‘Killed by indifference’: France shocked by death on busy Paris street

The death of an 85-year-old man who reportedly succumbed to hypothermia after falling and spending nine hours sprawled and ignored on a bitterly cold street in central Paris has prompted grief, anger and incredulity in France and beyond.

René Robert, a Swiss photographer known for his shots of some of Spain’s most famous flamenco stars, died last week after slipping while on one of his nightly walks around the busy Paris neighbourhood where he lived.

According to his friend the journalist Michel Mompontet, Robert fell over on Rue de Turbigo, between the Place de la République and Les Halles.

“He suffered a dizzy spell and fell,” Mompontet said in a series of tweets. “Unable to get up, he lay rooted to the spot in the cold for nine hours until a homeless person called the emergency services. Too late. He had hypothermia and couldn’t cling on to life. Over the course of those nine hours no passerby stopped to check why this man was lying on the pavement. Not one.”

Mompontet, who also recounted the circumstances of his friend’s death on France TV Info, said Robert had been “killed by indifference”, adding: “If this awful death could serve some purpose, it would be this: when a human is lying on the pavement, we should check on them – no matter how busy we may be. Let’s just stop for a second.”

Mompontet pointed out that many people – himself included – often looked the other way when it came to people on the street. “Before giving any lessons or accusing anyone, I need to deal with a little question that makes me feel uneasy,” the journalist told France TV Info. “Am I 100% sure that I would have stopped had I been confronted with that scene – a man on the ground? Have I never turned away from a homeless person lying in a doorway?”

The death, which occurred in an area of Paris where many homeless people sleep rough, has sparked a debate about civic responsibility and basic human decency.

A headline in Le Figaro read: “The photographer René Robert, dead in the indifference of the middle of the street.”

The Spanish embassy in the Netherlands tweeted: “The death of René Robert, who immortalised with his camera all the great artists of flamenco, challenges our collective conscience.”

Robert, who photographed flamenco legends including Camarón de la Isla and Paco de Lucía, was remembered by another of his more recent subjects.

“Very sad at the loss of René Robert, who I was lucky enough to meet and be photographed by,” said the Grammy-winning flamenco singer Arcángel. “I can’t understand why no one helped him; I don’t want to think that we live in a society with so few values.”

The Olivar Association, which has worked with young homeless people in Madrid for more than 30 years, said it was saddened but not surprised. “A lot of people are talking about the awful story of René Robert,” it said in a tweet. “But the reality is that this is the cruel, day-to-day experience of those who live and die on the street. What is happening to us as a society that something like this can happen?”

According to homeless associations, 600 people die on the streets of France every year.

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