CLICHY-SOUS-BOIS, France (Reuters) - The queue for the food bank snaked for hundreds of metres, out of the shuttered marketplace bordered by tower blocks and down the side of a four-lane highway on the outskirts of one of Europe’s wealthiest cities.
In Paris’s depressed suburbs, the number of people relying on food handouts is soaring as a strict coronavirus lockdown plunges France into its deepest recession since World War Two.
Many worked in the grey economy before the outbreak, and now receive little protection from France’s generous welfare state.
“There were lots of women who worked looking after children... There was a whole economy based on getting by,” said Bachir Ghouinem, volunteering at the food bank in Clichy-sous-Bois, some 20 kilometres (12 miles) from the city centre.
“So as everything stopped what did people find themselves with? Nothing.”
He and other volunteers would end up handing out sugar, pasta, cheese, milk and fresh fruit and vegetables - most donated by local stores rather than large retail chains - to around 1,600 families during the day, twice the number expected.
Clichy-sous-Bois is part of the Paris banlieues, the low-income districts that encircle the city. Unemployment among its largely immigrant population was already well above the national average before the epidemic struck.
Queueing for food, Nathalie Barlagne, 46, said she had lost her job as a creche assistant before the crisis.
She had never before needed to rely on charity to support her family but could no longer afford her food bill after local markets closed. “Now we have to shop in supermarkets and it’s very expensive,” she said.
As the queue lengthened, Mohamed Mechmach, founder of local charity ACLEFEU, urged those in line to respect social distancing rules.
“Otherwise we won’t be able to keep doing what we’re doing,” he told the crowd. “The prefect will just say ‘Stop everything’. That would be a shame. We’re all here for the same reason.”
In the banlieues, the strict curbs ordered by President Emmanuel Macron to try to contain the epidemic have exacerbated deep-seated social tensions.
Cramped social housing, workers with frontline jobs and a restless younger generation have turned some into hotspots of infection and unrest. Violence hit several neighbourhood for five straight nights over the past week.
Due west of Clichy-sous-Bois in another suburb, Argenteuil, Kante Sakho’s charity was delivering food parcels to households. He says he is shifting 600 a week, and is barely able to keep up with demand.
Some recipients were illiterate and unable to fill out the mandatory government forms justifying movement outside the home. Others were families struggling to feed their children three meals a day after schools shut down.
“Since the coronavirus outbreak, there’s a lot more poverty,” Sakho said.
Reporting by Yonathan Van der Voort; Writing by Richard Lough; editing by John Stonestreet