France’s oldest slum, soon to be razed to the ground
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A slum settlement in La Courneuve in the northern suburbs of Paris has been home to 300 people, mostly Roma, since 2008. It is due to be destroyed at the end of August.
Twelve-year-old Sara (her name has been changed) is cooking slabs of meat on a gas stove for her four brothers and her parents in the one room of their makeshift house. She is proud of her cooking skills.
“When I’m not at school, I love to cook,” she says, then shyly asks for her picture not to be taken. “It’s not very nice here, and if my classmates saw where I lived they wouldn’t want to play with me any more. They’d treat me like a gypsy.”
Sara’s family and some 80 other "households" make up the Samaritain slum in La Courneuve, a small suburban municipality just to the north of Paris. Nearly all of them are Roma and originally from Romania.
Many of the Samaritain’s residents have been there since the first makeshift house was built at the end of 2007. As of August 2015, it is France’s oldest surviving slum. It is due to be destroyed at some point in the second half of August.
Plan to raze the camp
The sprawling site is built mainly from corrugated metal and plywood, the buildings joined together to make a homogeneous settlement that the local Communist-run town hall wants removed – and plans to do just that in the coming weeks.
Since 2013 no less than 11 slums have been torn down in La Courneuve, a municipality that is home to around 10% of France’s Roma population. The local authorities say these sites pose unacceptable health and safety, as well as social, risks.
“This decision [to raze the camp] was extremely difficult,” wrote La Courneuve Mayor Gilles Poux in a statement published online.
But it will be even more difficult for the Samaritain’s residents, many of whom have been living there for more than seven years.
The Roma families there have their supporters. National association La Voix des Roms (the Romas’ voice) has launched a petition to save the community from the bulldozers, a move they say is both inhumane and pointless.
“These people's whole lives are right here,” said Pierre Chopinaud, a member of the association. “We’ve been working to clean the place up to a standard that would make the Samaritain’s destruction unnecessary, but the mayor just doesn’t want to listen to us.”
The association’s project, which is financed and supported by a number of local and national NGOs, organisations and charities – including Doctors Without Borders and La Villette’s Architecture School – includes detailed plans to dispose of rubbish, build toilets, create access routes for the emergency services and measures to get rid of pests, mostly rats.
“We are simply waiting for a green light from the mayor,” said Chopinaud.
But the town hall is determined to go ahead regardless of these plans, arguing that cosmetic improvements will only entrench the Samaritain’s residents into poverty and marginalisation.
“We cannot tolerate the presence of unsafe and unhealthy housing, even if there are some improvements,” said the mayor’s spokesman, Jean-Luc Vienne, who added that the town felt abandoned by the state. “We’ve been asking for government help to find a solution to these slums since 2005. No one listens. La Courneuve is facing an impossible problem on its own.”
‘Life is hard’
The slum’s residents do not see things the same way. Sara’s 19-year-old cousin Miraëla speaks excellent French and acts as the community’s official mediator with the authorities and journalists.
“Yes, life is hard here,” she says. “But it’s better than being on the streets. I’ve been here since the end of 2007, I was one of the first people and there were only three houses. Now there are 300 of us, but we are well organised.”
Miraëla insists that the Samaritain is neither a camp nor a slum, but a legitimate district of La Courneuve.
“We have three main streets, we have our own church (the majority of the Roma here are Pentecostal Christians), we have built functioning toilets all around, and there are security patrols every night for our security,” she explains.
The ground in and around the huts is floored with carpet and old linoleum, and littered with children’s toys, furniture and rubbish. The huts’ roofs serve as storage space for bicycles, spare tyres and a huge number of plastic washing tubs.
“We are OK here,” she says. “In winter we light our stoves and that keeps us very warm. The only real problem is the lack of showers. We use the tubs to wash ourselves which we fill from the fire hydrant, but these can never be as good as having a real bathroom.”
Others in the camps complain of the relative lack of privacy, the non-existent electricity supply, and of having to share their living space with rats and cockroaches.
‘I’d rather have a job’
Sara’s family have their own generator, of which they are extremely proud. Its main function is to keep the family fridge going.
These items are a rare luxury in the slum, which is not connected to the electricity mains and where the main purpose of a fridge isn’t to keep food cool, but to store their provisions “somewhere where the rats and insects can’t get at them”.
Her father Marcel guards these treasures jealously. But, he says, he would swap it all for a regular job.
“I’ve been registered at the job centre for the last two years, but they’ve never proposed any work for me,” he says in near-perfect French. “I still go out and scrape what living I can, mostly finding and selling scrap metal, which brings me 300-400 euros a month. It isn’t much to feed a family on.”
And Marcel has big family responsibilities to fulfil on his meagre earnings. His youngest son, two-month-old Noé-Emmanuel, was born prematurely and sleeps under the constant watch of his mother Somna.
“Luckily we can access the hospital in [nearby Saint Denis],” he says, as he crushes a cockroach making its way towards the baby’s cot.
If the settlement is razed as planned at the end of the month, Marcel and his family, like most of the other families living here, have no Plan B. No alternative accommodation has been arranged for them.
The associations who support these 80 households blame the town hall. The town hall blames the government.
“I’ve got a friend in the neighbourhood who I can stay with,” says Miraëla. “If the slum is torn down, that’s where I will go. But my uncles and aunts, Noé-Emmanuel and the others, where will they find a stove to sit by this coming winter?”
This article was translated from its original in French.