In France’s lower house of Parliament, a top opposition lawmaker held up a small vial for all her colleagues to see. Its contents, she warned in a fiery speech this week, were “spreading despair” around the country.
“Must we wait for your office to be infested before you finally react?” the lawmaker, Mathilde Panot, told Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne. Ms. Borne shot back, urging Ms. Panot to observe “a bit of decency” and vowing that the government would act resolutely against the contents of the vial.
In it — probably dead and undoubtedly oblivious to the fact that they are now France’s hottest topic — were some bedbugs.
After a string of viral posts on social media purporting to show specimens crawling across the seats of trains, cinemas and subways, photos of bedbugs are now being splashed across newspaper pages. And the insects have been discussed endlessly on television talk shows around the country in recent days, fueling nationwide anxiety, if not alarm, especially in the French capital.
Leila Bername, 74, said she had never worried much about bedbugs until now.
“I’m afraid to go to the cinema,” Ms. Bername said as she was standing on the Champs-Élysées, where she usually takes her teenage granddaughters to the movies every Wednesday.
“Hopefully,” she added, “this won’t hurt France’s image.”
While evidence that bedbugs are suddenly sweeping the country is mostly anecdotal, experts say that the pests have resurged in households in Paris, New York and other cities over the past decades because of a boom in international travel and the bugs’ growing resistance to pesticides after they had been nearly eradicated in the mid-20th century.
The run-up to the Olympics is fertile ground for hand-wringing about a country’s preparedness — in China, it was smog; in Brazil, it was water pollution; in Greece, it was security — and with less than a year to go before Paris hosts the Summer Games, the sudden spotlight on bedbugs has left President Emmanuel Macron’s opponents itching for a fight.
Mr. Macron’s government has been forced to convene a flurry of top-level meetings this week, to reassure the world that the City of Light is not turning into the City of Bites.
“We need to give the French an answer,” Olivier Véran, the government’s spokesman, said on Wednesday, noting that the exact scope of the problem was unclear. He said the government would announce new measures after a cabinet meeting on Friday.
Concerns had bubbled up in recent weeks over bedbugs — flat parasites, no bigger than quarter of an inch, that hide in dark, cramped spaces and that feed on the blood of sleeping people and animals. Cinema-goers in Paris reported being bit. Pictures or videos of what appeared to be bedbugs on trains or subways were posted online.
But Clément Beaune, the French transportation minister, said after meeting with transportation authorities on Wednesday that of a dozen cases flagged with the Paris Metro and over 30 flagged with France’s national railway company, none had checked out.
“We are taking this issue seriously,” Mr. Beaune said, stressing that bus, trains and subways are regularly cleaned and taken out of circulation if there is any suspicion. But, he added, “We mustn’t succumb to psychosis or anxiety.”
Still, a handful of schools have been closed; one hospital in northern France underwent an intensive treatment, and cases that would otherwise have gotten little attention were quickly picked up in the media. BFMTV, a leading news channel, even had a bedbug-detection dog inspect its set on live television.
One poll, commissioned by France’s official Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety, estimated that over 10 percent of French households were infested by bedbugs between 2017 and 2022. And a pest control trade group said the number of responses to bedbug infestations last summer was up by 65 percent compared with the previous year.
Johanna Fite, an expert with the government health agency, said that the number of infestations has increased since the 2000s as globalization has sent tourists and travelers crisscrossing continents with bedbugs in tow. Bedbugs, she stressed, are not a sign of bad hygiene, and while they are an ordeal that can disturb sleep and induce severe anxiety, they do not transmit diseases.
“It’s something we observe everywhere in the world, not just in France,” Ms. Fite said. But over the past few weeks, she added, social media has “completely amplified the problem.”
That has forced authorities to respond. Emmanuel Grégoire, the deputy mayor of Paris, wrote in a letter to Ms. Borne last month that there was a “major upsurge” in infestations in hotels, holiday rentals, public transport, cinemas, and other public spaces and that the French capital was “at the forefront of this rapidly growing, persistent scourge.”
He urged the government to draw up a plan to act ahead of the Summer Games, with measures like subsidizing the pest-control bills of infected households. On average, French people spend nearly 900 euros, or about $950, to get rid of bedbugs, according to the government healthy agency — an off-putting sum for poorer households.
Ms. Panot, who brought the bugs in a vial to Parliament and belongs to the leftist France Unbowed party, told lawmaker on Tuesday that bedbugs were “a national public health issue” and demanded the creation of a free public pest-control service.
The government quickly noted that it had already announced an anti-bedbug plan last year, which mostly involved awareness campaigns and better government coordination. Lawmakers with Mr. Macron’s party also said they would introduce their own bill in December, although what it would contain was not immediately clear.
For some, the swift political reaction was slightly overblown.
“One would like to see the same kind of mobilization on debt, taxation or reindustrialization,” Rémi Godeau, editor in chief of the newspaper L’Opinion, wrote in an editorial, quipping that “the world’s sixth-largest power is reeling from benign bites.”
Stéphane Bras, a spokesperson for CS3D, a pest control trade group, welcomed the growing awareness around bed bugs, although he said attention had skewed toward public spaces that are actually not as infested as private homes.
But he said there was no reason for panic ahead of the Olympics.
“If we start implementing detection, anticipation and prevention measures now, it’s not too late,” Mr. Bras said
Juliette Guéron-Gabrielle contributed reporting.