PARIS — The new year in France has opened with bold and coordinated protests by the nation’s homeless.
The protests are taking place against the backdrop of two years of intensified struggle by the country’s working people against big capital’s efforts to drive down their living standards. These struggles included the successful fight to reject the neoliberal European Constitution, the rebellion of the poor in the suburbs of Paris and other cities, and the successful movement to defeat the so-called CPE law, which aimed at making labor, particularly youth labor, more “flexible” and exploitable.
Homelessness in France has deep roots in the socio-economic system. Today, after nearly three decades of neoliberalism (government privatization and “free trade”), 7.5 million people are unemployed or underemployed out of a population of 63.4 million. The unemployment rate is particularly high among young people.
Unemployment is the leading cause of what the French call “the SDF” (“sans domicile fixe,” or without fixed housing), or the homeless.
According to Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, “There are approximately 20,000 homeless in France, and around 100,000 people are living in unacceptable housing.” The French Institute of Statistics reports that the number of people without fixed housing is 86,000, of which 8 percent, or about 7,000, are living on the streets.
The reality is certainly worse, according to nongovernmental organizations defending the rights of the SDF. For example, the Abbé Pierre Foundation says 3.2 million people are either homeless or living in very bad conditions. Among the homeless are whole families, including many women living with their children.
The problem is aggravated by a large amount of vacant housing. In Paris alone there are at least 400,000 empty houses or apartments belonging to pension funds, banks, insurance companies, the state, the city or the Catholic Church. These vacancies have driven up real estate prices (with an average rise of 85 percent between 2000 and 2006) and have contributed to high rents. Under these conditions, it is virtually impossible for the poor to find decent housing at a fair price.
The current struggle really began at the end of October 2006 with the decision of some housing activists to sleep outdoors in solidarity with the homeless, and to create a new aid association, the “Children of Don Quixote.” Other organizations sprang up as well, including the Right to Housing (DAL), the Committee of the Homeless and the Call of the Without.
Using the Internet and working effectively with the press, the groups announced at the end of November their plans to set up a camp of 400 homeless on Concorde Square in Paris on Dec. 2. They did so and were quickly (and repeatedly) driven off the square by the police.
Undeterred, in mid-December they pitched 3,000 red nylon tents in the French capital, mostly along the Saint-Martin Canal, and hundreds of tents in other cities: Lyon (520), Toulouse (465), Bordeaux (400), Lille (365), Marseille (360), Strasbourg (320) and Grenoble (200). The tents have raised the public profile of the homeless in a dramatic way.
The movement wrote a manifesto declaring that all residents of France should have access to adequate housing. Popular support for this demand was so strong that after only two weeks the government (keep in mind that the presidential elections are at hand) announced an increase of up to 27,000 beds in shelters for the homeless and declared its willingness to consider implementing a more far-reaching plan to address the problem in … 2008!
Obviously, these answers are insufficient. France needs bold government measures like the requisition of vacant housing owned by speculators, the massive construction of public housing, rent control, the official recognition of housing as a right (as is the case with health care and education), a social plan to combat poverty and a plan to redistribute the wealth, and the creation of public jobs.
Rémy Herrera (herrera1 @ univ-paris1.fr) is a researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris.