The Place de la Bastille is best-known for its former prison — and the liberation of its inmates on July 14, 1789. But one Tuesday evening late last month, this Parisian square housed a new set of tenants: about forty-five unaccompanied minors from mostly African and Middle Eastern countries. For the past week they had been sleeping there in small tents, arranged in a U-shape near the edge of the monument to the former jail.
The temporary camp was organized by Utopia 56, a French housing nonprofit, to bring attention to the catch-22 experienced by unaccompanied minors in France who are not recognized as such, and are thereby barred from state-run housing assistance schemes.
“Most of the young people here are found on the street, living in makeshift shelters, being cleared out of lots of parks, by the police, [being pushed] further and further away, outside Paris. So, they are invisible to people,” Flore Judet, a spokesperson for the association, told Jacobin.
While many of these minors did not speak French or English, or preferred not to be interviewed for this story, I spoke to X, from Ivory Coast. Arriving by way of Spain, Morocco, Mali, and Mauritania, X was shocked by the level of homelessness he saw upon arriving in the French capital.
“In Paris, it was very surprising to me,” to see so many people sleeping on the streets, he said.
X spent about a month and a half sleeping under a bridge in Clignancourt, a neighborhood next to Paris’s ring road, called the périphérique, in a hundred-person camp. When that camp — as frequently happens — was broken up by police, he moved to another location, where he was made aware of Utopia 56’s work.
“When you come to a country where you don’t know anyone, you realize that you are on your own,” he said. “Here, if you are not lucky enough to come across the right person, it can be even worse. We’ve known people who have fallen into a depression that has led them into a lot of [bad] things and when you see that, it hurts.”
Like X, many migrants and refugees have joined the ranks of people experiencing homelessness across France. Indeed, since 2014, France’s homeless population has doubled. The Fondation Abbé Pierre, one of France’s oldest charities, estimates that another four million French people — more than 5 percent of the population — are precariously housed.
Dignity for All?
The numbers are a far cry from Emmanuel Macron’s promises when the liberal newcomer was first elected president five years ago. In July 2017, Macron seemed to claim that by the end of that year, no more people would be sleeping rough in the streets in France.
“The first battle is to house everyone with dignity,” Macron said at a naturalization ceremony in Orléans. “By the end of the year, I don’t want to see any more women and men on the streets, in the woods or lost.” (He would later walk the statement back, saying he only meant asylum seekers and not all people experiencing homelessness.)
Housing activists and academics say that Macron has not only failed to come through on multiple promises to address France’s growing housing crisis, but that his policies in office have made matters worse.
“The neoliberal reforms that have been implemented not only since Macron, but which have become more pronounced with the Macron government, are not reforms that favor the most precarious, that much is clear,” Marie Loison-Leruste, a sociology professor at Paris’s Sorbonne University who studies homelessness, told Jacobin.
While Macron campaigned on promising a sudden increase in the supply of private-sector housing, which would lower housing prices overall, “this supply shock never happened and housing production has approached the lowest levels ever observed,” according to Pierre Concialdi, an economics researcher at the Institute for Social and Economic Research (IRES).
So, how have neoliberal reforms hit tenants? Fanny Dulin, a member of the housing collective Droit Au Logement (DAL), explained that under Macron, housing benefits like the personalized housing aid (APL) have been repeatedly slashed and laws such as the so-called “3DS” (decentralization and deconcentration of local authorities), ostensibly aimed at incentivizing mixed-use housing, have created loopholes used by municipalities to outsource public housing construction or pay a small fine instead of building new public housing.
During the pandemic, Macron aggressively sought to clamp down on squatting, Dulin added. The president’s now-infamous “global security law,” which drastically expanded police powers, included an article allowing property owners to hire private security officers to protect unoccupied buildings.
“Even though housing is a basic right, we see more and more people outside,” Dulin said. “When we know that there are 75,000 applicants for social housing, it is an aberration that in France there are over 320,000 empty homes.”
A History of Broken Promises
Macron is far from the first leading French politician to promise to end homelessness. In 2002, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, of the Parti Socialiste, coined the slogan “no homeless people by 2007,” making it a key part of his platform.
In 2006, while campaigning for president on a right-wing platform, Nicolas Sarkozy said if he were elected, he would end homelessness within two years.
Macron’s 2017 promise, activists say, was similarly bluster.
“President Macron is known for ‘at the same time’ — that is, he says things that are completely contradictory,” said Nicolas Laureau, a member of a solidarity collective in the northern Parisian suburb of Pantin. “He may have some good intentions, but it is clearly a political calculation.”
The president has come under fire for this double standard. In February 2019, Macron was photographed taking part in a maraude (TLDR, a social monitoring service for homeless people) — not long after his 2019 budget included a €57 million cut to temporary housing centers for the homeless.
Under Macron — who came into office promising to “modernize” the French labor market and social systems — inequality has risen, leading to the 2018 Yellow Vests protests. During his first five years in office, purchasing power increased for middle- and upper-class French people, but fell by 0.5 percent for the country’s bottom 5 percent, according to France 24.
Other policies — such as the removal of the ISF, a wealth tax, and his attempts to reform France’s generous pension system — have led to the moniker “president of the rich.”
“Public services, hospitals, schools, housing, ecology — all of that goes together,” said Loison-LeRuste. “And I think that this government has not understood that the destruction of our social protection system is not at all the solution and that it would aggravate social inequalities very severely.”
According to Concialdi, at IRES, poverty increased dramatically during Macron’s first year in office from 14.1 to 14.8 percent, the highest rate in twenty years — largely as a result of cuts to APL housing assistance. The French state, he added, has benefited from estate taxes and housing speculation, all the while reducing the money it spends on housing.
“In other words, the state is taking advantage of expensive housing and is increasingly reducing its efforts to house the population,” he said. “This regressive spiral should have been reversed.”
The Left in Power?
While Macron was reelected by a wide, albeit reduced, margin in April against far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, he now faces a new challenge from a left-wing coalition Nouvelle Union Populaire écologique et sociale (NUPES) in the June 12 and 19 legislative elections.
In February, the leader of that movement, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, released his own “zero homelessness plan,” which includes measures such as making expulsions illegal without rehousing squatters first; new housing construction of two hundred thousand units per year; and taxing vacant homes, among other proposals.
Housing activists have taken advantage of the space between the presidential and legislative elections to try to bring housing back into the forefront. Before Utopia 56, DAL occupied a section of the Bastille monument for several weeks. And on June 2, DAL members marched to the prime minister’s office at Matignon to demand that she name a housing minister, which she has not yet done.
But housing activists and academics who spoke with Jacobin were not hopeful that much would change during Macron’s second mandate, even if the Left stops the president winning a parliamentary majority on June 19.
“It’s one thing to be in the opposition and it’s another thing to be in the majority,” said Romain Prunier, a representative for United Migrants, an organization that assists squatters with paperwork and housing requests. “Yes, of course, [NUPES] is going to weigh on the government, but [their platform is] only really going to be imposed if they have a majority in the Assembly to begin with.”
Additionally, others noted, Macron’s rhetoric on housing and homelessness has seemed to dry up.
For Concialdi, it was telling that during the 2022 campaign, Macron made no mention of housing or homelessness, and did not name a housing minister: “In these conditions, we can expect nothing more from the president other than the continuation and deepening of the policies that have led, during his first five years, to worsening the housing crisis.”
With record inflation exceeding 5 percent in the past year and not expected to peak until the end of 2023 — a surge seen across Europe — France’s homelessness crisis may not yet have hit its lowest point.