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Xenophobia Plagues France’s Response to Crack Use

Until 5th October, 2022, Forceval Square was the primary hub for crack consumption and distribution in France. This was until those living there were forcibly displaced by an operation involving 1,000 police officers. Approximately 30 undocumented immigrants were detained, with most placed in administrative detention centres with “obligations to leave French territory” (OQTF) issued. Those that were displaced scattered throughout the city. Since the evacuation, the visibility of crack consumption has diminished, although street-level usage persists, often in smaller, more discrete groups, as many have nowhere to go.

Crack use has always been stigmatised, with the media playing a significant role in perpetuating misconceptions. This stigma is compounded by the stark contrast in how powder cocaine use, often associated with higher classes, is depicted compared to crack use, which is typically linked to those socially and racially marginalised in France, such as undocumented migrants.

The reality for migrants that arrive in France is complex: harm reduction professionals have shed light on their situations, revealing that while some migrants do indeed use crack, they are a minority within this using population. However, understanding the composition of this group, as well as reasons for use is important to support what are understood to be the “marginalised among the marginalised” of French society.


Rue Forceval in Paris. Source: Wikimedia.

Who are the migrants using crack?

The emergence of crack consumption in France, initially observed in the Caribbean departments of Martinique and Guadeloupe in the mid-1980s, spread to France primarily through Antillean consumers during a period of significant heroin consumption growth. Antilleans, along with individuals from sub-Saharan Africa and the Maghreb, formed the bulk of users, mainly comprising men facing extreme precarity. Although Antillean dealers initially dominated the market in the late 1980s, they were gradually replaced by dealers from West Africa, particularly of Wolof ethnicity, who have since maintained their hegemony over the Parisian crack market, the so-called “modous”. A 2019 estimate has posed that the overall number of users is around 42,800 people. 

In a qualitative study, the French Drugs Observatory identified several traits in 2022 of migrant people who used crack: many were of African and Caribbean origin, and tended to be young and used multiple drugs; some individuals were in precarious jobs, only occasionally using crack. In the early 2010s, new migrant groups were identified – particularly people from Eastern Europe and the Caucasus – who predominantly injected crack. In the late 2010s, recent migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, the Horn of Africa, and occasionally the Middle East were also labelled as crack users when migrant camps were set up in the northern part of the capital, close to the well-known open crack consumption area called “la Colline” (The Hill). 

Crack use in Paris is primarily concentrated in a triangle in the northeastern part of the capital. This area revolves around key locations mainly situated in the XVIII district at The Hill or the XIX district (Stalingrad), and occasionally on certain metro stations or lines. Beyond northeastern Paris, the city of Saint-Denis has had high crack use since the 2000s, with Porte d’Aubervilliers being another noticeable trafficking area. In 2004, La Boutique Association Charonne Paris estimated that only 10% of those using crack in France were foreigners. This number is expected to have grown in the past 20 years.

Employing various survival strategies such as resale, sex work, and begging, and often facing extreme poverty, many migrants using crack are also particularly vulnerable to police repression, health issues related to problematic drug use, and vulnerable to street violence. 

Recent research in social sciences has documented disparities in arrests and imprisonment based on race, alongside ethnographic studies highlighting the overrepresentation of people of colour in French prisons. These studies also reveal a significant rise in court appearances and arrest rates among foreign-born French nationals. The French prohibition of racial data collection has also meant that in-depth analysis of a racialised element of crack consumption and policing is lacking. Instead, the recent surge in crack use is mostly perceived as a class-based issue. 


More crackdowns on crack

France has made efforts to implement state-funded drug treatment and harm reduction services since the 1970s and 1980s, respectively. However, these measures have not reduced the visibility of open-air drug use, particularly crack cocaine across the capital and its suburbs. In response, Paris, its regional health agency, and the Île-de-France Prefecture introduced a “Crack Plan” in 2019, which aimed to enhance access to harm reduction services and social housing for people using crack. 

Even with efforts outlined in the “Crack Plan” to enhance outreach and invest in accommodation and rest spaces, these resources still fall significantly short of what is required to reach the total number of users. In the Ile-de-France region, the ASSORE programme has expanded its accommodation capacity, taking in people who use crack and helping reduce their consumption. However, more investments are still needed. Rather than solely relying on police repression efforts and public funding to physically stop people on the street from moving around, there must be a shift towards investing in the social support of unhoused individuals and those struggling with drug addiction. 

Despite some housing progress, punitive measures against crack cocaine users are still the norm. This is particularly visible in the “Wall of Shame”, built in September 2021: this is a wall blocking the passage between Parisian neighbourhoods was built to reduce the passage of people using crack on the streets. It’s a reminder of ongoing segregation and crackdowns on users, sellers and unhoused migrants. 

2024 is only set to bring more violence: the Paris Prefect of Police has already committed to “ending” crack use in Paris before the Olympics, deploying 125 to 700 police officers ahead of the Games to “disperse traffickers as usual, but multiplied by five.”Regardless of available data, French drug policies tend towards repressive measures rather than focusing on holistic solutions that respect human, social, and health rights. Policies rooted in a zero-tolerance towards drug use, combined with a volatile political environment towards immigration and limited access to social services, can further marginalise some of the most vulnerable members of French society. Arrests and crack seizures have done little to limit consumption; instead, it has disproportionately affected those already in precarious situations.

Collaborative projects that determine what are the best solutions and outcomes with those that use crack cocaine are crucial: this includes housing, integration, and rebuilding social connections. A holistic harm reduction approach towards drug use, including increasing housing, safe use spaces (that connect people to services) as well as day centres for rest and support, is also important. Migrant crack sellers often become targets of state-led repression, affecting them adversely under these laws. Supporting the “marginalised within the marginalised” is needed to improve the lives of those forced to the bottom of society, who will remain targets of extremism and law enforcement until something changes.


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