Light up or Shoot up?

Our Stations are gateways to Paris. A few words on shooting up or lighting up after your train.

We are “provincials”, at least that is what the Parisians call us. The 50 million souls who inhabit the rest of France that is not Paris. However, Paris is France, so said Alexis de Toqueville – nineteenth century politician, philosopher and traveller.

“Provincials” say the Parisians, pronouncing the word syllable by syllable in a slow, disdainful sneer. It’s almost as if they felt sorry for us. Personally, I think that most Parisians are jealous of their country cousins. Jealous of our superior quality of life in the provinces, and frankly most of us provincials wouldn’t care to live in the mayhem that is Paris. A great place for the weekend, but I sure as hell wouldn’t want to live there.

All provincials heading for the nation’s capital, have their own gateway. My point of entry is the Gare d’Austerlitz – station proudly bears the name of a Napoleonic victory. As stations go though, it is hardly glorious – very much a backwater, just like the placs it serves – Moulins, Vierzon, Bourges (to name but a few). Nestling on the banks of the Seine, the Gare d’Austerlitz seems far from everything. It is a forgotten station. Were I to place the staion in London terms, it would be like Charing Cross or Fenchurch street. The Gare d’Austerlitz lives in the shadow of its more glorious and important cousin – the Gare de Lyons, which is situated on the opposite bank of the Seine. From the Gare d’Austerlitz, you can only reach provincial backwaters in slow trains. The gare de Lyons though is the gateway to the south – high speed trains will whisk you to the Alps in Winter or the French Riviera in summer. There is however one distinct advantage of arriving at an inglorious Parisian terminus – you are not hassled by down and outs, dealers, drug addicts or gangs of Romanian kids. At the Gare de Lyon however the traveler is assailed by all manner of hustlers and hasslers.

In terms hassle though, the worst Parisian station is the Gare Du Nord – the Eurostar terminus and the railway gateway to France for northern Europeans.

The hassle starts as soon as you get down from the Eurostar. Gangs of Romanian kids run up the platform, stopping travellers and begging for money. As you head further and deeper into the station, Rom women,swathed in long dresses and headscarves roam the station concourse, hands outstretched and begging for money, meal vouchers, metro tickets … In most cases, the Rom women are clutching a baby and they all wear the same beaten dog/hung dog expression on their faces. When they beg, they don’t ask, they whine as if suffering from long, slow pain.

The language barrier is no excuse for not giving. Most Roms speak enough French or English to get thei begging message acros – and just in case you didn’t understand, they all carry home made “laminated” cards with their message of distress written in French and English.

Recently the Roms have found a new money-making ploy. Rom teenage girls now accost Eurostar travellers directly on the platform. They wave clipboards at you. “Would you like to sign a petition for the rights of Roms n France?” And once you have signed, would you care to make a cash contribution to the cause? Is this a valid cause? Does the petition-waving teenage girl represent any official charity or organisation? Ah yes, all the girls have official “home made” ID cards bearing heir photo and the name of an NGO.

I have nothing against these money making plays. We’ve all got to make a living. The false NGO thing actually shows a bit of ingenuity.

So, after a couple of hours on the non-smoking Eurostar, it is time to leave the staion for a quick smoke before heading on to Austerlitz for my slow train back to the provinces.

Outside there are other travellers, all enjoying a smoke. Just arrived or just about to depart – you can tell from the way people smoke. The recently arrived draw in huge, appreciative lungfuls of poison. After a long and smokeless train journey they are suffering withdrawal symptoms – about to go nicotine cold turkey. Those about to depart puff quickly and voraciously on ther cigarettes. They light one off the other and smoke down two or three in quick succession. You’re going to get no drug fo the next three hours, so you’ve got to top up. And all the while they are assailed by those “hangers on” who drift around stations and rely on the benevolence of travellers to keep them in small change and cigarettes.

You don’t get the Roms out front. It’s like they don’t want to be here, or they have been chased away. The front of the Gare du Nord is strictly for drug addicts – The nicotine junkeys, lighting up and the real junkeys – shooting up, although they don’t do the works in front of the station – no they do that in doorways, stairwells, back alleys, anywhere out of view – dirty, seedy secret places with their dirty gear, their dirty works.

It is estimated that there are 50,000 drug addicts in Paris – the article I am using for my stats does not care to mention if these are simply heroine adddicts or all drug users, however the article does say that there are 5000 heroine addicts in and around the Gare du Nord and the Gare de l’Est.

So this is one of the poorest areas of Paris. The zone around the Gare du Nord, the Gare de l’Est, the Canal St Martin. This is where the tenth arrondissment melts into the nineteenth and twentieth arrondissment. In London terms this is Whitechpel though it is more redolent of King’s Cross and Euston in the eighties and nineties. The area mirrors contemporary London with its juxtaposition of rich and poor – the Parisian urban mass that has been around since the time of Victor Hugo’s “Les miserables” and the modern day dash of Bourgeois Bohemians – moving into poor areas for the atmosphere, cheap property and artistic vibes.

So, I come to the main theme of this post – the Parisian authorities (in their wisdom or not) have decided to open a legal drug taking centre near the Gare du Nord. The idea is quite simple – a centre where drug addicts can consume their favourite poison in a calm, clean and legal environment. Staff will be on hand to give medical checks, hand out clean needles and syringes and monitor after effects.However, they are not thre to give out drugs. All users must bring their own.

The idea is to get the junkies off the streets, out the stairwells and the shop doorways. get the addicts out of public view and stop annoying the increasing number of middle class “arty” types who have moved into the area. Such centres apparently aleady exist in Holland, Switzerland and Australia. Depending what paper you read, these sanitised, legal drug taking centres are a roaring succes or a total failure. Local residents are afraid that a legal drug taking centre will attract even more addicts and dealers than now, whereas drug charities argue that such a centre will control the consumption of drugs in the area, and perhaps avoid everyone’s worst nigthmare a dead junkey in a doorway.

So I daresay that meeting loads of junkeys on the morning school run is an everyday inconvenience for local residents, but I am not sure that concentrating and hiding the addicts is such a good solution either.

Many drug users are also unwiiling to use the facilities, afraid of the possible police presence outside the new drug taking centres. It’s a sure fire way to get arrested. You walk into a “salle de shoot” (Shoot up rooms) – as the French call them – with your dose, and sure as hell, you’re going to get arrested. If the police haven’t made their quota of arrests for the month, what better than o run down to the local shoot up facility and round up a few junkies? Another criticism (valid or not) is that the new drug centres will become a magnet for dealers.

As we say in French “on verra” – We’ll see. The first drug centre will open in a few weeks. Just one thing that I find scandalous – in the new centres, addicts will be allowed to consume what they like – staff present will not be authorised to control the quality of the merchandise.

So, in a glance towards the future. Will we finally end up with special, hidden away rooms for smokers to light up away from public view? I can see a time where drug addicts have a place to shoot up, but smokers have nowhere left to light up.