Metro drivers in Paris on Friday went on strike to protest an epidemic of crack addicts on the underground with the problem so bad that some refuse to stop at certain stations due to security fears.
Drivers held crisis talks with management and police as almost half on line 12 of the Paris underground network downed tools to raise awareness over the blight that one warned was turning parts of the French capital’s metro system into “junkie land”.
The issue first came to nationwide attention when SOS Usagers, a metro passengers’ group, and the UNSA RATP metro staff union issued a joint message on the blight last week.
They said that while the metro had been “invaded for years by groups of dealers who attract often agressive and dangerous drug addicts”, the situation had got worse since construction work had started on line 4 – one of their traditional haunts – and the addicts had amassed on line 12.
“The number of attacks on travellers and RATP staff is constantly on the rise and is reaching increasingly dramatic proportions,” they said in a joint statement. The groups have also sent messages to Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo and Gérard Collomb, the interior minister.
According to Damien Villette, 29, a driver on line 12, around 40 crack addicts mainly in the stations of Marx Dormoy, Marcadet-Poissonniers and Porte de la Chapelle, in northern Paris “inject themselves with needles and smoke crack on the platforms or in the trains”.
He said there were regular brawls between addicts who were sometimes verbally or physically violent towards passengers via “aggressive begging”. They often cause delays when emergency services are called in to treat those who overdose, while drivers are obliged to cut the electric current when some rush across the tracks to reach a dealer for a fix.
“Last year, there were no fewer than 850 traffic interruptions and power cuts because drug addicts crossed the tracks, carried out their business on the tracks, or pulled the alarm to stop the trains to either sell or buy drugs," said another driver Eric Chaplain, also a representative of the trade union SUD-RATP.
At night, drivers call the area "junkie land”, he added, warning: "Unfortunately, if we do nothing, the rest of the network may suffer the same fate.”
Dealers are also often present in the mainline stations of Saint-Lazare and Gare du Nord, where the London to Paris Eurostar terminates.
Drivers now refuse to stop when they are concerned for passengers’ safety. “When there are 15 to 20 drug addicts on a platform, it can happen that we don’t stop,” Mr Villette said.
One passenger, Cécile, 36, said: “I avoid line 12 as much as possible, especially with my children. I’m appalled as last year I was with my four-year old daughter and we saw a guy with a syringe in his arm at Marcadet-Poissonniers station” at 4pm in the afternoon, she said.
Emma, 23, said she had pulled the emergency alarm recently when an addict had an overdose in her coach.
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The RATP said it was well aware of the problem, adding: “We share our agents’ concerns and have been mobilised for several months.”Paris police said it was beefing up patrols on the lines concerned and had arrested 283 dealers and 406 drug users in the past year.
Despite the controversy, experts insisted France is not facing an epidemic of illicit drugs on the scale of the opioid one blighting America and to a lesser extent Britain.
Christophe Descoms, head of the Paris judicial police drugs squad, insisted: "Paris is not drowning in crack."
In an interview with Le Parisien he added that "it’s far from the drug that worries us the most. Right now, cocaine and synthetic drugs are the ones that concern us the most," saying that there had been a "rise in the number of overdoses on ecstasy and MDMA" by young users at parties.