Smack-bang in the centre of Paris, a group of activists are busy unfurling 31 red tents and lining them up along the picturesque Pont des Arts, a pedestrian bridge straddling the river Seine, just outside the Louvre museum.
They’re here to protest against the miserable housing conditions that are the lot of France's poor and homeless. “We’re here, because we’re angry!” shouts Christophe Robert from behind a gaggle of cameras and microphones. Robert is a spokesperson for a collective of 31 associations who lobby for the homeless and for people living in deprived housing conditions.
“The situation we’re in is catastrophic!” Robert continues. And so it is. Four years after President Nicolas Sarkozy promised to eradicate homelessness from the streets of France, some 50,000 people are still living in “temporary structures” and 100,000 are without a fixed address, according to an annual report released by the Abbé Pierre Foundation, of which Robert is co-director.
Each of the 31 associations involved will keep a tent on the bridge until the government responds to their plea, or, more likely, the police arrive to remove them.
The protest comes weeks after the government scrapped a three-month retroactive payment for people with housing difficulties, saving the state 240 million euros a year, according to French magazine Marianne. France, like much of Europe, is currently going through the painful process of reducing its budget deficit in order to comply with EU rules.
Augustin Legrand, an actor who made headlines in 2006 with the launch of the "Enfants de Don Quichotte", an association which defends the rights of the homeless, says that the situation has worsened over the past four years as a direct result of government spending cuts.
Patience running thin
“We’ve been waiting for two years!” comes a cry from the crowd. The complaint refers to a programme launched by Prime Minister François Fillon in 2008, which was supposed to transform social housing for the poor. Héctor Cardoso of the Secours Catholique, a Catholic organisation that provides help to the poor, told FRANCE 24: “The programme [introduced in 2008] is good, but it’s simply taking too long. Last year alone, 409 people died on the streets here.”
“We’re in despair. We can’t stand it anymore,” says Legrand. This is not the first time activists have camped out to raise awareness of the problem. In 2006, Legrand and other activists took to the banks of the Canal Saint-Martin, in the north-east of Paris. They stayed for over a year, but failed to secure meaningful action from the government. This time, they’re right in the centre of town.
They’re also likely to touch a raw nerve with the Sarkozy government just months after it came under fire for the mass eviction of thousands of Roma migrants. “What’s the government’s solution to people living in precarious lodgings? To get rid of them overnight!” says Christophe Robert, now surrounded by a mass of red tents. Robert argues that the money spent on evictions would be better spent on finding people secure lodgings.
The campers plan to stay until they receive a “strong sign” from the government. Héctor Cardoso is optimistic. “I do believe the government is going to respond to this action. I don’t plan on staying all winter, but we’ll wait for as long as it takes.”
What’s more likely, is that the temporary campsite will be removed by the police. No bad thing for the activists – they came here looking for exposure, and a spot of police intervention will do them grand.