France’s Bedbug Apocalypse

It was one of the worst experiences of my life.  The room in my Moscow student dorm was infested with bedbugs. After two painful and sleepless nights, I was taken to a Soviet hospital to face a doctor with a needle as big as her hat, and made for horses, full of something they said was supposed to calm my suffering.

Cimex Lectuarius showing his affection

You are testing new weapons against us Americans!” I told them. They just shrugged their shoulders.  For some societies, bedbugs are a given.

But not in France where Cimex Lectularius was driven out in the 1950s by chemicals that are now forbidden. “Invasion!” “The Plague!” “End of the world.” The French press compete in hyperbole to describe their return: “Bedbugs!

Monsieur or Madame Cimex Lectularius is certainly not the host you want welcoming you to Paris on your dream holiday. The French are suffering a veritable pestilence of bedbugs which they insist were brought here from the United States in the suitcases of tourists and not the result of a Russian plot. Although the problem is national, the French government has declared the blood-sucker a special social health problem in the Paris region.

According to an internal poll in 2018,” says Stéphane Bras, a bedbug combatant, “we estimate at least 400,000 sites in France are infected compared to 200,000 in 2017-2018 and 100,000 of them are in the Paris region.”  That is just a guesstimate. Bras, spokesman for 3D (CS3D), the Chamber of Commerce of 170 pest control companies, a booming business by the way, only has the data he can collect from CS3D members, he told the French daily Le Parisien.

Sleep tight and don’t let the bedbugs bite.

No place to hide

There is no way to find any sleep or relief when these creatures start biting you at night. For infants, the elderly and those with allergies, they can send you to the hospital. Cimex Lectularius is not into class struggle; it hits luxury hotels, public transportation, office buildings, cultural centers, even cinemas…and it has nothing to do with hygiene.  Schools have been emptied in Marseille and a cinema was temporarily closed in Paris. 

The parasites know how to resist and survive. Scientists tell us they have been here since the dinosaurs.

In Aix-en-Provence, social housing administrators had to get a Court Order to allow pest control companies to enter residents’ flats. In the Paris region seven social housing administrations are taking part in an experimental program to help detect the presence of Cimex. The CSTB (Technical Scientific Center for Building/Construction) is testing a way of measuring pheromones in the air. The goal is to develop a small machine, like a breathalyzer, that can measure the air in the flats to determine the presence of pests.

The problem is so big a MP raised it in parliament last year. Although the Minister of Health recognized the problem, she underlined that they won’t kill you: “bedbug bites present no risk of  vector transmission of infectious agents.” In the back of the government’s mind is France’s number one industry: tourism, not to mention the 2024 olympics.

Not easy to detect. Harder to kill.

People have been faced with thousands of euros in costs to rid their homes of the pests. And you have to get every last one of them or they will be right back. A female bedbug will lay up to 500 eggs in its short lifespan. But you have to make sure you hire the right people says Nicolas Roux, “as 20% of those on the market are crooks.” Roux, who uses a trained beagle to sniff out the presence of bedbugs adds that the number of swindlers is on the rise.

Roux’s beagle was recently recruited by Paris City Hall which is not waiting for the government to act. According to Paris Habitat social housing administrators quoted in Libération newspaper, they spent five million euros fighting bedbugs these past two years.

Sabine, a low wage, single mother, told Le Parisien she was spending €60 a month on bedbug spray to no avail.  She and her seven-year-old-son finally had to leave the flat she had been living in for 15 years in a Parisian suburban housing project. “I had to move!” Sabine said.  “I couldn’t take it any more. I threw everything away, furniture, bedding etc.”  She feared bringing the bugs to her now home.

Sabine’s story is the same as thousands of other Frenchmen. And how many people have taken home the unwanted gift from France?

So, if you are coming to France, just remember you can find them everywhere: in hotels and suit cases, rented flats and resorts. Something will have to be done before the Paris Olympics in five years if athletes are to be on the front pages and not old Cimex Lectularius.