Walk around the Eiffel Tower and you’re struck by two things: the enormity of a structure three times the height of Victoria Falls, and the number of displaced people selling miniatures.
Every few yards there’s someone from the Congo, Chad or Cameroon with a small white cloth on the pavement on which stand little Eiffels made in China.
None of the sellers I spoke to is set to go home. It’s a factor contributing to the rise of Maxine le Pen and the Front National, founded by her grandfather and now one of France’s largest parties. Her rallying cry is “France for the French”, forgetting perhaps that many Arabs and Africans from former colonies moved here more than 50 years ago and that their descendants are as French as champagne or Camembert.
Some have asylum papers, whereas others came on a holiday visa and stayed. But most of the émigrés I encounter seem to have been smuggled via Turkey or the Mediterranean and walked across Europe to France, sans papiers. Undocumented.
The authorities leave them alone and, although unemployment in France is close to 10%, the migrants eke out a living from work shunned by locals on welfare.
There are taxi-bikes on the streets, a kind of tricycle with a plastic or aluminium car built around it. You sit in the back and the driver pedals anywhere up to 3km. Again, they are mostly migrants but, unlike the curio sellers, few speak English and when I asked a Moroccan woman for a ride to my hotel — I had a card from reception with a map — she shrugged and said: “Je ne sais pas.” I don’t know this place.
A man from Cameroon who must have been in his 50s took the map and followed it. Within five minutes we were at the door and I paid double the asking price of €10.
Ironically, most of those seeking shelter in France are from member countries of the International Criminal Court (ICC).
A key objection of the African Union is that the ICC won’t give immunity to sitting heads of state. But on a list of the world’s 10 longest-serving rulers, seven are from Africa, led by Paul Biya of Cameroon who took power in June 1975, two months after the United States pulled out of Vietnam. So, to offer immunity from prosecution is to fuel the problem of leaders staying on for fear of arrest if they step down.
To place Biya’s term in context, when he came to power Mao Zedong ruled China, Ian Smith was prime minister of Rhodesia, John Vorster was his counterpart in South Africa, Idi Amin was just halfway through his murderous reign in Uganda and Elvis was on stage in Las Vegas.
Political or economic, refugees are often from countries where the government has stayed in power too long. And here in Paris, France’s former African colonies are significant contributors to that club: Chad, Cameroon and Djibouti are also all members of the ICC.
Elections in Africa can be dubious, but some are worse than others. In Cameroon, a shackled press and a Constitution that gives the president wide powers make it hard to challenge him. France and the US have voiced concerns over recent polls, but both have military links with the country and Biya has proved an ally in the fight against Boko Haram.
In Chad, nearly two-thirds live in poverty and a list of objections from the presidential poll in February reads like a how-to guide for winning. An estimated 81% of ballot boxes were not checked at the start to see if they were empty, one in 10 voting stations had no private booths and President Idriss Déby’s most popular rival, Ngarlejy Yorongar, was barred from standing.
Déby won with 61%, yet an AU mission said the vote was “without fraud”. No prizes for guessing who the current chair of the AU is — Déby.
In the former French Congo, now the Republic of Congo, Denis Sassou Nguesso ran a one-party state until he was pressured to reform and came third in the democratic election of 1992. So he assembled a rebel army and overthrew the winner five years later. He introduced a limit on presidential tenure but scrapped it when his two terms were up.
During elections in March, Nguesso won 60% of the vote. Opposition parties had done their own tally showing he had lost but, as they prepared to release the numbers, the government shut down phone networks and the internet.
When it comes to rigging elections, Djibouti is up there with the best. In April, President Ismail Omar Guelleh ran for his fourth term (the Constitution allows two) and won 87% of the vote. Opposition leaders are in jail or in Paris, the press is run by the state and most people lack access to basics such as water and sanitation.
But of the five permanent members on the United Nations Security Council, four have troops stationed in Djibouti on the route to Suez. The people are ethnic Somalis, but Guelleh has no time for radical Islam … or democracy.
Yet he has signed up to the ICC. This poses a quandary for France. The national ego seeks a place on the world stage and that means military clout, usually in places seen as “stable” because there’s little chance of change.
And, as with the US, a risk of bombs going off at home can only be solved by reaching into cells where potential bombers are trained — often in Africa and the Middle East.
Again, there’s a need for troops on the ground, housed by old friends.
Back at the Eiffel, Alex from Senegal alternates between selling miniature towers and selfie sticks. Once an hour police come by, blowing whistles as they go.
Sellers hear this and in a deft move they pull two straps on the display cloth and it closes up like a tog bag.
With the goods inside, they saunter down steps that lead to the Seine, stand beneath the bridge until the police go past and are back in under five minutes. No confiscations, no “papiers s’il vous plaît”.
Alex tells me he is sans papiers. At 33, he’s lived illegally in France for five years. “Senegal is a democracy,” he says, “and we are free to starve.”
True, it has been one of Africa’s more successful transfers to multiparty rule, but this is a country the size of the Eastern Cape where at least half the population is unemployed.
“Will you ever go home?” I ask Alex. “To be buried,” he says.
This is something locals seize on. Even Africans born here two or three generations ago send bodies back to their village. If, as Mark Twain said, home is where you want to be buried, the African, Arab and Djibouti French are on foreign turf.
The Goutte-d’Or neighbourhood is close to Montmartre, where Ernest Hemingway lived when he took up writing. You might be in Timbuktu or Casablanca, and the only whites seem to be tourists.
Here, and in enclaves like it across France, it’s the same displaced people who dominate — those from countries with a long-serving leader.
The US is not a member of the ICC, but its military base in Djibouti and talk of setting up a smaller one on Chad or Cameroon has drawn fire in Congress and the Senate.
France has more troops in Africa than any other foreign power but economic problems at home may change that. Angela Merkel was in Mali last month, talking about what Germany can do to stop people leaving. And Chad’s Déby came to Berlin to talk about the same thing.
Increasingly, German, British and especially French foreign policy is about stemming the exodus.
What does that mean for the likes of Alex? With no documents and no formal work, there’s little choice. But the focus is turning from aid and pity to Africa’s home-grown problems and the leaders who — in power for decades — have done nothing to fix them.
In or out of the Rome Statute, for the big men of Francophone Africa there may be difficult times ahead.