I took a shortcut behind the Galeries Lafayette department store last Thursday, preferring the quiet, narrow street to the bustling boulevard Haussman.
At first I failed to notice the police van, parked a few metres ahead and surrounded by a group of officers in uniform who were surveying the street with arms folded across their chests, their boredom almost palpable. Deep in thought about where I fancied grabbing a quick snack, it didn’t even register that there were metal barricades blocking the road, denying access to traffic. Nor did I see that over a hundred cellophane wrapped bunches of flowers were attached to the barricades. It was only when I became aware of a dozen people – businessmen, tourists, shoppers, an African woman in a traditional batik print dress – standing motionless on the pavement directly in front of me, blocking my way, that I followed their collective gaze to the building on the other side of the street.
I realised with a jolt that I was standing in front of n° 76 rue de Provence, staring wide-eyed at the burnt shell of the Hotel Paris Opéra.
It’s stale news, of course, that 22 people, including 10 children, were killed in a fire which gutted the hotel in the early hours of 15 April. I had read articles about it, which stirred up feelings of horror and indignation, and was vaguely aware that the tragedy had occurred not far from where I go to work every day on the avenue de l’Opéra. I don’t recall any of the articles actually mentioning the address, and I certainly didn’t expect to chance upon the charred remains on a sunny, carefree bank holiday shopping spree.
And now, like the onlookers around me, I couldn’t take my eyes off the blackened windows. Windows from which people had jumped. Rue de Provence was enveloped by an eerie silence. When I finally managed to tear myself away, I cut short my afternoon and took the metro home. I had a lump in my throat, a heaviness in my ribcage. Death had cast a long shadow over my afternoon and I was no longer in the mood for frivolity.
The six-storey, 1 star Hôtel Paris Opéra was not a tourist hotel. It was a temporary – but often long-term temporary – home to an assortment of families eking out precarious existences in the city of light. Some were legal immigrants waiting for better accommodation to become available, some asylum seekers, and others, despite living in France for ten years or more, had been unable to obtain a residence permit or working papers, and were paid cash to clean the apartments of wealthy Parisians, or care for their pampered children. Home was a tiny bedroom, with one shared toilet per floor. Cooking facilities: a single microwave. Many of the rooms were rented by the Mairie de Paris and the samu social (social services) on behalf of families in need. The going rate for a 6 metres squared bedroom: € 500 per month.
The death toll, in this, the worst blaze that Paris has seen in thirty years, was unnecessarily high – according to firefighters – because people panicked and jumped from upper floor windows. Or threw their children out, in sheer desperation. Seven people died from their injuries this way. As is the case in most Parisian buildlings, there was only one staircase and lift shaft, so as the fire was rushing vertically upwards, the windows were the only escape route.
One article I read in Libération spoke of a rideau de fumée, a curtain of smoke which had been drawn around the tragedy, so that the shortcomings of government policies in the sensitive areas of emergency housing and asylum applications would not come under close scrutiny. Much has since been made of the fact that the fire was caused by a woman who had unknowlingly overturned a candle in a first floor room just before leaving the building. Her confession has been obtained: she trashed the room used for trysts with her lover, following a heated argument. A convenient state of affairs, laying the blame at one individual’s door, and handing the criminal investigation over to the Minister of Justice. The Minister responsible for immigration must have breathed a huge sigh of relief.
That way, people won’t dwell too much on the plight of those families, living in cramped conditions right under our noses, and not 10 metres from the temple of luxury that is the Galeries Lafayette. That way we won’t wonder how it is possible for children to be born in Paris, sent to school here, but still have to live in squalid hotels with their parents in complete illegality. That way we won’t think to question why government bodies support the owners of establishments like the Hôtel Paris Opéra, who are in the lucrative business of exploiting misery and desperation.
Move along. There’s nothing to see here.