paris bed bugs 1
Popular tourist destination plagued by bedbugs
02:47 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note:  David A. Andelman, a contributor to CNN, twice winner of the Deadline Club Award, is a chevalier of the French Legion of Honor, author of “A Red Line in the Sand: Diplomacy, Strategy, and the History of Wars That Might Still Happen” and blogs at SubStack’s Andelman Unleashed. He formerly was a foreign correspondent for The New York Times and Paris correspondent for CBS News. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.

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My wife and I live in a tiny garret apartment in Paris — our French friends call it our “La Bohème retreat” in the fashionable 7th arrondissement, around the corner from the Musée d’Orsay. We are just up the block from the Maison of the Legion of Honor and across the street from the longtime headquarters of the once-ruling French Socialist Party, now a headquarters of the French perfume industry.

David Andelman

There was a moment a couple of months ago when we thought we might have bedbugs. And why not? Everyone else in Paris seems utterly preoccupied by them. First it was the rats. Then it was the filthy Seine two blocks away at the bottom of our street – a river so polluted it might prove a daunting feat to stage swimming events there as planned, when Paris hosts next year’s Olympic games.

But conquering the city’s bedbug infestation, too, could prove to be an Olympian challenge. They are truly ubiquitous it seems — so much so that the French government is holding emergency meetings this week to assess the scourge, including an inter-ministerial meeting on Friday.

The deputy mayor of Paris has also asked Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne to take it on. Perhaps she is still smarting over her questionable handling of the rat infestation – a problem that only improved after the national garbage collectors’ strike ended. (For her part, Borne has said that the government is “determined to continue and expand its efforts” in the fight against bedbugs, including figuring long term solutions to the issue and assisting those impacted.)

Folks are pretty sensitive about the apparent infestation. Some Metro passengers have taken to standing rather than sitting, because they’re worried there are bedbugs on the seats of a subway system that carries some 5 million passengers a day.

A French government survey found that at least 11% of all French households reported having a bedbug infestation between 2017 and 2022. The reality is that the critters can’t fly but — their preference for beds notwithstanding — they can hitch a ride on seats and even clothing. That is no small concern at present, with Paris’s semi-annual Fashion Week just barely ended.

It was to be expected that the French National Assembly could hardly avoid wading into the issue – divided, not surprisingly, along party lines.

“We have lost six years,” declared the outraged leader of the far-left La France Insoumise party, Mathilde Panot, describing the bugs as a “scourge.” What we are asking for is, first and foremost, that bedbugs be recognized as a public health problem,” Panot continued to a packed house in Parliament.

“Let us stop telling people to fend for themselves,” she said, in response to the prime minister, who’d just announced the convening of an inter-ministerial meeting on the subject.

The prime minister seemed to be following the playbook of Paris’s Mayor Anne Hidalgo. In June, at the height of national strikes that saw the city’s rat population proliferating as garbage piled up on city streets, the mayor formed a committee to examine how Parisians and rats might somehow “cohabit.”

This time however, it was left to her deputy, Emmanuel Gregoire, to implore Borne to lead a robust government response. “The state urgently needs to put an action plan in place against this scourge as France is preparing to welcome the Olympic and Paralympic games in 2024.”

(Gregoire, incidentally, was the official Hidalgo dispatched to swim in the Seine last July to prove it was no longer the sewer that many feared it was.)

Hidalgo and others still believe that the Seine can be made swimmable by next July’s Olympics opening, but there’s no suggestion that even a cabinet-level committee can find a viable solution to the bedbug crisis.

Already, they’ve been spotted in cinemas, at Charles de Gaulle Airport, especially on public transport, and have been widely photographed in social media.

“They can survive for several months, or even a year without feeding,” one of France’s leading bedbug experts, Jean-Michel Berenger, told the French daily Le Monde. “The spread has been going on for years now. There was a lull with the lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic, then an upturn over the last two years with tourism back in full swing as people want to enjoy themselves.”

And for the past seven days, bedbugs have menaced the pristine aura of beloved Fashion Week, a highpoint of the Parisian calendar. Fashionistas must be only too aware that even the rarified salons of the Avenue Montaigne or the runways of Chanel or Dior are hardly immune to the blood sucking critters.

“Whoever is having FOMO [fear of missing out] about this Paris Fashion Week must know that one of my editor friends saw bedbugs at one particularly upscale restaurant today and apparently, her colleagues are sharing the wildest stories about their own sightings,” tweeted Mayra Peralta, the fashion and beauty editor for EnVi Media.

Bedbugs have become a $250 million a year problem and eradicating them is no easy task. And they are an equal opportunity scourge. As one French government report observed, there apparently is “no link between the level of income of a home and being the victim of an infestation.”

In classic bureaucratic style, the Insoumise party proffered a solution that seems to be not much of one at all, proposing a new law that would make it compulsory for home insurance contracts to contain “a guarantee against the risks resulting from a bedbug infestation.”

A party spokesman said the new law was needed because “many people give up” and fail to take sufficient preventative measures when “faced with the exorbitant cost of treatment or they treat the problem poorly.” It’s a solution which may mitigate the problem in the future, but doesn’t solve the current outbreak

So, what is Paris actually doing about them now? There are treatments that will work, but many officials want a ban on chemical treatments, while fumigation can be expensive and disruptive.

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Despite their ubiquity, my landlady assured me in an email Monday evening that, “IL N’Y A PAS DE PUNAISES RUE DE SOLFÉRINO (Sauf si tu m’en apporte dans tes bagages)” Translation: “There are no bedbugs on Rue de Solferino (unless you’ve brought them in with your luggage.)”

But denial goes only so far. The tried-and-true solution to combating bedbugs is as old as Paris itself.

The insects are sensitive to extremes of temperature: Wash clothes in very hot water. Vacuum your luggage and furniture. Place the vacuum bag immediately in a sealed plastic bag and dispose of it promptly.

And, as always, keep a wary eye out for the next, inevitable infestation.