PARIS – Pascale Ribes and other campaigners for the rights of people with disabilities in France have an invite to meet the French president Wednesday. But because she uses a wheelchair, Ribes won't risk traveling by public transport to the conference at the presidential Elysee Palace.
The nearest wheelchair-accessible Metro line is about a kilometer (half a mile) away and public buses in the French capital — host of the next Olympic Games — can be a time-gobbling ordeal for people with limited mobility, Ribes says.
So the president of the lobbying group APF France Handicap will instead ride by taxi in hopes of delivering her message to President Emmanuel Macron that France is lagging in its obligations to ensure equal rights for people with disabilities.
Ribes warns that instead of showcasing France, the 2024 Olympics risk highlighting the country's failings unless there's quick action to make the Paris Games and the host country more mindful of the needs and rights of people with disabilities.
“We really want the games to be a success,” Ribes said in an Associated Press interview, but France needs “to press on the accelerator" because “a catastrophic scenario is in the offing if we don't.”
Ribes isn't the only critical voice as Macron hosts France's first national conference on disabilities since the COVID-19 pandemic. This month, an arm of the Council of Europe, the continent's foremost human rights body, found France in violation of a European treaty on social and economic rights, citing multiple failings toward adults and children with disabilities.
The ruling from the COE's European Committee of Social Rights isn't legally binding. But campaigners in France hope its rebuke will give them greater leverage to push Macron for remedies.
The looming deadlines of the July 26 to Aug. 11, 2024, Olympics and Aug. 28 to Sept. 8 Paralympics are also upping the pressure.
Paris Olympic organizers say all guests at the games will be treated to an “ inclusive, trailblazing and unique experience ” and that the host city will “provide the best possible conditions for para-athletes and visitors with disabilities.” Organizers say they're aiming for “an obstacle-free experience for all,” with 100% of venues to be accessible for people with disabilities and all games volunteers to be trained in catering for their needs, so as to “avoid users feeling that they have any kind of disability.”
In March, the government's ministers for the Olympics, transport and people with disabilities, as well as chief Paris Games organizer Tony Estanguet, collectively wrote to Ribes to respond to her group's concerns that, without urgent action, thousands of spectators with disabilities won't be able to reach competition venues and won't find accessible accommodation.
They pledged that 150 to 200 shuttle buses will be laid on for people who use wheelchairs and said they're aiming for a five-fold increase in Paris' flotilla of accessible taxis, from 200 to 1,000, by games-time.
Ribes acknowledges that government authorities and games organizers are quickening the pace of preparations and says “the will is there” to tackle accessibility problems highlighted by her group and others.
“We'll continue to be extremely vigilant,” she says.
But Ribes and others say opportunities have also been lost. A major complaint is that 123 years after the inauguration of the Paris Metro's first line — for the 1900 Olympics and World's Fair — much of the capital's historic subway system is still inaccessible to people who use wheelchairs. On the network of 309 stations, only one line with 13 stations is fully accessible.
“It’s shameful,” says Ribes. “The image of France is at stake. The impression we have is one of great inertia.”
Other Olympic cities have done better. In Tokyo, more than 90% of the 758 subway and rail stations were already wheelchair-accessible when it hosted the Olympics in 2021. In 2012 host London, around a third of Tube stations have step-free access, meaning they’re equipped with lifts, ramps and level surfaces so people with disabilities don’t have to use stairs or escalators, the London Underground says. In Barcelona, Olympic host in 1992, transport operator TMB says only 12 of its 165 metro stations remain unaccessible.
Paris public transport operator RATP says that making the Metro accessible “is complex because of numerous technical obstacles” in the capital where space above and below ground is at a premium. It says 32 stations will be accessible by games-time and that other transport options are plentiful. The entire Paris bus network and 86% of bus lines serving the suburbs are accessible, as are all eight of the city's tram lines and two of its major crosstown rail lines, the RATP says.
But transport deficiencies in France were among the problems that the COE’s social rights committee seized upon in its ruling made public on April 17. The 15-member committee that monitors whether countries are complying with their commitments to the European Social Charter unanimously said that shortages in support services and lack of accessibility to buildings and public transport for people with disabilities cause "many families to live in precarious circumstances.”
Ribes says that taking a bus in Paris is difficult with her wheelchair because “sometimes you have to wait for the second or the third bus to be able to get on board, because the buses are packed.” And braving the Paris Metro, she says, is “impossible for me” because of the shortage of fully accessible lines.
“It's too dangerous," she says. "It's not at all seen as a right."