petite anglaise

May 10, 2005


Filed under: city of light — petiteanglaiseparis @ 1:35 pm

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.


  1. I heard about this but didn’t really register the details. I have now. You’re right, it’s disgusting that people have to live for years in such places – throwbacks to another age, just yards from temples to all the latest luxury, consumerism and technology. Not surprising that people living in such conditions, so near to the edge, panicked so easily and threw themselves or their children from windows.

    Comment by Jean — May 10, 2005 @ 1:57 pm

  2. When confronted with burned out buildings – fortunately I haven’t often seen those responsible for loss of life – I’m always amazed at how awful the smell is. I wonder if there isn’t almost some kind of fear instinct built into it. This was a really awful event, and one that could so easily be repeated. Makes one shudder to think of the *lucky* escapes these people have. Some luck.

    Comment by Jim in Rennes — May 10, 2005 @ 2:32 pm

  3. Thank you.

    Posts like these are the reason I prefer to read well-written blogs to the bullshit in the newspapers.

    Comment by Claypot — May 10, 2005 @ 3:36 pm

  4. Wow. That was so sobering, Petite. Thanks for sharing that with us!

    Comment by milchfrommler — May 10, 2005 @ 3:58 pm

  5. A very difficult subject, deftly and sensitively handled. Excellent post. Thank you. (And I second that, Claypot.)

    Comment by Zinnia Cyclamen — May 10, 2005 @ 6:24 pm

  6. it was the last line that got me. “move along. there’s nothing to see here”. so sad – my heart sank.

    Comment by jan — May 10, 2005 @ 8:01 pm

  7. This post does not need any comment, really. So, just to say thanks, petite.

    Comment by ontario frog — May 11, 2005 @ 12:42 am

  8. Great post Petite. Thanks for expressing so well what I’ve felt when I heard about this 2 weeks ago.

    Comment by Maurine au bout du monde — May 11, 2005 @ 3:40 am

  9. Brava.

    Comment by Lisa — May 11, 2005 @ 4:24 am

  10. I had no idea … thanks petite

    Comment by Omykiss — May 11, 2005 @ 7:16 am

  11. It’s chilling to face reality sometimes. Thank you for this post…

    Comment by sammy — May 11, 2005 @ 10:11 am

  12. Scary how life can change in a heartbeat.
    your post graphically portrays the sadness of the scene and how in a small way, it fractured your day too.
    Well said, Petite.

    Comment by LukePDQ — May 11, 2005 @ 6:10 pm

  13. Britblog Roundup # 13

    That time ofthe week again and it’s the Britblog Roundup number 13….I assume this means that a Jumbo lands on my head as I type. First up is a recommendation from Murkee, a post from Stodge. He was sitting next

    Trackback by Tim Worstall — May 15, 2005 @ 2:41 pm

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