Living in fear: Chinese are prime targets of Paris gangs and violent muggings are on the rise
- Chinese residents of the French capital say the attackers are driven by the misconception that all Asians are wealthy
- Police believe they’ve broken up one gang, but the community is not convinced it will make much difference
A series of increasingly violent attacks and robberies on Paris’s Chinese population has the community living in fear, as they become an almost daily occurrence.
Last week police arrested 11 suspected ringleaders of a gang responsible for attacks against Chinese residents of Paris’s northeastern suburbs.
The youths, aged 16-19, have not been charged, but are said to have already been known to the police for alleged drug trafficking, violent thefts and extortion.
Between August 19 and October 2, according to police, there were over a dozen of attacks on Chinese people in the Seine-Saint-Denis suburbs of Aubervilliers, Saint-Denis, Bobigny, La Courneuve, the Bourget and Noisy-le-Sec.
The epicentre appears to be Aubervilliers, where more than 10,000 members of the Asian community work – many in large fashion shops in the town’s wholesale district.
Police say there is a pattern: the gangs follow Chinese people home from restaurants or work then attack them and make off with their valuables.
The assaults have mushroomed in recent months. At the beginning of October, a video surveillance system caught a robbery on camera in Paris’s 13th arrondissement.
The footage shows a couple carrying takeaways arriving back at their block of flats, with four people following them in. The group lay into the husband upstairs with a volley of brutal punches.
A week later, a video captured two men on a scooter stopping by a car in the southern Paris suburb of Le Kremlin-Bicetre, smashing the passenger window and grabbing the passenger’s handbag before fleeing.
Even if police feel they have broken up one gang, local Chinese fear there are many more out there and are demanding a bolstered police presence.
“Video surveillance is not a deterrent in itself, even if it helps lead to arrests,” said Tamara Lui from the group Securite pour tous (Safety for All).
The group is calling for police patrols in “black spot areas” known for repeated attacks.
In Aubervilliers, the Asian community is still haunted by the high profile murder in August 2016 of 49-year-old dressmaker Zhang Chaolin, who was the victim of a savage robbery.
The two men accused of the deadly assault, now aged 21 and 19, were sentenced to 10 and four years in prison respectively.
The Zhang murder mobilised the community, yet two years on the feeling of insecurity and fear remains and associations are slamming the apparent indifference to their ordeal, as well as the racist nature of the attacks.
“The affair has become the symbol of the stigmatisation of people of Asian origins in Paris,” declared daily newspaper Liberation.
In Aubervilliers, emotions are riding high. Community groups say there is a widespread feeling among Asian residents that they are not properly protected by the law.
Though the court recognised the Zhang killing as racist attack, many see the punishment dished out as too soft.
“Chinese people have a feeling that they are living right alongside their aggressors,” said Rui Wang, president of the group Young Chinese in France. “You need much tougher, more dissuasive penalties for this kind of crime.”
Besides stiffer sentences, local Chinese have asked for more police on the streets, but it does not seem to have happened.
“Nothing has changed since” Lui said. “Other than us setting up citizen patrols around the metro for example, to accompany people home because the Chinese have lost faith in authorities.”
She believes robberies preying on Chinese are becoming dangerously commonplace in Paris, spreading from the usual hotspots of Belleville, Aubervilliers and La Courneuve to other Ile-de-France neighbourhoods.
Lui puts the trend down to a myth that Asians are wealthy.
“Zhang Chaolin’s killers told investigators that their victims were ‘likely to hold money’ because they belonged to the Chinese community,” she said.
According to one news report, all Zhang actually had on him was “a mobile phone charger and several bonbons”.
The attacks have created “a kind of psychosis”, said Lui with people from young children to grandmothers fearing they would be the next victims.
Faced with a lack of police presence in their neighbourhoods, Chinese residents now guard their buildings in groups.
“We have been forced to take these measures,” one resident, Joëlle Hui, told France Info television. “Because we don’t have a routine police presence which would help act as a disincentive to other young people who want to attack us.”
Another local, Dominique He, said: “I do not dare go out on the street without holding my keys firmly in my hand, as a weapon of self defence.”
According to a third resident, Jean, some locals carry weapons around “like baseball bats or sabres”, but insists “they are not violent, it’s self defence”.
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In 2016, Safety for All launched neighbourhood watch schemes using WeChat alerts.
The organisation claims police figures do not reflect reality and the statistics are probably worse, saying incidents commonly go under-reported due to the language barrier and many perpetrators are still on the loose.
They estimate things have got so serious, there is about one attack every 2 days on average in greater Paris.
On October 12, more suspected members of violent organised gangs were detained and charged with robbery “committed because of ethnicity” according to the prosecutor in Bobigny.
One positive aspect is the violence has brought the community together and helped them speak out, said Sun-Lay Tan, another spokesman for the Safety for All collective.
However, fears of violent attacks are still rising.
“The extreme and alarming brutality of these aggressions is something new – not the robberies in themselves,” he said, with some victims beaten then dragged along the ground.
Lui – who is also president of the association Chinese of France, French of China – met police chiefs and representatives of Seine-Saint-Denis on Thursday to discuss tougher security measures.
She foresees a future civil party action against the aggressors. For that to happen, more victims need to step forward, Lui said, but “very often they fail to do so”.