Tensions simmer in France as PM prepares plan to end lockdown

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France struggles to maintain order during its coronavirus lockdown, but the prime minister is prepared to unveil his plan to roll back measures.

On March 17, France announced a national lockdown, originally set to last 15 days. The government committed to deploying 100,000 police to enforce the rules of the lockdown, which required written permission to leave the house.  Anyone on the streets without written permission could receive a fine of 38 to 135 euros.

Now, a month and a half later, Prime Minister Édouard Philippe is set to unveil his plan to roll back the measures, which includes reopening schools, returning people to work and running public transport again. After he presents his plan, the National Assembly will debate his proposal and hold a vote.

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For some people, a return to normal cannot come soon enough; for others, it might not be possible.

In Clichy-sous-Bois, a suburb of Paris, more than 1,000 people line up to stand for hours to receive handouts of fruits, vegetables and soap. Clichy-sous-Bois is an immigrant-heavy neighborhood in the Siene-Saint-Denis region, perhaps the poorest region on mainland France.

Since the start of March, when the pandemic started in France, the overall mortality rate in the region has doubled, according to national statistics agency Insee.

The Associated Press spoke to Djemba Diatite, a woman who said that even tomatoes were now too expensive. Her husband worked at Orly Airport in Paris, and he is now without a job since the major slowdown in travel due to various national lockdowns across Europe. After the lockdown measures closed open-air markets, food prices skyrocketed; without jobs, people simply cannot afford to buy food.

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Mayor Olivier Klein sought aid from the government, which responded to the sum of 39 million euros, but the relief might not be enough to break the tensions in struggling neighborhoods around the country.

Earlier this month, the New York Times reported on “simmering” conditions in towns like Clichy-sous-Bois, brought on by a combination of “cramped quarters, economic stress and accusations of police abuse.”

“This crisis is simply making (the problems) much more visible,” said Mohamed Mechmache, who heads the group ACLeFeu, or Enough Fire, which grew out of the riots and is distributing food in Clichy-sous-Bois.

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Even in the more stable areas, though, tensions are starting to rise.

Paris police dispersed a gathering on Saturday in footage captured and posted to Twitter. People had gathered outside the Montmartre apartment of Nathan Sebbagh, an out-of-work theater technician to dance while he played music.

While he has usually drawn small crowds to listen to his music, the most recent session grew too large, forcing police to break up the gathering. The officers then spoke with Sebbagh separately to caution him over causing such a gathering again.

“There were a lot of people. The square was quite full. Some people were far too close,” Sebbagh acknowledged in a phone interview Sunday. Sebbagh has played the music from his balcony on Saturday evenings as a gesture to thank medics and try to lift people’s spirits with half-hour selections.

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Sebbagh’s actions drew criticism on social media, with critics arguing that such behavior risked spreading the virus. Police tweeted about the incident, reminding citizens to respect the rules of the lockdown.

“I was missing human contact and music,” Sebbagh said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.