Photographer’s Death Casts Harsh Light on the Cold Streets of Paris

PARIS — On a cold night last month, René Robert, an 85-year-old Swiss photographer, fell onto the pavement of a busy Parisian street and remained there for hours — seemingly unassisted, apparently ignored by a stream of passers-by. When a medical team eventually arrived, Mr. Robert was found to be unconscious and died later in the hospital of severe hypothermia.

Many in France were appalled by what appeared to be a blatant lack of compassion in the nation’s capital. But making the episode even more poignant were the identities of those who first found him and called for help — two homeless people all too familiar with the daily indifferences of bystanders.

“They say, ‘I am almost invisible, I feel invisible,’” Christophe Robert, the executive director of the Abbé Pierre Foundation, a housing advocacy organization, said of his conversations with homeless people. “And that really resonated with this incident.”

The two homeless people — a man and a woman — called emergency services after spotting Mr. Robert, who was best known for his black-and-white photography of flamenco’s most famous artists, while walking their dog in the early hours of Jan. 20.

“Even if you are assaulted, no one moves a finger,” said Fabienne, 45, one of the two homeless people who found the photographer around 5:30 a.m. on a stretch of street that includes a cocktail bar, a smartphone repair shop and an eyewear store.

The exact circumstances of the episode are still unclear, but Mr. Robert was in a state of severe hypothermia when an ambulance finally picked him up, according to the Paris Fire Department. For those close to Mr. Robert, that strongly suggests he spent most of the night sprawled on the busy sidewalk.

On a recent chilly, windswept afternoon, Fabienne said she had been living on the streets of this central Paris neighborhood for the past two years, after she was fired from a woodworking job at a shipyard on France’s Atlantic coast. She declined to give her last name,

Her home is a small camping tent pitched on a narrow pedestrian street that runs along the side of a church, several hundred feet from where Mr. Robert fell, on Rue de Turbigo.

Fabienne, who was wearing baggy purple pants and a scarf wrapped around her head for protection against the cold, said that Mr. Robert and his partner were one of the few neighborhood regulars who stopped by to chat or give some change, but that most people walked by without a glance.

“No one helps anyone,” she said.

In January, a nighttime census led by Paris City Hall estimated that about 2,600 people were living on the streets of the French capital.

Mr. Robert was born in 1936 in Fribourg, a town in western Switzerland, and in the 1960s, he settled in Paris, where he became captivated by flamenco and started documenting famous singers, dancers and guitarists, like Paco de Lucía, Enrique Morente and Rocío Molina.

Mr. Robert was found with small bruises on his head and arm, but his cash, credit card and watch were still on him, suggesting he was not mugged, but might have felt ill and crumpled to the ground.

The Paris hospital authority, citing medical confidentiality, declined to say if doctors who examined him had been able to assess why he had fallen or how long he had spent on the street. The Paris Police Department also declined to comment.

Michel Mompontet, a journalist and friend who first drew attention to Mr. Robert’s death in social media posts that went viral, said it was a cruel irony that Mr. Robert — a “humanist” who relished the emotional openness of flamenco artists — seemed to have suffered from the apathy of bystanders.

“The only person who had the humanity to call emergency services was a homeless person,” said Mr. Mompontet, who works for France’s national radio and television broadcasters and who had known Mr. Robert for the past 30 years. His video denouncing Mr. Robert’s death was widely shared online.

“We have gotten used to something intolerable,” Mr. Mompontet said, “and this death could help us reconsider this indifference.”

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