Probe launched after fatal building collapse

Three people died and 14 were injured on Sunday when part of an apartment block in the French city of Reims collapsed after a suspected gas blast, just three weeks after a similar tragedy not far away.

Probe launched after fatal building collapse
Photo: Francois Nascimbeni/AFP

French President Francois Hollande sent his "condolences to the families of the victims" as shocked residents grouped around the scene of the accident on a council estate in the Champagne region.

"The toll is near-definitive," said the top official of the Marne region, Pierre Dartout, following reports that a young man was being sought. "All the tenants have been accounted for."

Local authorities said the "probable" cause of the accident – which saw the extremity of a four-storey building containing some 10 flats crash down – was a gas explosion.

Police said three adults were killed and another 14 people injured, one seriously. Among the hurt were children, they added.

A 60-year-old woman was found dead in the rubble several hours after the collapse, bringing the death toll up to three.

Some 75 residents gathered in a nearby sports complex and a school where counsellors were available for the traumatised.

At the beginning of the month, four people from the same family were killed and another person seriously injured when a gas explosion devastated their council flat in Witry-les-Reims, not far from the scene of Sunday's accident.

That incident shocked the neighbourhood, particularly as the father had still been alive when firefighters arrived, talking to them for over two hours to try to help them locate his wife and child, before dying in the ambulance.

On Sunday, one council estate resident whose section of the building had not been affected said he heard a huge explosion that shook the walls and broke windows.

"When I looked through the window, I saw that the building had collapsed like a pack of cards, with lots of smoke. I heard people screaming," said the resident, who would only be cited as Rafik.

The building – built in the 1960s and one of the oldest in the area – had been renovated several years ago.

"They only re-painted the facade, the interior has not changed since the 1960s. This was bound to happen, it's too old here," said one by-stander named Abdelkader.

"Judging by the state of the buildings, this doesn't surprise me. Here when you put a nail in the wall, it crumbles," said another nearby resident called Raissa.

In a statement, Hollande deplored a "terrible tragedy" and expressed his "solidarity to the city of Reims."

Housing Minister Cecile Duflot told French radio that an "extensive investigation" would take place, adding that a gas explosion was "the most likely hypothesis" for the disaster

"It seems that the building was well maintained, the correct checks had been carried out on the appliances," she added.

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Surge in property demand as Parisians flee the capital

After spending the past months confined to their homes, an increasing number of Parisians seem to want swap their city apartment for a more spacious home outside the French capital.

Surge in property demand as Parisians flee the capital
'For sale'. Photo: AFP

Since end of lockdown, French real estate agencies have seen a surge in demand for properties outside the capital, especially by Parisians who wish to swap their small city apartments for a more spacious home outside the city.

“The lockdown was the final straw that saw people making the move,” said Brice Bonato, head of the real estate agency Sextant, told French newspaper Le Parisien.

A study by a company called Paris je te quitte (Paris I'm leaving you) found that 54 percent of the people asked said they wanted to leave the capital “as soon as possible” – up from 38 percent before the health crisis.

Paris is notoriously expensive

Paris is one of the world’s most expensive cities when it comes to housing, with the average price per square metre set at over €10,000.

The combination of limited space, limited housing and very high demand has pushed prices in the French capital sky high, with prices rising by 62.5 percent over the past 10 years.

As a result, Parisians have got used to paying a lot for little. Few are able to purchase and most people live in rented apartments. 

READ ALSO Almost half of all property rental adverts in Paris are illegal

Earlier this year, a Paris studio apartment at just 30 square metres caused anger when it was put up for sale for close to €1 million.
But as soon as you move a little bit out of the capital, prices drop. In the greater Paris region as a whole, the average price per square feet is currently at €6,700, according to Le Parisien.
Many Parisians spent the two months of strict lockdown inside their tiny apartment, without a balcony or garden to breathe fresh air from. Photo: AFP
'Closer to nature'
The coronavirus health crisis, by shutting down life in the capital and leaving Parisians without any of the perks of living in Paris, seems to have pushed many into making the final leap.
“We told ourselves, 'phew, good that we're leaving',” said Paul, a 41-year-old engineer who was moving out of the capital with his wife and two children in July. 
During the lockdown, the couple exchanged their 95 square metre apartment in the 19th arrondissement – one of the least expensive areas in Paris – for a 135 square metre house with four bedrooms and a 100 square metre garden in the centre of Fontainebleau, southeast of Paris. 
They bought the house for €620,000.
“We're leaving to get a better quality of life, to get closer to nature without being too far from the city,” Paul told Le Parisien.
Where are people looking to move?

Like Paul and his family, most Parisians are looking to move to areas outside the capital in the Île-de-France region. These areas are often well-connected with RER trains that make it possible to commute if needed.

Searches for housing in Sens, in the Yvonne département southeast of Paris, surged by 80 percent from April 2019 to April 2020, according to the real estate agency Seloger. 

In the towns of Evreux and Dreux, both west of the capital, demand has increased by 40 percent over the same period.

“We are seeing a real wish to be closer to nature, far from the stress of the city,” said Antoine Jouteau, Director of the sell-and-buy site Le Boncoin, told Le Parisien.

A house with a garden

Real estate agencies also note that most people want a house (59 percent), according to Seloger, and more and more are ticking of the box for an outdoor area.

“With remote working, people are spending a lot more time at home,” said Corinne Joly, director of the real estate website

READ ALSO: Frequent mistakes made by French property buyers

Is this a good time to move?

According to real estate agencies, this is not a bad time for buyers to make the leap.

After two months of complete of being completely paralysed during the lockdown, the real estate market is regaining full speed.

But many owners who have been waiting for a long time to sell “have no choice,” said Thomas Lefebvre, Research Director at MeilleurAgents, to the paper.

“They have to sell today,” he said.

That means there is a lot on offer, and buyers have more power than sellers. 

Lefebvre also pointed to relatively good lending conditions. 

“Borrowing today at 1.2 percent over 20 years, even if it has gone up slightly, remains very good conditions,” he said.