needlessly toughening its asylum policies.


“It’s up to the state to shoulder its responsibilities and to stop suggesting that we are being invaded, and to mobilize all the necessary resources so that these populations don’t live like rats,” Yann Manzi, the head of Utopia 56, one of the aid groups that helped set up the camp in Paris, told reporters Monday evening.

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