France Faces a Historic Squeeze on Public Housing

Emmanuel Macron promised he’d shorten France’s two-million-long waiting list for public housing. But the promised construction boom hasn’t materialized — and even poorly maintained housing is becoming ever more unaffordable.

France's recently named delegate minister in charge of cities and housing Olivier Klein leaves after the weekly cabinet meeting at the presidential Elysee Palace in Paris on October 12, 2022. (Ludovic Marin / AFP via Getty Images)

Last month, Olivier Klein — France’s recently named delegate minister in charge of cities and housing — sat in a windowless room in the French National Assembly. His task: to present, for the first time, his “roadmap” for urban development, in the context of rising costs of living due to the war in Ukraine.

A freeze setting maximum rent increases at 3.5 percent, an equivalent rise in housing aid, and ten thousand additional housing units for victims of domestic violence: Klein, who passed through France’s Communist and Socialist parties before joining Emmanuel Macron’s government, took on a surprisingly progressive tone in his first policy briefing.

“I didn’t learn about the problems of working-class neighborhoods in books,” he said. “I was born there, I grew up there, I lived there, and I still live there. The city is my great cause; it is the fight of my life.”

After five years of tense relations between advocates of social housing and a Macron government that has ruled from the center right, Klein promised a new “pact of confidence,” as well as “a general-purpose affordable housing that welcomes the poorest and offers them a roof but also serves workers, employees, and civil servants.”

“We need to construct more housing, of all types,” he added.

Klein’s comments come amidst a historic public-housing squeeze in France, where unlike in other European countries, public housing is “generalized” and not only reserved for the lowest-income brackets. In France, an estimated 2 million households are on a waiting list for subsidized public housing, including 750,000 in the Paris area. As Jacobin has written, President Emmanuel Macron campaigned on the promise of a boom in construction. But during his time in office, housing creation has stagnated while rents and speculation have continued to rise.

The promised boost to housing “never happened,” according to Christophe Robert, the general delegate of French housing and homelessness charity Fondation Abbé Pierre.

“An Opportunity for the Country”

Enter Olivier Klein. Named to Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne’s government in July, Klein has presented himself — in press interviews and events like the one at the National Assembly — as a warrior for affordable housing.

“Social housing is an opportunity for the country,” Klein told Libération this summer, noting that the backlog of applications for low-income housing exceeded seven hundred thousand.

Klein grew up in the Chêne Pointu housing projects in Clichy-sous-Bois, a working-class Paris suburb. He cut his teeth as first deputy to Communist Party mayor Claude Dilain, and in 2011 was himself elected mayor of Clichy-sous-Bois on a Socialist Party ticket. But in recent years, some argue, Klein has moved to the right — in policy terms, as well as political allegiances.

In 2017, Klein was named president of the National Agency for Urban Renovation (Agence nationale de rénovation urbaine, or ANRU), and in 2020, he took over as president of the Société du Grand Paris, the agency in charge of implementing the Grand Paris Express, a high-speed metro line that will connect the Paris suburbs to the center of the city, and which is already leading to intense housing speculation in working-class suburbs.

“ANRU is the main actor in the gentrification of the suburbs and rising rents in the Paris area,” Jean-Baptiste Eyraud, the founder of the NGO Right to Housing (Droit au logement, or DAL), said in an interview with Jacobin over the summer before Klein had presented his road map. Eyraud added that he worried Klein’s selection as housing minister could portend similar gentrification on a national scale.

During the 2020 municipal elections in Clichy-sous-Bois, Klein cut ties with the Socialist Party after his electoral list included members of Macron’s La Republique en Marche! (LREM) party. In October 2021, he endorsed Macron for the 2022 presidential elections, praising Macron’s record on social issues.

“What would Claude Dilan think of [his] path?” Renaud Epstein, a professor of sociology at Sciences Po who focuses on urban renovation, asked. “Claude Dilan was the former mayor of Clichy; he was considered the moral conscience of the French left vis-à-vis low-income neighborhoods. He was the political father of Oliver Klein. In my opinion, Claude Dilan could have never joined a Macronist government.”

Pierre Gilbert, an urban studies professor at Paris-8 University, agreed with this assessment. The choice of Klein won’t “challenge the foundations of the housing policy that President Macron has been leading for five years,” he said.

Social Housing for Who?

Some housing activists, nonetheless, remain cautiously optimistic for Klein.

Fatouma Camara, a spokesperson for Citizens Alliance 93 (Alliance Citoyenne du 93), a group of citizens fighting for housing justice, told Jacobin that in meetings with Klein before he was named minister, the former president of ANRU was open to dialogue with housing activists.

“What we are hoping from him is that there is more construction of social housing at a low price,” she said. “We need more construction of PLAI housing [social housing aimed at the poorest households] and especially in the inner circle of Paris’s suburbs: Aubervilliers, Pantin, Bobigny, and so on.”

Aubervilliers is France’s poorest city of more than twenty thousand people. There, two in five residents currently live in social housing and 44 percent of people live below the poverty line. Camara has already noticed the early signs of gentrification.

“In the private market, the prices have already risen,” she told Jacobin, pointing to a modern glass building across from the Fort d’Aubervilliers metro station where she says rents can be two to three times higher than in the neighboring public housing complexes.

“For years, nobody wanted anything to do with these areas and people fought for their right to stay,” Camara said. “But now that the neighborhood will be ‘securitized, renovated and rehabilitated,’ it will be too beautiful for them.”

An Emblematic Urban Renewal Project

Klein, who takes over the role of housing minister in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis across the whole continent, has used his experience as Clichy’s mayor as a selling point.

In an interview with Jacobin, Mariam Cisse, an adjunct-mayor of Clichy who worked for many years under Klein, praised his record here, highlighting that under him the suburb had achieved greater “social mixing” — a catchall term meaning everything from ethnic to economic diversity.

“It is not without significance [that Macron would choose Klein for the housing minister position],” Feda Wardak, an architect who for the past several years has worked on urban renewal projects in Clichy-sous-Bois, told Jacobin.

According to Wardak, Clichy has become “emblematic,” a case study for successful urban renovation. Before this it had perhaps been best known in France as the setting of the 2005 riots, which pitted discontented banlieue residents against police and led to the declaration of a national state of emergency

Today, there are ubiquitous signs of this renovation. At the working-class Marché des Bosquets, the sounds of Arabic words shouted by fruit-sellers mixed with the steady rumble of jackhammers working on the new Clichy-Montfermeil train station, one of sixty-eight stops that will make up the Grand Paris Express high-speed rail line.

Nicole Milembolo, who on a Wednesday morning in late summer was selling African dresses out of a stall abutting the construction zone, told Jacobin that in her sixteen years in Clichy-sous-Bois, crime had significantly decreased and that the city had put in place “a lot of initiatives” aimed at increasing access to social services and work opportunities.

But in the social housing projects, she said, “nothing has changed,” noting that many of the buildings were run-down, unhealthy, and sometimes unsafe, with unhoused people sleeping in the hallways.

Despite attempts by the mayor to entice new populations to move to Clichy, she said, “they’re not bringing us new people.”

“Softer Words and Harsher Actions”

In Paris, activists at DAL say that despite Klein’s rhetoric on affordable housing, the picture on the ground is different.

“The packaging is changing, but it will be at best softer words and harsher actions,” DAL wrote in a communiqué after Klein’s presentation to the National Assembly.

On October 7, the association organized a protest in front of Bercy, where the minister of finance is located, to call for, among other things, lower rents and “massive” construction of social housing.

Camara, at Renters’ Struggle Aubervilliers, said that activists in the suburbs were also gearing up for the winter and planned to meet again with Klein, who in September met with social housing leaders at the annual HLM congress in Lyon — a meeting Libération called “rich in promises, but low in announcements.”

“The return to work is going to be intense,” she said.