France’s estimated 600,000 Chinese, many of them French citizens, are an industrious and largely reticent community that rarely makes waves. But a recent spate of muggings and attacks has prompted thousands to take to the streets in protest.
At noon on a weekday, the commercial district of Aubervilliers is a beehive of wholesale vendors – most of them ethnic Chinese – pushing trolleys stacked with boxes labelled “Made in China” as well as buyers from across Europe, wheeling suitcases filled to the brim with garments and accessories.
Home to one of several “Chinatowns” that have sprung up in and around Paris, the suburb of Aubervilliers, northeast of the French capital, has grown into Europe’s hub for the import and export of clothing items. It is also the site of a recent fatal attack that has spread fear and anger through the Chinese community and led it to set aside its usual reticence.
On August 7, textile designer Chaoling Zhang and a friend were attacked on an Aubervilliers street in broad daylight by three men who tried to steal their belongings. The father of two was kicked in the sternum and fell, striking his head on the pavement. He died after five days in a coma.
Zhang’s death, coming after a string of similar attacks, prompted a rare public protest by the Chinese community last Sunday, with thousands marching through central Paris waving French flags and calling for more protection from the police.
On Wednesday, exactly one month after the fatal attack, the anxiety was palpable among members of the Chinese community working in Aubervilliers’ textile hub.
“It hurts – what’s happening is very bad,” said Olivier, 32, standing outside his showroom. Thefts, assaults, extortion – the young trader has heard of “enough incidents targeting the Chinese community to write a book about it”.
According to official figures, complaints filed for attacks on ethnic Chinese in Aubervilliers have tripled in the past year from 35 to 105.
Another mugging was reported Tuesday in neighbouring Bobigny, where a Chinese shop owner was attacked in the street, followed into his home and robbed of €5,000 ($5,600).
‘We don’t enjoy real freedom’
For Olivier, a second-generation immigrant, the feeling of insecurity is no novelty.
“Back in our parents’ day, during the '80s and '90s, there were plenty of attacks and muggings, as well as jokes about the Chinese,” he said. “But they were the first generation [of Chinese immigrants]. They didn’t speak French and didn’t go to the police.”
The trader, who specialises in children’s clothes, moved to France at the age of 2. His mother tongue is French and he speaks passionately about the French Republic. He said he fulfilled his “duty” towards the Republic by working, and expected the right to live safely in return.
“My wife doesn’t dare go outdoors with her handbag, and when I’m in the street I’m careful not to pull out my smartphone,” he lamented. “We don’t enjoy real freedom.”
“We’re traders, but why would we have more money than anyone else?” asked Olivier, slamming the “casualness” of the police in dealing with the problem.
According to French authorities, robbers prey on people of Chinese origin because of certain “racist prejudices”. Some believe that East Asian tourists tend to carry large sums of cash, or that their suitcases are often stuffed with luxury goods purchased in Paris.
Last month, 27 Chinese tourists were robbed and their driver sprayed with teargas as they boarded a bus that was to take them to Paris's Charles de Gaulle airport. The incident raised fears that Chinese tourists might stop coming to Paris.
The sense that French police are failing the community was shared by the protesters who rallied in Paris last Sunday. Some banners read, “Are we to seek our own justice?”
In Aubervilliers, wholesale traders have set up an alert system on the popular WeChat messaging service, so that users can flag incidents or suspicious behaviour. Recent posts showed pictures of a vandalised car at the nearby CIFA Fashion Business Centre, a French-Asian platform for the textile industry.
‘We create jobs, pay taxes, but nobody looks after us’
Chen, 29, moved to Aubervilliers two months ago from the southeastern resort of Evian on Lake Geneva. “Back there I could leave my car with windows open and the keys inside, no one would touch it,” said the chain-smoking insurance broker, standing outside a Chinese restaurant dressed in an impeccable suit.
Since his arrival in the Paris suburb, Chen has already been accosted outside his home. “When I went to the police they just said, ‘Welcome to Aubervilliers’. It shouldn’t be that way,” he protested.
The restaurant owner, David, had similar complaints. “Last month I drove to a tobacco shop to buy some cigarettes for my restaurant. I left the car for barely two minutes, but when I came back the tires were flat and my bag was gone,” he said.
The 40-year-old said he never went out at night and always walked “around the block three times” before going home, for fear he might be being followed.
David insisted that his restaurant remain anonymous. “If Chinese people are so reluctant to talk to the press it’s because they’re afraid they’ll be recognised and targeted,” he explained.
Like Olivier, he complained bitterly that the Chinese community was getting no reward for its hard work. “When the Chinese come to France they make money, create jobs and pay taxes. […] But nobody looks after us. We’re a forgotten community.”
Last Sunday’s protest in Paris was only the second time David had attended a rally. The first time was in 2011 after a wedding party was attacked in the French capital’s eastern neighbourhood of Belleville, also home to a large Chinese population.
The mood in Belleville was just as anxious this week. A fruit farmer, who wished to remain anonymous, said he was debating whether to move after twice being assaulted.
Asked what he thought of politicians’ forthcoming meetings with the Chinese community, starting with presidential candidate Alain Juppé’s visit to Aubervilliers on Thursday, he said: “I’d rather have two more cops out in the street.”
Date created : 2016-09-09