France races to tear down its 570 squalid shanty towns but root problems persist

Despite being one of the world's wealthiest nations, France has a shocking 16,000 people living in more than 570 squalid slums across the country. The race is on to clear them out but critics say no solution is in place.

France races to tear down its 570 squalid shanty towns but root problems persist
Photo: AFP
 “We live in France under the myth that slums have disappeared. It's not true.” Yvan Gastaut, a historian from the University of Nice Sophia Antipolis told Le Monde newspaper.
According to a census, there are more than 570 slums in France, including 113 in the greater Paris region of Ile-de-France.
Among the 16,000 people living in squalid conditions, 36 percent are children, according to figures quoted by Le Monde.
French authorities are in a race to clear the slums because under the law of “equality” slums are covered by the country's annual winter truce.
The 'winter truce' or trêve hivernale, beginning on November 1st and lasting until March 31st, means French landlords cannot forcibly evict tenants and is meant as a humanitarian measure to ensure people don't become homeless and end up sleeping on the cold winter streets.
Photo: AFP
Many of the slums have been set up by members of the Roma community. In recent years French authorities have been heavily criticized for regularly clearing out Roma slums without offering any kind of long term solution.
Most are simply deported despite the fact that as EU citizens they should enjoy the same freedom of movement as British or Germans. Many simply return at a later date.
UN rights chief called France's policy “punitive and destructive.”
But France's slum clearances continue apace.
“Since the beginning of July, more than 4,600 people, including many children, have been expelled from the slum or squat where they were living, representing nearly 50 people a day,” said human rights collective Romeurope. 
But experts say that evicting people in advance of winter truce doesn't mean the problem has gone away. 
“Politicians seize the moment to get rid of makeshift housing, making it appear as if the problem is solved. This is exactly the way Calais 'jungle' was evacuated at the end of 2016,” explained the historian Yvan Gastaut to Le Monde.
Whole families are affected by these expulsions from illegal settlements and yet evaluating the individual situations of these families, once pushed for, “is no longer on the agenda,” said Manon Fillonneau from human rights collective Romeurope.
Among those evicted, “half just benefited from a few nights in a hotel before setting up again a bit further away,” Fillonneau added. 
“We need to ask why, with an average of one evacuation every three days since a few years ago, and one every day at the moment, we still have the same number of people living in slums.”


In numbers: How the homeless population of Paris is growing

The number of people sleeping rough on the streets of Paris is on the rise, according to the second ever homelessness census to take place in the French capital. This is a look at the most important figures from the report.

In numbers: How the homeless population of Paris is growing
A homeless man sits in a street of Paris on March 3, 2019. Photo: AFP
At the beginning of February an army of some 2,000 volunteers took to the streets of Paris to count the number of homeless people in the city for the project known as Nuit de la Solidarité (Night of Solidarity), which was launched last year. 
They went street by street counting the number of people huddled in sleeping bags in doorways, car parks, train stations, gardens and woods, as well as those camped out in tents. 
It is hoped that having this information will help the city better distribute its services. 
Like last year, homeless people were also surveyed about their housing and health problems, collecting data that Socialist Mayor Anne Hidalgo had said she hoped would allow authorities to design better policies to help those on the streets.
Here's a look at what the census revealed — in numbers. 

(Photo: AFP)

The number of homeless people sleeping rough on the streets of Paris, according to the 2019 census. 
That's the number of how many more people were sleeping rough in February 2019 compared to the same month in 2018. 
The percentage increase in homelessness in Paris in just one year from February 2018 – February 2019. 
Out of the total number sleeping on the street, some 2,232 were found to be sleeping on the streets of the French capital, while 751 people were found sleeping in locations run by the Town Hall and partner associations. Some 639 people were found sleeping in the capital's parks, woods and gardens.
These two numbers represent the age bracket of the majority of people living on the streets of Paris — men aged 40-54-years old, according to the report. 
Over half of them have been homeless for a year or more and when they were asked how they ended up on the street 35 percent of them said they arrived in Paris without housing, 23 percent mention a “life crisis” such as unemployment, illness or prison.
Nearly half of them said they have no financial resources (46 percent), 23 percent live on begging and 18 percent on social benefits.
A total of 14 percent are looking for work and while 11 percent said they do not need anything, the majority asked for priority housing, help in administrative procedures, a hot meal, clothes and a place to take a shower.
18th and 19th
Of course the homeless population of Paris is not evenly spread out. The 18th and 19th arrondissements have seen their number of street-sleepers grow by 70% and 50% over the last year, in the main due to migrant camps.
The 10th arrondissement has the lowest number of homeless people.
Photo: AFP
Today women make up 12 percent of the total homeless population in Paris, with 30 percent aged between 25 and 39, 18 percent between 55 and 70 and 2 percent over 70-years-old. 
And the fear is that the number of women sleeping rough in the French capital could be even higher, according to some associations.
“There are many women who do not dare to be in visible places and who hide to avoid any violence that might be inflicted on them,” said Nicolas Hue from homeless charity Aurore.

The number of new accommodation spots Paris has said it is committed to opening in 2019. 
“Our priority is helping women living on the street,” said Dominique Versini from City Hall, adding that the plan is to open a new accommodation center with 263 places and a night stop in the town halls of each arrondissement.
Two thirds
However there is a worry that this will not be enough to stem the problem, with two-thirds of the homeless, saying that they do not call SAMU — a charity that helps the homeless — because either the line is too busy or they have previously had bad experiences in emergency shelters.
So, why is the figure on the rise?
According to people working in homeless charities in the French capital the situation is getting worse.
“New populations such as Syrians are arriving and setting up refugee camps, and while this is seen more outside of Paris than in the capital, it affects the city as well,” said Louis-Xavier Leca, Director of La Cloche, an organisation that promotes relationships between neighbourhood businesses, residents and the homeless living there.
“There have been more and more French people ending up on the streets in recent years with rising unemployment. And there is a problem with the lack of local solidarity,” Louis-Xavier Leca, Director of La Cloche, an organisation that promotes relationships between neighbourhood businesses, residents and the homeless living there, told The Local previously. 
“After my own experience spending time in Chile and West Africa, I think it can be worse to fall on hard times in Paris than in poorer countries. People tend to be more isolated here,” he added.