France’s incendiary crisis

Patrice de Beer
12 September 2005

In the last few months, sixty-six persons, many of them of African origin, have died in Paris and its suburbs when the slums, run-down hotels or fire-hazard buildings where they lived (or were trying to survive) burned down. The latest of these four horrific incidents occurred on 4 September in L'Haÿ-les-Roses, where five teenage girls set fire to the letterbox of another girl they didn't like in a unit of low-cost housing, causing the deaths of eighteen of their neighbours.

Also by Patrice de Beer in openDemocracy:

“France and the Security Council: poker diplomacy wins” (November 2002)

“Sorry, wrong target!” (February 2003)

“France’s post-referendum trauma” (May 2005)

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Accidents, carelessness, chronic lack of maintenance, hooliganism, criminal acts – the causes of these fires are as varied, yet as uniform, as their victims. For these victims are, overwhelmingly, legal or illegal immigrants from francophone west or north Africa – or simply poor people of any colour or creed.

Some of them squatted in squalid conditions because they didn't qualify for proper homes or couldn't afford to pay rent. But others did pay a real rent and had sometimes been on a waiting list for a low-cost flat (HLM) for up to fourteen years. And sending the police to expel these people without offering decent rehousing – as interior minister and likely rightwing presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy has started to do – may hide this crisis from public eyes but can't in any way solve it.

Sixty-six dead (including many children, whole families decimated – though excluding dozens of other casualties) is a devastating figure, especially in the capital city of one of the most developed countries in the world. The accumulative cost of these disasters exceeds even the fifty-two innocent victims of the bombings on 7 July in London. They cast a dark shadow on the image of the “city of lights”.

Policy, not fate

France’s recent social experience of immigration has in some ways been luckier than Britain’s, partly because she refused to get involved in the United States adventure in Iraq but also because her justice and police services have since the 1980s been given the means they needed to pursue active and potential terrorists.

But, as with the victims of Islamic terrorism, these people were not victims of fate. While too many countries imagined they were buying peace by closing their eyes to Islamic fundamentalism, France has joined others in closing her eyes to the real – not potential – danger to her society and its people by the lack of an efficient, humane, low-cost housing policy.

The French political establishment carries the heaviest burden of responsibility, as no one could say that these incidents were unexpected. In May 2002, 4-year-old Bilal Wahibi was killed by a defective lift in Strasbourg; one of a long series of similar mishaps at the time caused by hooliganism in deprived banlieues (suburban areas) and lack of funds for maintenance.

It is easier to find money to fight terrorism than to build and sustain decent housing for those in need. France lacks more than a million homes – 300,000 in and around Paris alone, where (according to the city's mayor, Bertrand Delanoë) a thousand overpopulated buildings are uninhabitable for safety reasons. The right as well as the left, in particular Paris's new leftwing city council, have made efforts to remedy this situation in recent years, but these are late and inadequate, especially after building programmes were halved in the 1990s.

The housing bubble in France has aggravated this housing crisis. The price of flats in Paris has increased by 70% in six years; rents have skyrocketed; and landlords have become greedier and choosier with potential tenants, systematically rejecting those unable to provide financial guarantees that can amount to several annual rents.

The result is that many young people entering the job market can’t find an affordable place to live; and even some middle-class Parisians are forced (even after “downsizing”) to apply for low-cost housing or to move towards traditional working-class suburbs. This dramatic housing shortage carries the permanent risk of new tragedies and new casualties, and it will take decades to overcome.

The ladder breaks

This is more than a housing crisis, and more than a French problem. It is a phenomenon of social injustice – shared by many other countries, including rich ones, and exacerbated by states’ and political elites’ rollback of their social responsibilities.

But there is also a distinctive French dimension. This series of fires is another alarm-bell for France's much-vaunted social-integration policy. The gap between the affluent and the rest is widening; what the French call l'ascenseur social (the social escalator) is in need of urgent repair.

The integration of immigrants, whether first-generation or those who have become French citizens, has been reduced to a myth. Africans (including those from the maghreb countries) especially find it more difficult than other immigrants to get a good education and find a job; and they are segregated by public housing in suburban ghettos where lack of decent public services and increased vandalism reinforce their isolation and dismal living conditions. This creates fertile ground for petty crime, drug-peddling, and Islamic extremism.

In France as elsewhere, the “war on terror” starts at home and can't be limited to a law-and-order policy. It also has to be conducted in the stairwells and hallways of public-housing units and in the job market. It is a matter of social justice as well as public security.

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