For several hours, a man lay freezing to death on a busy street in Paris. On the evening of the 19th of January, he had gone for one of his regular walks, in the neighbourhood he lived in, where he had likely been seen before by fellow Parisians walking hastily home from work, or to whatever nightly plans they had. That night however, he was invisible, like many of France’s unhoused population.
René Robert, an 85-year-old man, had, in the words of his friend, journalist Michel Mompontet, “suffered a dizzy spell and fell.” Mompontet tweeted about it, drawing the French public’s attention to the drama:
Si cette mort atroce peut servir à quelque chose ce serait ceci. Quand un humain est couché sur le trottoir, aussi pressé que nous soyons, vérifions son état. Arrêtons nous un instant. pic.twitter.com/CHvcunHEWb
— Michel Mompontet (@mompontet) January 23, 2022
Until 5 am, the elderly man lay in the snow, unable to get up, in the bustling Place de la République, replete with tourists and French natives that had not found the scene worthy of attention.
He had become a part of what many would consider the normal backdrop of a metropolitan city, where homelessness is an accepted and consistent feature. Particularly, the area that Robert had happened to fall in, is one where unhoused people are commonly found. Perhaps he had been mistaken for one of the tens of thousands of “SDF” (“sans domicile fixe” in French), people forced onto the streets of France in recent years by an inability to pay the rent.
'Killed by indifference': 84-year-old photographer René Robert dies in the snow on busy Paris street https://t.co/l2i8W7mHa9
Have walked this street …it's not out of the way!
Happens all too often….people don't want to get involved. pic.twitter.com/odLIs600Vw
— Poppy Masselos (@poppymasselos) January 28, 2022
Robert, however, happened to be a renowned cultural figure, a photographer whose work had been hugely important across decades, documenting the flamenco scene, based in El Catalan, where many of Spain’s musical legends had lived and performed.
Frustratingly however, it is perhaps for this reason Robert’s death made headlines at all, whilst the majority of the 600 unhoused people dying on France’s streets annually remain nameless. Their deaths are treated with the same cold indifference that prevented anyone from taking 5 minutes to help Robert out of the snow.
Robert’s work was an exercise in empathy, finding human connections beyond barriers of language and nationality. Will Parisians extended that empathy to the unhoused?
Robert, who was Swiss, could not speak Spanish, spoken and sung by the vast majority of the flamenco scene’s artists. He still managed to form close friendships with the scene’s major figures. According to Mompontet, quoted in El Pais, this was attributed to the fact that “Flamenco is a way of feeling and he had that.”
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He took photographs of not only the most famous players, but also relatively unknown performers, of varying degrees in skill. His interest was in the sense of communal expression of shared human emotions that flamenco represented. This work was in black and white, a choice which gave his work a sense of congruency, emphasizing the sense of a shared experience amongst those on the flamenco scene.
En memoria del fotógrafo René Robert, fallecido París a los 84 años, a causa del frío y tras caer accidentalmente sin que nadie le ayudara, tras más de 9 horas al aire frío de la calle.
Las fotos son de los años 70. pic.twitter.com/UWoJVoLzeO
— El Eremita (@dinamittEros) January 29, 2022
Although Robert’s work felt like an attempt to break down invisible barriers between fame, language and culture, his death represents a cavernous divide between sections of society separated by wealth and circumstance. Those occupying the same neighbourhoods in Paris have widely different experiences of the city depending on their class, background and housing situation.
For the privileged, Paris is a place of opportunity, of luxury and cultural expression. For some it’s a tourist destination, but for many, like the unhoused men, women and children Robert was mistaken for, it’s a place to be ignored. For too many every year, it’s a place to be walked past as you die in the cold.
Eventually, someone – an SDF – did call emergency services for Robert, although by that time it was too late
A homeless man, an SDF, was the only person to take action. After being found, he requested that his name be withheld.
To Craig Stone, a now accomplished author who has previously experienced homelessness, this is unsurprising. Writing for Al Jazeera, he asks, “Why should he offer his name to a society so indifferent that the people who live within that abundant society couldn’t spare a moment to check on one of their own?”
The Abbé-Pierre foundation, in recent days published a report condemning the handling of France’s housing crisis, and Macron’s continued inability to adequately address the situation. Macron promised in 2017 that within 6 months, he would end homelessness in France. In 2020 however, the number of unhoused people in France shot up to 300 000 from 143 000 that had been reported in 2017.
The report indicated that a further 4.1 million people in France are at risk of homelessness. Social housing is in increased demand, although construction has slowed to its lowest rate in years.
The Abbé-Pierre foundation draws attention to the threat of widening inequality in France, and the way in which the housing crisis further enables the division of French society into layers. They call on “the candidates for the presidential and legislative elections to take up these themes so as not to resign themselves to seeing the housing crisis and the fractures it creates in our society grow worse.”
What prevented passers-by from helping Robert instead of stepping over him as he slowly succumbed to hypothermia, was perhaps a potent mixture of the bystander effect, and the societal alienation of those who aren’t afforded the luxury of stable housing.
The death of the homeless is taken for granted, and across Europe they are afforded indifference similar to that afforded to migrants freezing to death or drowning at the EU’s borders. With wealth divisions increasing within societies across the world, and dangerous nationalist movements in France and the rest of Europe encouraging racial and cultural divisions, we can expect that the divides that facilitated Robert’s death will only increase in severity.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com. — In the Featured Photo: Paris. Robert’s death should be seen as part of French society’s larger indifference to the homeless. Featured Photo Credit: Grzegorz Mleczek.