On 18 May, Le Parisienreported that parts of the 18th arrondissement, between La Chapelle métro station and the Périphérique, had been ‘abandoned to men only’:

Women don't have a place any more. Cafés, bars and restaurants are forbidden to them … Groups of dozens of men, street vendors, dealers, migrants and smugglers, hold the streets, harassing women.

The article immediately went viral. Ten days later, it had been shared 118,000 times. It quoted a petition organised by two local groups:

There are the insults, in every language: 'Bitch, dirty whore, I'll fuck you.' The purse snatchings, the pickpockets, the street alcoholism, the spit, the rubbish everywhere and the overpowering smell of urine … place de la Chapelle, rue Pajol, rue Philippe, rue Girard, rue Marx-Dormoy, the métro station and the boulevard de la Chapelle have been abandoned to men only: not one woman, in cafés like la Royale or le Cyclone. Not a child in the Louise de Marillac park. Some of us hide away at home.

Babette de Rozières, the local candidate for Les Républicains in the upcoming legislative elections (the first round is on 11 June), invited journalists to a women's march. She was joined by Valérie Pécresse, the president of the Regional Council of Ile-de-France. The quartier de la Chapelle is a left-wing stronghold; the two politicians were met by a few supporters and more protesters, who chanted pro-migrant slogans. They went into a residential building to speak to TV cameras undisturbed. ‘Today, there are lawless zones in the republic, zones where women get assaulted,’ Pécresse said, demanding the area be made a priority security zone. It will be ‘cleaned’, she promised a resident. Anne Hidalgo, the Socialist mayor of Paris, promised a heavier police presence in the area.

The first thing I noticed on arriving in La Chapelle a few days later was the police. Four officers were searching a young black man in the métro station. One of their colleagues stood to the side, watching the exit barriers. I asked him if he thought the claims were justified. He looked at me, his blue eyes registering surprise: ‘If we're here,’ he said, ‘then there's no smoke without fire.’

On the place de la Chapelle there were more police officers and vehicles. The street sellers of shoes and cigarettes were gone. A newsagent was happy the police were there. He said he had never had anything stolen but knew there were pickpockets; the busy narrow road was a good spot for them. Marie, a member of the organisation that wrote the petition, SOS La Chapelle, had come to buy a copy of every publication covering the story. She said we could meet the following day at The 38, a ‘big café that has a terrace where women can go’.

‘We have 20,000 signatures!’ she told me at the café. ‘We need more, we're half of humanity.’ She handed me a bunch of photocopied articles. She works for La Poste and has lived in a small council flat in La Chapelle for 13 years. ‘The biggest problem here is women's security,’ she told me. ‘After 6 p.m., after 10 p.m., there are no more women in the streets. I was robbed in 2003, a man put a knife to my throat, and I'm scared of drug dealers when I walk in the little streets behind the square. De Rozières put the petition online with local organisations. She was the only politician to mobilise. We are going to be respected at last. We have a right to walk the streets.’

As we walked up the rue Marx-Dormoy, she pointed: ‘That's the last French restaurant left on the street, really nice traditional food. And here, Le Roi du Café is also safe for women.’ We walked by the church of Saint-Denys de la Chapelle, ‘where Jeanne d'Arc spent a night praying’. We passed a centre for drug addicts, then came to a small haberdashery whose 72-year-old owner, Maria Odette, moved from Portugal almost 50 years ago. She remembers when there was a farm at the end of the street. As we chatted – the two women saying those had been the days of ‘good migrants, who came to France to work’ – a black man in a colourful outfit walked by in the street. He paused and smiled at us: ‘Where are the young women?’ Maria Odette sternly asked him to leave, saying we were working. He left. ‘They are crazy,’ Marie said. ‘Theirs is another culture. We are not holes.’

Earlier in the day I had gone to a food handout for migrants at Porte de la Chapelle. Solidarité migrants Wilson was set up by residents of Saint-Denis (the suburb to the north of La Chapelle) six months ago. I was briefly put in charge of serving coffee but most of the hundreds of men who came – generally Yemeni and Afghan migrants – asked for very milky tea. I sat with Clarisse, one of the volunteers, in front of the rocks that the council installed under a railway bridge last winter, to prevent migrants from sleeping in the only spot where they were sheltered from the rain. ‘I was outraged by the petition,’ she told me. ‘Our collective is 80 per cent women. We've never had any problems with migrants. On the other hand, yes, there's a lot of violence. For us the violence is to see people dying before our eyes every day.’ Young men occasionally interrupted us, politely, to ask for tobacco.

I called de Rozières to find more about her involvement in the petition. She said she didn't know anything about it. She made a name for herself as a TV chef and only entered politics two years ago. ‘I’ve met a dozen or so of women who get heckled,’ she told me. ‘People speak easily to me, maybe because I’m a famous face from TV.’ I asked if the claims could be detrimental to migrants and she said not. ‘I consider myself to be a migrant.’ (She was born in Guadeloupe.) ‘I’ve raised the alarm many times on their situation.’ The fact that her party is known for its staunch anti-migrant positions didn't seem to bother her. ‘Parties don’t interest me,’ she said. ‘My party is the people.’

Pia, a 26-year-old art student who's lived in the area for a year, told me that SOS La Chapelle covered the square with posters last winter. They looked like road signs: ‘No-rights Zone’. ‘They stayed for a long time,’ she said, ‘maybe ten days, because they were high up. One night I was coming back from a party, a bit drunk, it must have been 3 a.m., and I thought I'd had enough, so I piled up the plastic crates that street sellers use and started pulling down the posters. There were four men on the square, North African men, who have nowhere to sleep, and in the end they gave me a leg up. I think they were pleased, and a bit surprised.’ She said the Parisien article and the petition were ‘a paranoid depiction’ of the area that doesn't match with what she experiences every day.

We were having a drink at the end of the afternoon, on the terrace of the café Aux Ardennes, very close to place de la Chapelle, in the sun. Men sometimes asked Pia for a cigarette. ‘I think the question that’s being raised is which bodies are legitimate in which spaces,’ she said. ‘As a woman, it's tricky to cast doubt on what other women have said. All I can tell you is that day after day I experience no hostility, no intimidation. I've been wondering whether some women feel threatened by the mere presence of non-white bodies. With this story it seems we women are caught in a vise between not wanting to discredit other women’s claims and a racist bias. Black and brown bodies are in a minority in representations. I think this argument underlines there are bodies that people don't want to see, that they want to make disappear. During the winter, cops were taking covers away from migrants in the middle of the night, moving them on without letting them get their stuff. There's no compassion for these bodies.’

On Thursday 25 May, at 6 p.m., there was a protest in place de la Chapelle in solidarity with migrants and against the claims that the area was a no-go zone. It was well attended, though not without conflict. A woman passing by argued that the residents’ legitimate concerns about violence were being dismissed, though she agreed that migrants generally did not cause any trouble. Some protesters drove away a female BFM TV journalist.

A young woman in a white hijab was standing on her own. She has been granted refugee protection for a year, having crossed 11 countries since leaving Syria to arrive in France. She is learning French and spoke it well enough to talk to me. ‘I came because I read the article yesterday,’ she said, ‘and I found it racist. It uses white women against migrants. This makes me a bit angry because I, too, am a refugee. I feel what the others feel.’