Parisian rats outnumbering humans nearly two to one

Paris Letter: The city has budgeted €1.5m annually since 2017 for the war on rats

Getting ratty. Geoffroy Boulard, mayor of Paris’s 17th arrondissement, has organised vigilantes to hunt down rodents in his district. And rats are likely to be an issue in municipal elections next March.

During a recent visit from California, my big brother Bob used his jet lag to go for late night cigar-smoking walks along the Seine.

“You wouldn’t believe the number of rats I saw,” Bob announced one morning. He’s a hard-baked former Marine Corps officer, inner city educator and Arctic explorer. It takes a lot to shake him, but Bob was shocked. Seated on a bench on the Ile de la Cité, he’d counted a dozen rats scurrying about his feet.

I went with Bob a few nights later. We counted only eight rats on our night-time promenade, but I was shocked too. They showed no fear of humans. The young people who sat eating and drinking on the river bank ignored the rats racing around them.

I spotted one in the Latin Quarter at tea time. Jogging colleagues tell me they see rats most mornings. Friends confirm sightings on the place Dauphine, Champs de Mars, gardens of the Grand Palais and in the metro. A contact in the chic banlieue of Neuilly tells of rats as big as cats in the ground floor garden of her building.

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Paris’s rat population is widely estimated at more than four million, outnumbering humans nearly two to one. Some blame global warming for a rise in the waters of the Seine, which drives the animals to the surface.

Mayor Anne Hidalgo has gone on an orgy of street construction in the run-up to the 2024 Olympics, which also pushes the beasts from their burrows. The city blames the public for littering and feeding pigeons.

The city has budgeted €1.5 million annually since 2017 for the war on rats. That is supposed to pay for more waste bins and more frequent collections, and the installation of hundreds of “intelligent” bins that compress trash and hold up to six times more rubbish. Paris town hall claims it made 4,269 “interventions” against rats in 2018.

Duelling petitions

Opposing images of the rattus norvegicus – so named because it infested Viking boats in the ninth century – emerge from duelling petitions. When the city government launched its war on rats, 26,000 people signed an online plea to “stop the rat genocide”. The photo on the petition shows a cuddly, tawny, baby rat lolling on its back on a cushion.

“If you put a fluffy tail on a rat, it becomes a squirrel,” says the pro-rat petition, which goes on to condemn the “social phobia” of “a society in search of scapegoats to eradicate”.

A group calling itself Rats-le-bol Paris – a play on words meaning fed-up or over the top – started its own petition to Hidalgo. “What were only brief incursions on surface ground have become a lasting presence in public and private spaces... parks, lawns, schools, creches,” the anti-rat activists complain. “The association of the rat with the image of Paris harms the attractiveness of our City of Light to tourists.”

Rats spread diseases such as Leptospirosis and Sarcoptic mange, the petition warns. Rats are prolific, with every couple producing up to 1,000 descendents. They are so resilient that they survived nuclear weapons tests in the South Pacific. If rats weighed 20 kilos instead of 300 grams, Albert Einstein said, they would rule the world.

Rats are likely to be an issue in municipal elections next March. Geoffroy Boulard, a city councillor and mayor of Paris's 17th arrondissement, has organised vigilantes to hunt down rodents in his district. "Anne Hidalgo has changed absolutely NOTHING to fight the proliferation. Only six agents are assigned to fight this curse," Boulard recently tweeted.

Bedbugs

I asked one of the candidates who is challenging Hidalgo what he would do about the rat infestation. Apparently wary of the pro-rat lobby, he diverted my query to bedbugs. Bedbugs carry social stigma, which is probably why he asked not to be quoted by name. His apartment in Paris’s 1st district was so badly infested that the candidate and his family had to move out for a month while it was fumigated.

“They come from North America,” the mayoral candidate said. (No French politician ever lost points blaming the US). Experts say the sheer volume of international travel and the banning of potent pesticides created the bedbug crisis.

Le Monde newspaper reports the number of sites treated for bedbugs across France has doubled from 180,000 in 2017 to 360,000 this year. These "six-legged vampires" have invaded hotels, creches, rental properties, theatres, cinemas and libraries. Watch out for tiny black spots on bedsheets. These are bedbug excrement, the blood they've digested from humans.