Guet-apens

There is something particularly horrifying in the idea of setting a trap or organizing an ambush against those whose job it is to protect us. Yet that is what is happening in our second month of lockdown here in France.

I was horrified to learn in the news yesterday that police are being targeted by groups bored by confinement in the Paris suburbs. The media call such acts ‘guets-apens’ (pronounced the same in plural or singular: get app-on), which means n ambush or trap.

Years ago French urban planning in all its wisdom created many ‘banlieues’ (suburbs) or ‘cités’ (projects or housing estates) around major cities like Paris and Lyon. In what was once thought of as modern, these high-density living areas of apartment towers were built, some not so long ago, around roads and hypermarkets rather than parks and communities. The model was presumably American but it doesn’t translate well. In France these low-income areas are a socio-economic disaster. Chronic unemployment, immigration, gangs: basically it’s the whole gamut of urban decay.

Now, with people stuck indoors, and many out of work, these areas are like a powder keg. And it seems a match has been struck.

I get it. I do. It’s starting to feel like forever since we were allowed to go about our business freely in France. For those crammed in apartments, with little or no access to the outdoors, May 11th is just too far away. There’s some relief in sight: kids will go back to school in waves next month, starting with the youngest classes and finally the lycéens. But it’s not enough to defuse the time bomb of pent-up frustration.

This video pulled from YouTube tells a story of what the police are facing. Here they are the target of mortar fireworks. It follows an earlier incident in which a driver refused to stop for a police check and sped away before abandoning the vehicle and running off, leaving four children alone in the car; thankfully they were not injured but it set off a series of riots.

And it’s not the only incident. In the cités especially north of Paris, bored kids go out on scooters and race around in ‘rodeos’ that drive the neighbours to distraction. This escalates to setting bins and cars on fire. The police are called and voilà…un guet-apens. They are shot at, or get bricks or Molotov cocktails thrown at them. Reinforcements are called in, rubber bullets and tear gas are used. It’s a potentially explosive set of circumstances that could easily escalate into full blown riots at a time when police and hospitals are already stretched to breaking point.

The above incident happened in Grigny last week, a suburb south of Paris. Many years ago when we first moved to France I worked in nearby Evry, a local hub for business, teaching English at Berlitz. It is a pretty area, with a lovely forest (Forêt de Sénart) and convenient access to Paris. We briefly considered settling there before deciding to move south to Lyon, which aside from its obvious charms has its own problems but on a smaller scale.

As we enter our final weeks of this confinement (and who knows if there will be others?), and as the weather gets warmer and temperatures soar, I hope that these incidents will remain unfortunate exceptions and not the beginning of deeper discontent.

It feels like we are all trapped in a guet-apens by this coronavirus. Now more than ever, we need solidarity for those who are suffering from this terrible disease, and especially all those in the police and medical professions who are working so hard to keep us healthy and safe.

How are you feeling?

38 comments

  1. pedmar10 · April 23

    Low income housing are a problem everywhere and we do not learn from them. I had visited worse in US like Fort apache in NYC or Overtown in Miami. In fact most people here come to Paris CDG and take the RER C passing by the worse areas in maybe all of France but little do they know unless “visit” these areas. LIke I said, is not the same been a visitor than a resident. Cheers

    • MELewis · April 24

      That’s true: we see what we want to see. Living in France, we are forced to acknowledge the harsh reality of these ‘neighbourhoods’ when they blow up like this. Otherwise, living in a nice part of Paris or out in the country, you forget that this is the way of life for so many French people.

      • pedmar10 · April 24

        There is good and bad just be glad stick with the good everywhere!

  2. nessafrance · April 23

    The so-called enlightened planning of the sixties and seventies gave rise to some disastrous consequences. It was only a matter of time before it started to erupt under lockdown. We’ve seen similar in our region. The police were ambushed in a banlieue of Toulouse the other evening and had projectiles of all sorts thrown at them, including Molotov cocktails. I do understand and sympathise with the frustration of people who are stuck in a high-rise apartment. I have the luxury of a garden and pleasant surroundings, and I find it frustrating not to be able to go where I want, when I want, so for them it must be doubly hard. But, like you, I hope this isn’t a foretaste of deeper discontent.

    • MELewis · April 24

      I agree, Nessa. Am surprised to hear this is also happening in Toulouse as we hear so little of the unrest outside of Paris. It seems the horrors of this type of urban area extend to many provincial cities as well. And I feel like you that while I have every comfort at home and still feel locked in, it must be horrible for those families, the elderly and so many others who really are confined. I think the government has to walk a fine line between remaining firm and giving people needed space and freedom to live. It will be a tough few months!

  3. paul · April 23

    We are living in a historic era and perhaps witnesses to a radical change in society.. Who can predict the course of this pandemic and all the unseen ramifications that will come.? I don’t think very much thought has been put into it Not In France, wider Europe or particularly America and the UK . Low-income housing is just another class divide. We are all locked into the way we live, Dependent on the success of businesses and receiving our monthly pensions but do we have an answer should the system break down?

    • MELewis · April 24

      I don’t even want to imagine what would happen should the system break down! It’s scary enough seeing the world fly by the seat of its pants through this crisis. One can only hope that our leaders will figure it out in time to stop a worldwide meltdown. 😰

      • paul · April 24

        Mel, yes it gets a bit scary when you reach an age when all you really want to see is your pension paid in the bank and suddenly you see airlines going bankrupt and all sorts of bad things happening and you wonder if anything is safe. What is worse I read yesterday that someone won 58 million here in the UK on the lottery and felt sorry for him. I wouldn’t want that sort of money falling in my lap with so many people suffering everywhere !

  4. francetaste · April 23

    There’s the bad design of public housing, but there’s also the fact that police and gendarmes don’t do a good job of PR. Why are we all trembling about whether we’ve correctly dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s on our attestations? I keep reading about people fined for having bought soft drinks with their other groceries (somehow non-essential Coca nullifies the presence of meat and vegetables?), for buying tampons, for exceeding the 1k perimeter by a few meters…for crying out loud. A guy was turned back from seeing his dying (not of Covid) father on the Ile de Ré, because, despite a letter from the doctor, Ile de Ré is popular with tourists and the gendarmes didn’t believe him. The son protested to officials and got the OK to go but the father had already died.
    This letter-of-the-law yet arbitrary enforcement is just crazy.

    • MELewis · April 24

      I am just sickened by that last example. It is easy to understand the anger that arises when feeling oppressed, especially unjustly so, and that is exactly how the police treatment makes us feel. Yet every time I suggest to a French person that it could/should be different, I get the old ‘but the French are undisciplined’ excuse. 🙄 And who is to say that cola isn’t essential to some just as alcohol or tobacco or pain relievers are to others? Argh.

    • Yes….from here in the U.S., have watched the French response with interest on France 24. Checking to see if people out running have a paper stating that they have the right to go out to exercise? That is indeed an example of high enforcement. Here, in my state, we have been hit by COVID-19 as much as everyone else, but there is no enforcement at all that I have seen. Compliance appears volontary. Some shops are even allowing (encouraging) their employees to work without wearing masks….

      • MELewis · April 27

        The contrasts are indeed striking. Some of our local cops are especially zealous, while others seem to barely pay attention to our papers. My husband uses pencil to update his each day to save on printing. The whole thing is so arbitrary, but it does work to help keep people indoors. Our non-food shops should be opening again in a couple of weeks but I think masks will be de-rigueure at least for the forseeable. Who knows how long this whole thing will last? Good that you can keep up with goings-on here via France24. I hope do hope our news will soon be less fraught.

  5. M. L. Kappa · April 23

    I personally feel very privileged because I live on a farm and so have access to the outdoors. We have good neighbors so it’s easy to get organised with deliveries etc. I think a lot about people in small appartments without even a balcony etc. It must be hell on earth. The authorities (worldwide) are making a hash of things. Some of it is not their fault, but in the whole they lack planning and basic common sense. Sigh…

    • MELewis · April 24

      Like you, I am grateful to live in a place with beautiful birds outside and services nearby. I do try not to be too judgemental of those in power as the weight of these decisions is heavy when so many lives are at stake. But I agree that government communication on this lockdown is poor and they could really benefit from a bit of PR training. Common sense might be too much to ask!

      • M. L. Kappa · April 26

        He he…A large part of the population seems to lack in common sense, too, sadly. It’s been sunny here and apparently (I’ve not been to town myself) large numbers of Parisians are out mingling at the marché and pharmacy…

  6. Ally Bean · April 23

    I was unaware of this problem and am not thrilled to read about it. I can understand how people are frightened and worried, perhaps rightfully so. But attacking the police doesn’t seem to me to be the way to handle their problems. Of course, I’m living a much more comfortable life so I cannot say for sure that what is happening is good or bad. Perhaps it just is.

    • MELewis · April 24

      I think they are just lashing out blindly against authority. Unfortunately this is not a new thing in France and no matter how many good political intentions, nothing ever seems to change. The police are just the symbol of the state and on the front lines so they are the ones who take the abuse. Let’s just hope that this outbreak of unrest will be like what we hope the virus will be: seasonal. 🤞

  7. Suzanne et Pierre · April 23

    I am starting to think that the social consequences of this virus are going to be as severe if not more than the virus itself. There are also the anxiety of those waiting to get medical treatments that have been put aside to deal with the virus patients. It is going to be difficult to fix our societies in the coming years. Especially as the virus isn’t going anywhere and a vaccine is probably years away if they even can find one and potential treatments don’t seem to appear as quickly as we would like. We will have to learn to live with the virus but I think we are in for a tough time. Sorry… I am not feeling particularly optimistic these days though I don’t think that ambushing the police is a solution! (Suzanne)

    • MELewis · April 24

      I agree Suzanne, 100%. Not feeling optimistic either, except in the vague hope that we will have learned a few things as a society from this terrible time. I oscillate between wild thoughts like: enough with all this worrying, why not just out and catch the damn thing and be done with it? And then: oh my God, it’s awful, I’m never going on a plane again. Crazy. But I think we will have to adjust somehow to this ‘new normal’.

      • Suzanne et Pierre · April 24

        In fact, here, our government has started the process of deprogramming people in telling them that a good portion of the population need to catch the virus to develop “herd immunity” while we wait for a vaccine. But it is going to be a very hard process as the officials have been forcefully saying for months that we had to stay home because the virus was dangerous. I think they should have been a more moderate in their message and indicate early on that eventually some of the population will have to catch it and that it isn’t dangerous for the younger people. Now we are in a situation when “deconfinement” will start but people are afraid to go back on the street in fear of catching the virus. I have been saying for weeks that I would like to catch it to be done with it though being 60 I am apparently in the danger zone… We do have to learn to live with this virus as it isn’t going anywhere any time soon. As for travel, I don’t know when we will be able to start doing it. Countries don’t seem too keen on opening borders (there is a certain fear of foreigners now that might not make tourists very popular) and most airline companies are in danger of folding… It will be an interesting time.

  8. George Lewis · April 23

    I came across a quote the other day that seems appropriate
    ‘The source of the most insidious peril is not evil wrongdoers seeking to do harm, but parochial bureaucrats seeking to do good.

    • MELewis · April 24

      There is some truth in that, Dad, even if I know you tend to lay all the evils of the world at government’s door! 😁

  9. Dale · April 23

    What a horrid situation, Mel… So many areas have become police states with neighbours snitching on neighbours because they suspect a party is being held inside (hey, it’s called Zoom and yes, you did hear eight voices – on the computer!) But to have people doing this to the police? Terrible.

    • MELewis · April 24

      Ah, the Zoom parties — they can get pretty hectic! Lol. It’s true that the lockdown mentality also has me oddly transfixed by what’s going on outside my window (Is that a visitor to our neighbour’s house? What are they having delivered now?) But to suddenly start acting like Orwell’s 1980 is a bit much. Despite my frustration with certain police officers who take themselves a tad too seriously, they have my respect for the job they do. Even worse is when it happens to firefighters, many of whom are volunteers. 🤬

  10. Osyth · April 23

    Oh Mel. I wondered when this would start. Here, as you may know there are protests in many areas across the land but not, so far, violent. This is the last thing that is needed and yet, it is understandable. My thoughts have been with those in high-rises with no green space since the start of the lock-downs across the world. I fear that this is going to get much worse because, to be frank, I fear that a second wave is going to hit very hard if people don’t obey the rules. It’s the worst sort of Catch 22 – those suffering most in a lock-down are almost bound to react violently at some point and yet they are probably perpetuating the lock-downs by reacting so. The police in all countries need all the cooperation they can get. I hope they can contain this. Macron’s statement ‘nous sommes en guerre’ does not need to be this apocryphal. Look after yourselves. X

    • MELewis · April 24

      You are right, Osyth. “We are at war” should not mean with each other. And yet it seems that this demon virus has the knack of revealing all of our worst weaknesses. As people, and as societies. In the US, it opens the divide further with politically motivated protests and “I’m all right, Jack” attitudes while in France our socio-economic cracks in the plaster just seem to deepen. I keep holding on to the idea of a seasonal redemption, where the virus will somehow evaporate like a genie going back into bottle with the arrival of summer. Silly perhaps but the eternal optimist in me just won’t die. Here’s hoping… 🧚‍♀️

      • Osyth · April 24

        don’t let that optimist die. Mine is worn and tattered and I am sure yours is too but we must continue to keep the flame burning. I can’t even begin to vocalise what I feel about the way things are here. And it’s probably best that way 😉

  11. margaret21 · April 24

    Having read all the comments, I don’t think I have anything new to add. It’s just an awful situation, with too many people living in quasi-imprisonment, with over-stretched police being heavy-handed, and with fear for our future dominating everyone’s thoughts. Like you, we’re lucky in where we live, but my fear is that not enough will have been learnt from all this, and societal and environmental changes that need to be implemented won’t be, because those with the real power (money) will gainsay them.

    • MELewis · April 26

      There is little we can do but grin and bear it, I’m afraid. My motto: hope for the best, prepare for the worst. 🤞 In the meantime, the birds are singing and I’m taking a day off the news. Happy Sunday!

      • margaret21 · April 26

        The best plan. Happy Sunday to you too.

  12. acflory · April 24

    Ugh. We have space and quiet, so life is pretty much ‘normal’, but I can understand the frustration of the young. Teenagers may be idealistic, but that doesn’t make them either patient or altruistic. It’s almost inevitable that they’ll act out. I just hope that France can strike some kind of balance before it gets hit by a second wave. 😦

    • MELewis · April 26

      Glad you are enjoying some semblance of normal. I do hope we hit some sort of balance. Too restrictive, and there will be riots; too permissive, and it will be chaos. Maybe we just have to accept that there will be disruption one way or the other!

      • acflory · April 26

        Yeah, I don’t think we can avoid the disruption. I just want the deaths to stop, and not come to my door. :/

  13. awtytravels · April 25

    What’s the difference from a ‘normal’ day, though? We have family friends in the 93 and the stories they tell are overall similar. Alas the whole model there failed, big time, and it will keep on failing until the attitudes in France change. I live in London and – besides the family friends mentioned above – I’ve had many colleagues from France: all those whose ethnicity is not white said exactly the same thing, that they struggled to get a well-paid job in France. The saddest example was a guy who worked in my team. He’s a great guy, originally from the Yvelines and with a non-Gaullic name. Perhaps because of that he never even got a reply from a tech company in Sophia Antipolis for a graduate job; but he was hired by the same company in the London office. For the same job.

    Italy is now reaching the moment where the first “2nd-generation” Italians are reaching the jobs market… I hope we don’t do the same error.

    Keep safe over there!

    Fabrizio

    • MELewis · April 26

      That is entirely true. Racism runs deep in France (as it does in so many countries, sadly…). A few years ago some clever clogs introduced a ‘CV anonyme’ so that people with non-French names and dodgy addresses would have a fair chance at jobs. I wonder if it made any impact at all…. I hope that Italy does a better job of it!

  14. kairosia · April 27

    Agh, this is so disturbing. I agree that the clamp-down on exercise seems destined to backfire. Here in the US we have scammers trying to undermine financial help being distributed among lower income people and small businesses: big rich companies with abundant capital applying for small business loans, hackers cashing in on recipients’ direct deposits, and so on. Here too mental health workers maintain that the stay at home orders are leading to an increase in child abuse and domestic violence. I understand that people feel they are living in a pressure cooker. Gross income inequality feeds much of this, as you suggest, as does urban design. And yes, how much smoother the path toward resolution of the pandemic without bad actors. Your piece poses so many important questions to thorny 21st-century issues.

    https://bbreaden.wordpress.com/2020/04/22/covid19-priorities-making-do-versus-ordering-online/

    • MELewis · April 27

      I think we are all afraid of the long-term changes this pandemic will bring, especially to our personal liberties. Scammers are a different sort of disruption but equally disturbing. The whole impact of confinement and fear of others on our children (not to mention adults) will be yet another fallout of this whole crisis. Glad you found the post interesting!

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