by James Fontanella
“Young lives have been taken away from us due to our own negligence and that of the French government. At the moment, the flames are moving faster than those authorities who have the power to reverse what appears to be a tragic trend. It is important that they act now. Immediately”.
Anonymous immigrant in Paris.
On the night of 29th August at around 10 o'clock, a fire broke out in the Marais quarter in central Paris, engulfing an entire five-story building. The residents were mainly African immigrants waiting for a permanent allocation and authorisation of their residence permits.
Following the initial intervention of the fire brigade, which managed to put out the flames at 11:30 p.m., it seemed as though fire fighters had been able to avoid the tragedy. In fact, the first report stated that no lives had been lost and that only 13 people were injured.
Unfortunately, this information was not confirmed the following morning when the police made an official statement regarding the accident: Seven people remained trapped in the flames and were unable to be saved. Four were children and one of them died in a desperate attempt to save his life by throwing himself out of the window on the fifth floor.
This accident is not the first of its kind. Three nights earlier, another fire broke out in the city in the 13th arrondissement, in which 17 people lost their lives, 14 of them children. Furthermore, we can also recall the fire which burned down the Hotel Paris-Opéra in April. Then 11 adults and 10 children lost their lives in the flames.
The common denominator which characterises these tragedies, is that all the apartments burned down were inhabited by African immigrants. In the majority of cases, they are sans-papier (without documents), awaiting asylum and authorisation of their stay within French territory. However, those who lived in the block that was ablaze last week were all legal immigrants working mainly for the city council.
This common denominator, which sees African immigrants living in deplorable conditions, is abhorrent.
The government had promised immediate and prompt intervention after last week's incident. However, this has not been translated into effective action.
Thousands of people demonstrated at the weekend, demanding safe housing for all citizens and immigrants. Many of the protesters are still living in inhuman conditions. The flats, assigned by the government or affiliated agencies to house African immigrants, are often overcrowded. In some cases there are 10 people living in 40 square metres, without electricity or drinking water. The flats are also frequently infested by rats and the buildings are structurally unsafe and run-down. In the 21st century, certain images remind us of the Middle Ages rather than of modern France.
Recent statistics inform that at present there are more than 2,000 families living in buildings which are considered dangerous. The government is aware of this as it is involved, directly or indirectly, with the management of housing. For the time being, only 542 families have settled in appropriate flats: that is safe flats, with water, electricity and heating for the winter. However, over 102,000 families are on the waiting list demanding housing and the government is far from regulating the issue.
The repeated number of fires has yet to awaken a true sentiment of preoccupation. The fear is that these accidents will soon be forgotten and that we will have to wait for the next fire to remind us that intervention is urgently needed.
If this occurs, it will no longer be able to be classified an accident, the government will be responsible for homicide. We cannot just close our eyes and expect that the solution to the problem will pop up on its own. France, which has been trying to defend its social security system, is not facing the clear-cut downfall of a system which is outdated and obsolete. The tragedies of these last days are not accidents, not in the slightest. The mayors of the 3rd, 9th and 13th arrondissements were aware of the living conditions of the African immigrants afflicted by the blaze. Previous experience should have set the basis for change. Instead, a stagnant government has left thousands of immigrants isolated from the rest of society. For, as much as we should disregard and mistrust any kind of conspiracy theory, it is not surprising that many Africans living in Paris have alleged that the government is purposely allocating them these dangerous buildings in order to get rid of them sooner and at a low cost.
This is a fundamental social and political problem which needs to be tackled. It is not acceptable to dismiss such a tragedy by defining it as a simple accident. This tragedy is a consequence of a structural and political failure for which the government is responsible.
What seems to be most worrying is that the current actions taken by Nicolas Sarkozy, the French Home Affairs Minister, aimed at helping the affected are far from suitable. Sarkozy declared, “All these squats and shaky buildings will be shut in order to put an end to this dramatic situation.” This might seem positive but the real question is - where is the government going to put the families it kicks out of these tumbledown apartments?
For the time being, the people who managed to escape the flames have been placed in gyms and provisional housing. However, doing this will generate the same nightmare situation that they have already experienced. The vicious cycle will start over again, with African immigrants living in precarious and insecure conditions.
It is imperative that these blazes mark the beginning of a new approach to the problem. It is crucial that those who were able to escape from the flames get a chance to start a normal life in a place that can guarantee them a minimum level of comfort and stability.
This responsibility is in the hands of the local communities, which are aware of the many obsolete buildings housing immigrants, and the national government. Local communities have the power to pressurise the national authorities and demand their intervention. On the other hand, the government is forced in the short-term to give some kind of concrete response to the recent tragedies. However, the banal and obvious risk is to forget those who continue to live in deplorable conditions and this risk cannot be taken, not again.