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Syringes in the sandpit: The Paris garden for kids and crack addicts

·9-min read

Hundreds of homeless crack addicts have been grouped in a park in northeast Paris in a bid to keep them from roaming the streets, a decision that has inflamed tensions between drug users and local residents as authorities grapple with a spiralling drug problem. FRANCE 24 reports from Paris’s crack kingdom.

Groups of men sit on park benches with litter up to their knees. Others lie face down in the dirt. The smell of urine and rubbish festering in the sunshine hangs in the air.

Dealers known as modous move among the bushes, whispering incentives to seduce their clients with crack from the “kitchen” on a nearby street.

A man in shorts performs a solitary dance. Another lights his crack pipe and waits for the high to kick in.

“Good evening, Good evening,” cries a plaintive female voice at 9am in the morning.

A few hundred metres away, in the south of the gardens, small children play on the swings of a newly renovated playground. Sheep from the garden’s educational farm graze on the lawns as a circle of women do Qi Gong and a runner in neon-green lycra sprints through the park.

The Éole gardens, a sliver of parkland in northeast Paris, are just a short walk from Montmartre, a celebrated artists’ quarter that Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso and Degas once called home.

'More dealers here than trees'

But since mid-May, when Paris authorities chose to group the city’s crack addicts in the upper part of the garden and extended closing time til 1am, the park has become the French capital’s open-air crack kingdom.

“There are more dealers here than trees,” said Algerian-born Faisal, 38, with a cackle that revealed his remaining two teeth. “It’s five euros a hit, ten euros for a galette,” he said, referring to the smokable rocks of crack cocaine he buys at the garden every day.

“People are coming here from Paris, the suburbs, the countryside,” said Jose Matos of the NGO Gaia as his colleagues handed out face masks, bottles of water, injection material and clean crack pipes to users at the edge of the garden.

“We’re seeing new people all the time, many of whom are increasingly vulnerable,” Matos said, explaining that the majority of Parisian crack users don’t live on the streets – many of them just come to the garden to score and head home.

Matos was concerned that grouping users in the same place made life much more violent for smokers, particularly for women, two of whom have been raped in broad daylight.

But for Raphael, a crack smoker in a bright orange T-shirt, the Éole gardens are much less violent than his former “home” – the notorious “Crack Hill” on the Paris ringroad where dealers ruled with violent impunity, male and female prostitution was rampant and lynchings were not unusual.

“No one here would touch a woman inside the garden,” he said, of the reports of female abuse. “Only the arseholes outside the park would do something like that.”

“I’m a psychologist,” Raphael said. “Lacanian. But I haven’t really practised for a while,” he said ruefully.

“Not since I started smoking.” He paused to carefully count the years. “About ten now,” he said with a desolate smile.

“Grouping all the crack addicts together here is great for the dealers,” he continued, “but these dealers can’t beat us up like they did on the hill.”

Northeast Paris ravaged by crack

“The Hill” was dismantled in 2019, scattering Paris’s growing number of crack users throughout the northeast of the city. Many of them congregated around the Place de la Bataille de Stalingrad in the 19th arrondissement (district), where they first converged back in the 1980s.

Three decades after crack cocaine first appeared in Paris, and two years into the French government’s €9 million 3-year anti-crack plan, the city’s drug problem continues to ravage northeast Paris, with users being shifted from place to place with no real attempt to treat them.

A report published by OFDT (the French Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction) and INSERM (the National Institute of Health and Medical Research) in January 2021 said the government’s anti-crack policy was based on “ad hoc” reactions rather than a comprehensive long-term strategy.

“The crack market’s prevalence over the last 30 years … along with the emergence of a new supply-side of players from the disadvantaged suburbs” illustrated the “failure of public policies", the report found.

Crack users in the wider Paris region currently number around 13,000, with female users on the rise, the report added, recommending the use of specialised inhalation and rest rooms along with treatments for addiction and psychiatric disorders, and social rehabilitation.

Paris has just one small inhalation room, with room for six people, which has been closed for the last year because of Covid-19.

The scale of Paris's crack problem became increasingly visible during the long months of Covid-19 curfews when homeless addicts were free to roam the deserted streets of the French capital.

Locals in Stalingrad, now dubbed #Stalincrack, were quick to post videos of crack smokers lighting up in broad daylight, defecating in the street and wielding large knives, nicknaming users the “walking dead”.

Fed up with the noise pollution, the late-night fights and the filth, some residents lobbed paintballs and launched social media campaigns. Others began making documentaries on the situation and some threw mortar fireworks.

'We are the garbage'

“We are in hell,” said Natalie, 60, at the residents’ weekly protest on the edge of the upper part of the garden.

“If this happened in the garden of Luxembourg or the Parc Monceau,” she said in lightly accented English, referring to gardens in affluent parts of Paris, “In one day they will close it.

“We are the garbage,” she said, growing visibly animated. “This is the part of Paris they don’t care about.

“They are really sick,” she said of the drug users. “And they have zero support. But when they don’t have the drug they are really crazy. We don’t go out after 8pm. I’m going to have to buy a taser.”

Syringes in the sandpit

Residents of all generations turn out for the weekly protest each Wednesday – older women in floral dresses, mothers pushing prams, small children who join in the cries of “Give us our garden back” – but just a few families continue to frequent the park.

“I come here every morning,” said Khardiata, 43, a hospital manager, as her youngest two children, aged 9 and 2, played on swings and slithered down slides in the southern part of the garden.

“My kids see things they shouldn’t – the fights, the syringes, the nudity," explaining the gardens were used by heroin addicts too. "But we need to keep staking a claim to the park,” she said, adding that the local hash dealers had been rounded up last year, allowing the crack dealers to move in on their patch.

Khardiata was mystified by the authorities’ decision to renovate the playgrounds in the south of the garden, and the creation of the farm to draw in families, while giving the upper part of the garden over to crack addicts.

“The only good thing about the situation is that it slows gentrification,” she said with a wry smile.

But other residents with young children, all with stories of chilling altercations with crack addicts, are put off by the dirt and the danger.

“There were syringes in the sandpit – they had to take the sand out,” said Ryko, 50, whose 10th floor flat gives him a bird’s eye view of the drug deals taking place, and the garden lit up at night by the tiny flames of users’ lighters. Once they’re kicked out of the park at 1am to roam the streets, they return at dawn, he says, with “loot” they’ve pillaged that they hope to trade for crack.

“Putting the addicts in the garden is just trying to hide the problem,” he said.

“I have nothing against them,” he added. “But they need to be properly taken care of with the right support … One day it’s going to end badly.”

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has announced she plans to close the garden to users at the end of June. No one believes this will solve Paris’s crack problem but some of the city’s more casual users say it might help them kick their drug habit.

“I’d be less tempted to come here,” said Joaquim, 53, who lives in the western Paris suburb of Boulogne with his partner and 20-year-old daughter, but comes to the gardens two or three time a week to score.

Spending 13-14,000 euros on crack in two months

Joaquim was introduced to crack in 2016 after undergoing treatment to wean himself off cocaine.

“The problem with crack,” he said, as he slid the galette into his crack pipe, lit it and inhaled. “It’s that after one hit, you want another hit, and then another, and another, and another. You can't snort coke all day long, or your nose will explode.”

“I’m not an addict,” he insists, adding that he spent between 13-14,000 euros on crack in the space of two months.

And he makes a clear distinction between his crack habit and that of the homeless addicts in the garden.

"If crack ever does that to me,” he says, gesturing at the bodies lying face down in the grass. “I'll quit or top myself. If I feel that I'm going to spin out of control like they are, I'm going to kill myself," he says.

Other crack smokers, like Djamel, 44, have tried to quit. Forced to come off crack during a short spell in prison for petty crime, Djamel came out of jail at the beginning of the first Covid-19 lockdown in March 2020.

“The only people out and about were crackheads,” he said, explaining he hadn’t slept for three days. “I couldn’t help start taking crack again. It calms my anguish,” he said.

“It’s easy to tell people they just need to get clean,” said Khardiata, particularly when most of the people in the park have no papers, no jobs and are completely cut off from society.

“They need to want to stop using, but they need prospects and the right conditions to get them out of this.”

“What’s the point in getting clean if you have nothing to live for?”

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