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The Great Sleep-In: Demonstrating for Public Housing in Paris

January 3, 2009 by Administrator in Winter 2009

By Ernesto Castañeda

On 3 October 2007, a piece of street theater was unfolding on the sidewalks of Rue de la Banque, a street in downtown Paris close to the Euronext Paris Stock Exchange. Protestors, mostly legal immigrants, were camping out and demonstrating in front of Le Ministère de la Crise du Logement (Ministry for the Housing Crisis), a fake ministry created in cyberspace and in front of a formerly vacant building occupied since early 2007 by three activist groups: Droit au Logement (DAL) or Right to Housing; Mouvement d’Animation Culturelle et Artistique de Quartier or Movement for Artistic and Cultural Neighborhood Organizing, a group of activist artists trying to get housing by occupying vacant buildings; and Jeudi Noir or Black Thursday, a group of students without housing. Since the squatté (as this activity is called by activists and the media) of the ministry had garnered relatively little attention from the government, activists decided to take their claims to the streets to increase their visibility and draw more media attention to the housing crisis.

According to the Abbé Pierre Fondation, in 2002 there were more than three million people inadequately housed in France, while, according to DAL, around two million housing units were vacant in 1999. Private owners prefer to leave second and third homes empty rather than renting them to people who they fear could stop paying rent and take advantage of laws that protect renters—for example, making it illegal to evict people during the cold winter months.

The “sleep-in” started on the night of 3 October 2007, when around a hundred people slept in red tents in the middle of the Rue de la Banque, a small street in front of the squatted building. Two days later, at around 5:00 a.m., police evacuated the participants from the street and removed the tents, claiming that the tents were trash left in a public area (even when there were people sleeping inside). The few tents not taken by the police were hung in protest from the balconies of the squatted building. Over the next several nights, people slept on the sidewalks without tents. Again around 5:00 a.m., this time on 10 October, a large number of anti-riot police cleared the streets. Buses full of police remained in the area throughout the day to prevent the protestors from returning, forcing them to go back to their overcrowded apartments on the outskirts of Paris.

Self-Segregated Squatting: Reproducing Racial, Cultural and Legal Boundaries
Most of the people who were sleeping in the streets as a form of protest were not homeless in the narrow sense, but rather people who lived in crowded arrangements, boarded with others illegally or could not pay their current rents and risked being evicted. While most of the people participating were black, the spokespeople—white native-born French activists—spoke in the name of the participants.

I visited the encampment area on many occasions. On my first visit on 7 October, I talked to a young French man originally from Rhône who used to work as an engineer in a large firm that makes electric equipment but was fired one day for wearing Bermuda shorts at the factory. This case became famous in the independent and progressive French media and afterwards the victim became active in various causes, among them housing. This relatively famous activist was accompanied by another person from the same area, a working-class man of North African origin who had lost his job and since then lived in the streets.

Among all the people participating in the camp that day, these two men seemed the most willing to talk to anyone curious about what was going on. They talked for an hour with a small group of young white French women, one of whom was writing a newspaper article about the protest. I tagged along and listened to the conversation and also asked some questions. The men told us what they stood for and what they wanted—quite simply, more public housing and more access to it for those in need.

During our conversation, the families involved in the protest started to distribute food. The people camping on the sidewalk got in line. One woman from Africa who was part of the protest said to us: “Come and eat with us because we are all the same. Are we not? Things have to be equal. Come eat our food.” This new French citizen was clearly drawing on the French motto of liberty, equality and fraternity. Nonetheless, the white French women dismissed her politely, seemingly nervous about the nature of the food being served. The white activist we were interviewing also refused the food, saying he had already eaten.

We continued talking next to where the food was being distributed. After a while a man came and gave food to the activist. The activist took it initially, but after the man who had brought the food left, the activist said that he had already eaten and offered the plate of couscous to us. After I finished eating, I went and thanked the woman who had offered us the food. Afterwards another woman of African origin offered me a drink derived from corn and milk. I drank it and we chatted about her housing situation.

I did not think much about this at the time as I was hungry and curious to try new foods. But this minor incident shows how even among a group of progressive French, full of solidarity, I (a Mexican studying in the United States) was the only non-African who had eaten “their food” with the squatters in what they saw as a sign of deep equality. Among the squatters, some of African origin appeared to have noticed and started talking to me, appreciative that I had eaten with them. I didn’t ask anyone where they came. When they talked about their cause they were quick to point out that they were all French citizens, clearly relating to French Republican ideals of equality. For strategic and political reasons, they were presenting themselves as French so that the media would not portray them as immigrants asking for rights for which “they were not eligible.”

A woman told me, “People think we are undocumented but no, we all have our papers. All of us are French. Undocumented people do not have a right to public housing.” In pushing their agenda, they reproduced the division between documented and undocumented immigrants and stigmatized the undocumented in order to advance their own claims as political refugees, legal residents or new citizens. The group identified themselves not as immigrants, but simply as people “sans logement” or “sans abri”— without housing or shelter—and would often chant “Nous sommes les mal-logés,” translating to “We are the badly housed.”

Instead of asking where they were from, I asked the African-looking woman where the corn drink originated, to which she answered Mali. It turned out that about 80 percent of the hundred or so people who had taken to sleeping in the streets in protest happened to be women from Mali and their children. None of the newspaper reports I had read pointed this out, they just said “women and children of African origin,” using a widespread practice of categorizing people by continents based on dress and skin color, effacing the particularities of their sending communities and cultures.

On my second visit on 9 October, I arrived on the other side of the street. This time I caught the least visible of the squatters, since they were hidden behind parked cars. In the last set of “beds” I found not African women and children like on the other side of the street, but three white French women and two women from North Africa who spoke French. It seemed that there was racial and spatial segregation even at the sleep-in. The reasons may have been partly cultural and partly related to language differences, since the refuges from Mali had a limited knowledge of French.

I approached this other group of women. One of them had just brought chocolate, bananas, bread and yogurt from the supermarket and she and her friends were saying amongst themselves that this was “like a picnic.” The woman asked me what I was doing there, clearly distrustful, saying that Sarkozy had agents observing them. She cautioned others not to talk to me. I said that I hoped to eventually write a story about the demonstration.

Among the group there was an Algerian woman to whom I was the most interested in talking because of my research on immigration from Algeria. The French woman would later complain that no one was interested in talking to her because she was white, French-born and formerly middle-class. She claimed that the reporters preferred to talk to the activists or to the people of color. While most people there were de jure French citizens, because of their ethnic features they were a priori classified as immigrants and thus drew more attention. Throughout the days of the protest, politicians and celebrities alike came to the site to be photographed and show their solidarity with the poor people from Africa who were not given adequate housing by the French state even when they had papers. It seemed that the activists’ tactic of using minorities to gain attention for their cause, something new in France, was working.

Indeed, previous housing rights demonstrations by white French citizens had not received such favorable media attention as did the demonstrations with people of color. The Mali immigrants had been mobilized based on ethnic group ties and networks from their towns of origin, so they had a high potential for collective action that was tapped into by the French activists. But at the same time that the Malians were being used in a public relations campaign, they were learning new mobilization tactics and tools, politicized into the rights discourse of their new land and taught how to be good French citizens, i.e., politically contentious.

While I was talking to the group of white women, a middle-aged French man approached and asked what “we” were doing. What was the purpose of being there? Until when would we be there? He was the owner of the car parked next to the women. He said he was worried about people sitting on it, breaking the windows or worse, setting it on fire, as happened in the famous riots in 2005. The French women assured him that they meant no harm, that they cleaned the street twice a day in order not to leave any trash and that they would take care of his car. He said that he lived “around the corner, but in a very small place” and thus empathized with the women because while he would like to move to a bigger place, he knew he would not be able to afford it. He thanked the women and offered to bring them coffee in the morning.

The protesters and their many allies held a big march some weeks later. Afterwards they were able to arrange meetings with Minister Christine Boutin, head of the Ministry for Housing and Urban Affairs. After many press conferences and internal discussions, protest leaders signed an agreement in which the government guaranteed to offer housing only to the people protesting at the Rue de la Banque site, explicitly saying that they would not do the same for people in the future. Months later I contacted the woman from Algeria I had met. Her situation had not changed and she was still living in overcrowded conditions. A big march was held to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the encampment, but the cases of many of the protesting families are yet to be resolved.

Ernesto Castañeda is a doctoral candidate in sociology at Columbia University. His dissertation compares the avenues for political action of Mexican immigrants in New York City with North Africans in Paris and Barcelona.

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