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Lockdowns In Paris Made Its Decades-Long Crack Problem Visible

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Paris is known as the City of Light. But Paris is also a city with the pain and challenges of any large urban space. Among them, the growing problem of crack addiction. As NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports, the pandemic has made that problem more visible.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: (Speaking French).

Frederic Francelle lives on the 11th floor of an apartment building in Paris's 19th arrondissement. From his open window, he can look across at world-renowned Montmartre and the Basilica of Sacre-Coeur or down on a 10-acre crack park filled with drug addicts.

FREDERIC FRANCELLE: (Through interpreter) Before, it was a nice park. There were kids playing and young people practicing theater and girls sunning themselves. Now there are just groups of men and some women smoking crack.

BEARDSLEY: The park Eole was opened to crack users in mid-May, as officials attempted to move the sordid scene from another area that was in proximity to restaurants and tourists and where residents were at their wits end with the all-night commotion on the street.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

BEARDSLEY: This neighborhood is now protesting. The diverse crowd of middle and working-class residents includes retirees and young parents with kids. IT manager Cedric Olivane wheels his 2-year-old in a stroller.

CEDRIC OLIVANE: So this morning I was there with the little one. They take crack. They don't hide at all. So I don't know what we can do for them. It's not easy. Some people can be helped. Some other can't.

BEARDSLEY: Eva Colombe says she's seen naked users lying on the sidewalk. She has two children.

EVA COLOMBE: My daughter is, like, 8 years old, and she has seen things I don't want the other child to see. So that's why we are demonstrating today and every Wednesday at 6 p.m.

BEARDSLEY: The high from crack, which is cocaine cut with baking soda and cooked into little pebbles, is more intense and addictive, says Jose Mathos, head of Gaia, one of the many associations that tries to help the addicts.

JOSE MATHOS: (Through interpreter) It's hard to stop crack because there's no substitute like methadone for heroin. And crack users are usually poor. So even if they manage to stop, they relapse because they have no job and their network of friends are other crack addicts on the street.

SEVERINE GUY: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Severine Guy is deputy mayor of the 19th arrondissement. She says there are thousands of microdealers and they can't all be arrested, but something has to be done. The Paris crack scene is starting to attract users from around France and even from abroad.

GUY: (Through interpreter) Getting users off the streets is a top priority. And what we need is a city-wide network of places open day and night. And that would give them a chance to get the help they need and take the pressure off these neighborhoods.

BEARDSLEY: Guy says there are fights in the crack camp, but people aren't getting killed because there are no guns. France has strict gun control. The city security agents in the park don't even carry them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANNE HIDALGO: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo showed up at the park last week and promised the city would move the addicts once again. Until then, Milene Precival has staked out her place by a fence, where she's hung a stuffed teddy bear. A grocery cart holds her belongings. She says she first smoked crack at 18 when a friend told her it would help her forget her problems.

MILENE PRECIVAL: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: And now I'm destroying myself, she says, as tears stream down her face. She won't give her age because she's ashamed of how long she's been living like this.

PRECIVAL: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Look after your young girls and boys, she says. Know what they're doing, where they're hanging out. Precival says no one is completely to blame for what's happening here. But she says it's time to find a real solution. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEVIN SHIELDS'S "GOODBYE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.