Paris (CNN)While billionaires isolate themselves at luxurious hideaways on the Mediterranean during the coronavirus outbreak, residents in deprived and crowded areas of France are now facing a surge in deaths, along with unrest on the streets.
From private testing for the rich to unrest in banlieues, coronavirus is highlighting France's stark divide
Hostilities erupted this week in Paris' northern banlieues (or suburbs) following accusations of police brutality and racism during the coronavirus outbreak. Footage on social media appeared to show cars and trash cans set alight on roads, protesters hurling firecrackers and police racing to control the crowds.
The lockdown in France has had very different consequences for different sections of society since it was announced on March 17. The country's ban on all non-essential business until May 11, along with a requirement for a permission slip to venture outside, has had the harshest impact on people living in poorer, more densely populated neighborhoods, according to an op-ed from several activist organizations and unions in Mediapart on Friday.
The associations -- including ATTAC (Association for the Taxation of financial Transactions and Aid to Citizens) -- wrote that people in working class neighborhoods were on the front lines as essential workers. "Yet social inequalities, already glaring, are reinforced by the management of the coronavirus and will explode with the economic and social crisis to come."
In stark contrast, wealthy residents at one of the country's most exclusive gated communities on the French Riviera have been embroiled in controversy after it emerged that some had access to antibody testing, despite the strain on hospitals and nursing homes across the country.
The tensions in Paris's northern suburbs flared up after an incident last Saturday night, when a motorcyclist, who is of a minority ethnicity, in the Villeneuve-la-Garenne banlieue broke his leg after police opened a car door in his path. Police said in a press release that the incident was an accident that occurred as officers got out of the car to speak with the motorcyclist, claiming 50 people then targeted police with projectiles.
The motorcyclist's lawyer, Stephane Gas, has asked for an investigation into the police's behavior by the General Inspectorate of National Police (IGPN), telling CNN that the police's characterization of the incident was "all upside-down."
He said the officers had opened the car door "in the middle of the lane" without warning before the collision. "All I can do is ask questions," he said.
In an area with a history of police brutality and anti-police riots -- as well as the separate gilets jaunes (yellow vest) showdowns with the government over inequality -- some believe the act was deliberate.
Video of the injured motorcyclist being tended to by police went viral, sparking several nights of violence that spread from Villeneuve-la-Garenne across the suburbs of Gennevilliers, Nanterre, Aulnay-sous-Bois and Montreuil. On Tuesday, an elementary school in Gennevilliers was set on fire, police confirmed.
French journalist and activist Taha Bouhafs, who posted videos of the first clashes with the police in Villeneuve-la-Garenne on social media, told CNN on Monday: "Villeneuve-la-Garenne was a symbolic moment.
"People can see the double standards enacted during the confinement. All these images of people walking in the streets in Paris, unbothered by the police. All these images of police brutality in the suburbs."
Bouhafs said the lockdown has taken a far harsher toll on working class families in the banlieues than on middle-class French households. "Confinement is not experienced in the same way by everyone," he said. "We don't all have terraces with neighbors playing the accordion.
"In the suburbs there are large families in low-rent housing with eight people or more ... These people are cashiers, delivery men, postmen, people who don't have the privilege of working from home."
The coronavirus has also had an immediate and dramatic impact on deaths in these neighborhoods. The Seine-Saint-Denis area, which is next to Villeneuve-la-Garenne, saw an increase in mortality of 295% in the week of March 30 to April 5 compared with the number usually expected at this time of year, according to France's National Institute of Statistics. The Hauts-de-Seine, where Villeneuve-la-Garenne is located, saw a 255% rise.
By comparison, the increase in deaths was 174% in Paris and 61% in France as a whole over the same period.
There have now been more than 120,000 cases and more than 22,000 deaths in France.
Interior Minister Castaner told the Senate on Wednesday that the authorities had coordinated operations every evening for the past few weeks in "sensitive neighborhoods" in Seine-Saint-Denis. He said there had been 220,000 checks and 38,000 fines in these areas -- "about twice the national average in terms of police controls."
Castaner said in the Senate that since Saturday there had been "ambushes" on po