The glittering Christmas window displays in Paris’ luxury stores are often offset by a shivering person begging for coins nearby, huddled behind a cardboard sign saying “hungry.”
With the French economy in crisis and the looming specter of another recession, Paris’ poor and homeless people are more present than ever in doorways and metro entrances.
Campaigners have demanded action on the country’s housing crisis. Instead, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has launched a war on beggars, setting himself against Paris’ popular mayor.
Sarkozy’s interior minister and long-time right-hand man, Claude Gueant, has issued a series of decrees banning begging around Paris’ most popular Christmas shopping and tourist spots.
He says arresting and fining beggars is crucial to stop foreign visitors being pestered by begging “delinquents” run by organized crime gangs.
The Champs Elysees was first on his list with a begging ban from September to January, which has been extended to next summer. Now two more Christmas begging no-go zones have been created: around the famous Galeries Lafayette and Printemps department stores, as well as the Louvre and the Tuileries Gardens.
Critics call it the latest round in Sarkozy’s campaign against Roma and Gypsies. Gueant said that the anti-begging decrees were part of a “merciless fight” against “Romanian criminality.”
He said Romanian criminals accounted for one in six appearances in Paris courts and half of those arrested were minors.
The anti-begging policy targets activities such as collecting money for bogus petitions, said to be carried out by Roma girls and teenagers.
Gueant has contracted 33 Romanian police officers to help the Paris force round up beggars on the Champs Elysses. He said of the 300 cases of illegal activity recorded in three months on the Champs Elysees, almost all were Romanian nationals, adding that organized crime networks were “particularly cruel.”
However, the Socialist Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe, France’s most popular politician, called it a cheap “PR stunt” designed only to “stigmatize part of the population.”
“Wanting to fight poverty by repression and fines is shocking at a time when the state isn’t fulfilling its obligations in housing vulnerable young people or providing emergency accommodation,” he said.
He said Gueant was targeting some of the city’s poshest areas while ignoring real problems in other neighborhoods.
With four months until the presidential election, Sarkozy’s party is prioritizing security and crime in an effort to win back voters who have crossed to Marine Le Pen’s extreme-right Front National.
Anti-begging decrees have long caused controversy in France, with one right-wing mayor outside Paris criticized in 2005 for a summer ban on homeless beggars because they “smelt offensive.”
Temporary anti-begging rules have been put in place in cities from Marseille to Boulogne, some challenged in court by human rights groups.