PARIS – “He’s digging around in the dirt, trying to find some crack that he thinks he buried before,” says Sarah Vinet, an outreach worker for the charity Charonne, gesturing at a lone man rustling through the shrubbery of the Jardin d’Eole. “But there’s nothing there. It’s just a habit. They call it the ‘chicken syndrome’.”
Hundreds of crack cocaine users come each day to congregate in this strange, liminal corner of northeastern Paris—a thin wedge of a park backing onto train tracks just minutes walk from the busy transport hub of Gare du Nord and the hipster haunt that is Canal Saint Martin – to get a cheap fix, to see friends and acquaintances, or just to have a place to burn through the hours of the day.
“It’s like an open-air prison,” says Vinet, whose team provides everything from clean smoking materials to emergency housing advice on regular visits to some of the crack hotspots in the French capital, mostly in the 18th and 19th districts, which are known for their high immigrant populations. “We try to reduce the risks that they face and to make life a little bit easier. But it’s such a struggle.”
The reality is that Paris still has a serious crack problem, despite the city’s three-year, €9 million [£7.7 million] programme to “tackle the problem of crack” launched in May 2019. Users can be found smoking the “caillou”, a local nickname for the extremely addictive drug, in broad daylight along busy thoroughfares of the French capital.
For the most addicted, any pleasurable effects are fleeting and quickly give way to paranoia, anxiety and a terrible sense of emptiness. Some of them let out pained screams, or lie on the ground motionless. Many bear visible marks of the addiction – cracked, burnt lips, eroded teeth, and hollow cheeks. Others walk tens of kilometres each day in search of money to buy new doses to fill the void.
“With crack, you can live like a normal person for a while,” says Joseph, a 34-year-old regular at the Jardin d’Eole. “But you’re always struggling to keep your head above the water and it always catches up with you. Nothing in your life is safe. When my father died, I spent the €150,000 inheritance money in 9 months. Now I have nothing.”
Many blame the government’s “disastrous” drug policy for the current state of affairs. Campaigners say the decision by French authorities two years ago to dismantle the notorious Colline de Crack (Crack Hill) – a filthy encampment in northern Paris once home to hundreds of users – without solving the underlying structural issues, has made the problem “as acute as ever” and dispersed users widely across the city.
“It’s pushed them into even further precarity,” says Elisabeth Avril, director general of the Paris-based harm reduction charity Gaia. “The Colline was by no means perfect, but at least everything was in one place. The fact that they are so spread apart now means it’s even more difficult for us to be able to reach out and help them.”
A damning report published in January by the French Observatory for Drugs and Drug Addiction (OFDT) and the National Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM) underlined those policy failings, concluding that “the persistence of the crack market over the last thirty years, as well as the appearance of new supply-side players” from the city’s disadvantaged suburbs represents a “failure of the public policies … all too often based on ‘ad hoc’ reactions.”
Marie Jauffret-Roustide, a co-author of the report and a researcher at INSERM who has been conducting research on crack since the 1990s, believes Paris has emerged as the capital of crack due to low prices, trafficking routes that pass through the city from and to other major European cities, and the fact it’s the only place in France where crack is widely on sale ready-made. But she also highlights the key role of “conflicting” drug policy that criminalises users.
“The French political response to crack use is too focused on criminalisation and user eviction,” says Jauffret-Roustide. “There is a lack of public funding in social inclusion programs such as housing. It’s a paradox because France is one of the few countries that has invested a lot in drug-related healthcare but at the same time it criminalises drug use in a way that impedes access to care.”
The result, according to the OFDT report, is that there are now around 13,000 crack users in Paris and its suburbs – up from 10,000 in 2015, and, Jauffret-Roustide says, up to five times the number of estimated users during the 1990s. By comparison, London has an estimated 36,000 users, but a population nearly five times greater – meaning crack use in Paris is much more concentrated and visible.
“Crack use is not new in Paris,” says Jauffret-Roustide. “But its consumption has risen a lot since then and consumption has become a lot more visible in the city, especially as the north of Paris has become more gentrified – so the coexistence with people who use drugs has become more common.”
The double-edged approach is evident at the Jardin d’Éole, where regular police patrols arrive and chase away smokers, who inevitably return hours or minutes later. At the same time, Charonne’s battered-up van parked on the curbside, continues to distribute clean crack pipes, gauzes and sanitary materials several times a week to those in need.
The team notes down the first name and year of birth of those who they support: Karim 1970, Giles 1991, Pascal 1978, Nody 1983, Raphael 1997, Aissa 1971. Some are layered in wooly hats, jumpers and scarves, while others exude chic, including one woman in a brown leather jacket, red, heart-shaped sunglasses, and a cigarette hanging from her lip.
On days of freezing rain, they rush through often with a polite thank you or cheeky grin. But on the sun-dappled days of spring, many linger to chat.
“I detest crack,” says Jonathan, a 27-year-old from Strasbourg. “At the end of the day you feel normal again ... Well, at the best normal. At the worst, anguished. The problem is that you always just want more. You never have enough. One time I smoked 150 galettes in two days, just because I had them.”
During two years in prison in 2015 for drug-related offences, Jonathan began studying philosophy, and since leaving he continued his studies to obtained a Master’s degree at Paris 8 University, specialising in modern slavery. “It’s not what most people expect of crackeurs,” adds Jonathan, who first smoked crack at a friend’s party. “But this can happen to anyone. Your life situation can be turned upside down without your control.”
Crack use is not as closely linked to homelessness as some may think. A survey by OFDT found that only one in four crack users in Paris were homeless or living in makeshift accommodation. Users like Jonathan are indistinguishable from any other strangers on the street. At the Jardin d’Eole, teenage girls and pregnant women can even be seen smoking.
But by night, authorities close the park, and users must move again, finding themselves concentrated in places like Stalingrad Square, an historic drug spot dubbed by locals as “Stalincrack” a few hundred metres away that has now become gentrified with bike shops, cinemas and trendy cafes.
It’s increasingly forcing users into contact with the ever-more bourgeois residents, and officials say that has led to theft, prostitution and violence spiking in the area.
“It's a permanent game of cat and mouse,” says Florence Adam, police commissioner for the 19th district, who is leading the district’s efforts to crack down on crack. “We are maintaining the pressure [on crack use] with controls, investigations and major seizures, but it will take years to curb this scourge.”
For Jean-Raphaël Bourge, president of local resident group Action Barbès, it’s become a “terrifying” situation triggered by flawed political decision-making. “The Colline de Crack was a sordid, terrible hell for residents and for users,” he says. “But when authorities carried out the evacuation, there was no plan for afterwards.”
Bourge complains that residents suffer from constant noise, dirtiness, aggressive behaviour and feeling of “a form of insecurity” when walking in the streets. “The addicts occupy public spaces that essentially outlaws the public from entering,” he says. “But police actions won’t resolve the problem. We can’t push them further out… we have to fix it. We have to give them space to safely consume.”
Other residents haven’t been so tactful in their approach to documenting who they unflatteringly call the “Walking Dead”. One Twitter account run anonymously by some locals has taken to sharing voyeuristic, uncensored videos shot from their windows – users fighting, breaking into cars and defecting in the street. “It’s not our approach,” says Bourge. “We prefer to speak with officials to make change.”
Yet critics say change is proving hard to come by and far too little is being done as the problem is expanding. As well as the problematic nature of criminalising users, they say that a lack of political will has prevented further expansion of facilities that are proven to work such as legal consumption rooms.
“In Paris there is just one, but countries like Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland offer many more facilities per capita,” says Gaia’s director Avril, whose charity runs the shooting room in Paris. “Zurich, for example, has four such spaces over a much smaller population. But nobody wants to open another in Paris. Politicians won’t support it.”
Officials at Paris city hall declined to comment on the record but said much of the money from the city’s Crack Plan has been invested into increasing police patrols and housing users in shelters – the city’s capacity has been raised from 60 to 420 – where they can get support from medical professionals and social workers.
But François Dagnaud, mayor of the 19th district, insists the Crack Plan is a landmark policy that will work long-term. “It’s the first time that all of these public powers have recognised this is an enormous problem,” he says. “Has it made the problem disappear? Evidently not. It’s not a silver bullet. To sustainably improve the problem, we need a double chain — both police to stop the trafficking, and medico-social help in parallel.”
For now, users like Jonathan, whose lives have been torn apart by crack, continue to suffer from this paradoxical approach that campaigners say targets some of the city’s most vulnerable while claiming to prioritise and protect them.
“Charities do great work, they do what they can,” says Jonathan. “But the police repression, I think it’s a load of shit. I know it’s difficult to stop dealers, but they shouldn’t attack users. We are victims as much as anyone else in this.”