By Craig S. Smith
lining the Canal Saint Martin in Paris. Middle-class activists have
joined in a sleep-in to press for housing for the homeless. ( Thomas Coex/Agence France-Presse )
Hundreds of people emerged from tents beside this city’s Canal
Saint-Martin to greet the chilly New Year with a hot lunch from a
nearby soup kitchen. But not all of them were homeless.
Dozens of otherwise well-housed, middle-class French people have
been spending nights in tents along the canal in solidarity with the
country’s growing number of "sans domicile fixe," the French euphemism
for people living on the street.
The bleak yet determinedly cheerful sleep-in is meant to embarrass the French government into doing something about the problem.
"Each person should have the minimum dignity in a country as rich as
this," said Bleunwenn Manrot, a 28-year-old woman with a newsboy cap on
her head and a toothbrush in her hand. Manrot drove more than six hours
with friends from her home in Carhaix, Brittany, to spend New Year’s
Eve along the canal.
The demonstration has drawn enough media attention over the holidays
for President Jacques Chirac to acknowledge it Sunday during his
traditional New Year’s address to the nation. He asked the government
to work in the coming weeks to "put in place a truly enforceable right
to housing" that would give the homeless the legal means to demand a
place to live.
Given France’s well-funded social services, the homeless problem in
the country is relatively mild: The French government statistics bureau
estimated the number of people living without a fixed address at 86,000
for all of France in 2004, about equal to the number of homeless in Los
But even that number is disturbing for the socially active segment
of France’s population. In December 2005, a French charitable
organization called Médecins du Monde, or Doctors of the World, began
distributing nylon pup tents to people who sleep on Paris’s storied
sidewalks and beneath its fabled bridges. The movement took hold and
since then the tents have become a fixture in odd corners of the city.
In an effort to increase pressure on politicians, another group, Don
Quixote’s Children, marshaled some of the tent dwellers last year to
set up their tents along the Canal Saint-Martin in the heart of "bo-bo"
(short for bourgeois-bohemian) Paris. Since mid- December, the
encampment has become a happening in one of Paris’s most happening
"There are 250 tents now," said Jean- Baptiste Legrand, president of
the organization. "The people keep coming, and the tents are full."
The protest has started to spread to other French cities, including
Orléans, Toulouse and Lyon, and has been picked up by politicians as
campaigning for the presidential election in the spring gets under way.
François Hollande, leader of the Socialist Party, and Bertrand
Delanoë, the Socialist mayor of Paris, have both signed the group’s
petition calling for a solution to the housing problem. Both of the
leading presidential candidates — Nicolas Sarkozy of the governing
Union for a Popular Movement and Ségolène Royal of the Socialists —
support the cause.
Catherine Vautrin, minister for social cohesion, met with Legrand
and other members of his group and announced last week a tenfold
increase in spending to help the homeless — from €7 million to €70
million, or $92 million. She said the money would allow homeless
shelters to stay open around the clock on weekends and extend their
weekday opening by three hours a day.
But a legally enforceable right to housing is the biggest prize sought by
campaigners including Don Quixote’s Children, and they remain
skeptical of Chirac’s promise. France already has a hard time housing
new immigrants and asylum-seekers. Fires in overcrowded, substandard
lodgings have caused scandals in recent years. Finding a place for the
hard-core homeless is certain to complicate those problems.
"Chirac’s speech means nothing," Manrot said. Her boyfriend, Franck
Renardineau, a painter, sculptor and musician with a nose ring and
pointed beard, was standing beside her.
There are signs that the long camp- out will continue. Organizers
have arranged portable toilets and a soup kitchen. Vans carrying
blankets and other supplies arrive regularly, much of the material
donated by Parisians. Volunteers sweep the canal-side cobblestones to
keep the area clean.
"I like the protest because it’s nonviolent; it’s a citizens’
appeal," said Renaud Huvé, 39, a photographer who was planning to sleep
in one of the tents.
So far, the authorities have been tolerant, though they have quietly
evicted tent dwellers before when the media were not watching. The
police broke up one encampment under a bridge further north along the
canal in October.
Magali Marx, 23, a sales assistant in a clothing shop, expressed the
laissez- faire attitude of the neighborhood’s residents as she passed
by. "It’s a bit of a pain for the people who want to walk along the
side of the canal," she said. "But then these people don’t have a roof."
The government says that a third of the country’s homeless hold jobs.
The homeless who make up the bulk of the canal-side campers are thankful for the attention.
"Let’s hope it makes a difference," said Jean, a middle-aged man who
said he had been living on the streets of Paris for eight years.