In an autumn of demonstrations in France, Saturday 15 October saw a small demonstration of a few thousands in Paris demanding, “Homes for all, end the expulsions”.
The demonstration was a response to the fires in slum dwellings that have killed more than 50 people, and to the lack of affordable housing for many of Paris’s poorest inhabitants.
The fires included a blaze in April in a one-star hotel used as temporary accommodation by the Paris municipal authorities, in which 26 people died; a fire in a hostel on 24 August that killed 17 people; and a fire on 30 August that killed seven people.
The victims have been immigrants from France’s former colonies in Africa. Some of these immigrants were sans papiers — people with no documents who work in the black economy and have no rights to social services. But some were people with papers who had been waiting on the long housing waiting list and who would have gone on waiting… if they had not been killed.
The government has responded to these tragic events by victimising the victims: sending in the police in the small hours of the morning to expel residents from dangerous buildings.
The autumn has seen a spate of expulsions of residents, most of them families, from unsafe dwellings. These families have few choices, once expelled. If they are on the housing register, they can take up cramped, temporary accommodation provided by the local authorities — but that might well be in a hotel such as the one that burned down in April. Or they can look for another unsafe private lodging. Or, particularly for those who have no papers, they can set up a tent city, as a few dozen have now done.
There have been a number of tent cities in Paris: until recently on a street corner in the north east suburb of Aubervilliers; in a square in a park of the 19th arrondissement; now in the Place de la République of Montreuil.
This is one story among a number: on 11 October, eight families on the housing list, living in a house in the Passage du Gazomètre in Montreuil, in the north east of Paris, were expelled. The children of the families had been diagnosed as suffering from lead poisoning.
Social services offered the expelled families three nights in hotels scattered around the Île de Paris; they turned down the offer and occupied a nearby public building. In the evening riot police forced their way into the building and violently ejected the families, and supporters who had come to their aid. The police attacked innocent bystanders and arrested one man. After this, the families took up residence in a local square. Negotiations with the local authorities saw the offer of temporary accommodation increased to 35 days, which the families refused as they wanted to stay in the same area so that their children could continue going to their schools. Until this weekend the families were living in the square, supported by local people.
A small ray of hope in this gloom is that there is increasingly organised resistance to the expulsions; and the expulsions must stop soon as there is a “closed season” from 1 November to 15 March - it wouldn’t do to have people freezing to death on the beautiful streets of Paris, would it?
The activist group Droit Au Logement (DAL) estimates that 345,000 people are in housing need in the Île de Paris (the city of Paris and the three departments surrounding it), while 136,000 homes sit empty in the city. DAL’s main demands include for government action to requisition empty properties; build new social housing; put an end to to property speculation; and lower rents.
The Greens on the Paris council managed this week to get the Socialist mayor Bernard Delanoë to agree to speed up rehousing of the estimated 2,000 families living in unsafe accommodation and to provide more social housing. The mayor has until 2007 to achieve his new goals.
With the sort of utter grotesquerie that only he is capable of, the French president Jacques Chirac contributed on Monday 17 October to a UN-sanctioned International Day for the Eradication of Poverty whose theme this year is... “the right to housing”. Chirac said: “I vow my complete determination that, beyond this annual gathering, we will marshal all the means to ensure that the victims of poverty can enjoy the same rights as everyone else”.
The CGT trade union federation, rather mildly, rebuked him for his hypocrisy. Elsewhere in Paris, on the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, Miss France 2005 auctioned a collection of ties, generously donated by Christian Lacroix and decorated by celebrities that included Zinédine Zidane and Albert of Monaco.
• More information Droit Au Logement www.globenet.org/dal