Olympics: Games will not solve our problems, lament Paris suburb residents

Saint-Denis mayor Laurent Russier posing with children ahead of the Olympics results announcement, Sept 13, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

SAINT-DENIS, France (REUTERS) - As French officials uncorked the champagne to celebrate securing the 2024 Olympics, in Saint-Denis, the underprivileged district just north of Paris where much of the Games will be hosted, not everyone was preparing to party.

After three failed bids and the withdrawal of its chief rival Los Angeles, Paris was chosen on Wednesday to host the summer Games seven years from now.

"All of France is behind #Paris2024, to welcome the world!" Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, one of the leaders of France's bid, said on Twitter. But a dozen kilometres north of her town hall, in Saint-Denis, some are not so sure.

Despite promises of jobs and better public transport for the small city that will host the opening and closing ceremonies, the athletes' village and many sporting events, there is scepticism about any potential windfall.

"It might be a good thing for those with enough money to buy tickets, and for bar owners nearby, but that's it," said Lucette Menage, 46, a local caregiver.

"The Olympics won't solve our problems, they won't put an end to all the poverty in the banlieues," she said, referring to Paris's poor outskirts.

Unemployment in Saint-Denis is at 23 per cent, more than twice the national average. The city of 115,000, cut in half by a network of highways, is part of France's poorest department, Seine-Saint-Denis.


There has been long-standing criticism that hosting the Olympics - while an honour and an opportunity for vast investment - too often fails to benefit the most needy.

In Rio de Janeiro, in particular, favela residents were pushed out of their homes to make way for infrastructure for last year's Games, while new transport networks mainly helped wealthier areas.

In the case of Barcelona, host of the 1992 Olympics, Christophe Lepetit, a sports economist, said the city benefited overall, but it meant the poorest were pushed out of some neighbourhoods because they could no longer afford the rent.

Lepetit, who took part in a study on the impact of the Paris Olympics, expects the Games, whose total budget is estimated at €6.8 billion euros (S$11 billion), to be a good thing for Saint-Denis, in particular because authorities will be obliged to stick to promises to build more metro lines.

Locals also stand to gain from the building of a swimming pool complex and the Olympic village on a site of abandoned warehouses, which will later be converted into apartments.

This, together with a pledge that contractors will have to commit to hiring locals for a portion of the work, is one of the main arguments Saint-Denis's communist mayor, Laurent Russier, makes in favour of the Games.

"It is certain that the Olympics, despite how amazing they will be... will not change everybody's life here or give a job to all," he told Reuters on Wednesday.

"But they will provide great leverage for urban development, this will advance us by many years."

Marine Massot Capone, an urban planner who moved to Saint-Denis from Paris three years ago for the cheaper rent, is looking forward to better train stations. But that is not enough.

"I don't think the Olympics will do much to stem steep poverty here," she said as she shopped in a local street market.

Despite a couple of online petitions, opposition to hosting the Olympics in France has gained little traction.

The Games have their supporters in Saint-Denis, including Sid Ouldmoussa, who owns a restaurant opposite the cathedral. During events such as the 1998 soccer World Cup, with games played at the Saint-Denis Stade de France, turnover doubled, he said.

But Celine Zenou, a 27-year old Saint-Denis resident, said what she wanted from authorities was clean streets, not the Olympics.

"They should first get started on cleaning all this," she said.

"Saint-Denis is a trash can."

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