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Spoiled for a Fight
Parisian squatters versus the nanny state
30 May 2008

From the 2007 outset of his five-year term, French president Nicolas Sarkozy began to impose commonsense economic reforms. In a country hobbled by a socialist mentality and ignorance of economics, this has naturally reduced his popularity. Labor unions strike and demonstrate, extreme-Left parties threaten to overthrow the government, and dockhands and fishermen block ports. And when the nanny state doesn’t give generously, many French react like spoiled children. The trendy squatters who were recently kicked out of a Paris building is a case in point.

Spearheading the occupation was a collective called Jeudi Noir (Black Thursday)—self-appointed champions of liberty, justice, and housing for all, unconcerned about the rights of property owners or the needs of the downtrodden. Convinced that the housing problems of students and young wage earners cannot be solved without strict controls on property rights that would effectively prohibit sharp rises in real estate values, Jeudi Noir and other groups squat in whole buildings—one near the stock exchange, for instance, which they named the Housing Crisis Ministry and occupied for over a year.

More recently, Jeudi Noir squatted in a former clothing manufacturer’s showroom in Paris’s Marais district. With the acquiescence of Socialist mayor Bertrand Delanoë, squatters had lived off and on since 2003 in the 16,400-square-foot building, which is located between rue de Turenne and rue St. Claude. The squatters turned the place into a 24/7 rave party—drawing huge crowds that spilled over into the street, howling and fighting until daybreak—and made life unbearable for their legitimate neighbors. Police eventually evacuated the building in the summer of 2006 and sealed the entrance with a concrete block barrier.

But this past February, Jeudi Noir dismantled the barrier and opened the building to a group of students, artists, teachers, and low-income workers, including several families with children. They invited two more associations—La Deuxième Aile and NoMan’sLand—to join them. Mindful of their predecessors’ bad reputation, the new squatters refurbished the premises, behaved with discretion, and allegedly obtained the blessing of Pierre Aidenbaum, head of Paris’s third arrondissement. The squatters enjoyed their spacious, rent-free loft apartments, as well they should have: a 2,250-square-foot furnished loft in the same cul-de-sac is available for vacation rental at over $3,000 per week. They thought it would be years before the proprietor could implement the eviction order he’d obtained in court. From each according to his means, to each according to his needs!

But on May 15, at 6:30 AM, gendarmes in battle dress showed up at the building. The police, say the squatters, broke down doors, shouted, and herded them out, barely giving them time to gather a few belongings and stumble into the street without breakfast. The ousted squatters congregated at the rue de Turenne entrance, where they spoke with neighbors and the press. Cars and pickup trucks came and went all day long, carting away furniture, cartons, suitcases, paintings, and baby strollers.

By midafternoon the eviction was finished, the second shift of police had taken over, a few paintings and suitcases were left on the sidewalk—and the squatters rushed into the courtyard of the nearby church of Saint Denys du Saint Sacrement, chained the gate, and set up tents and banners. By law, the police couldn’t enter the church without the priest’s permission.

A few Jeudi Noir members remained outside the gate to handle logistics for their comrades under the watchful eyes of a half-dozen kindly policemen. Jean Roque-Letelier, a 23-year-old graduate of the Sorbonne who teaches classics in a junior high school near the Gare de Lyon, accepted my request for an interview. He supports his wife, who is a student, and their two-year-old son on 1,300 euros of take-home pay per month. Their last rental apartment cost 1,000 euros a month. Roque-Letelier joined Jeudi Noir a year ago and moved into the Marais building in February.

What did he think about tenants who pay the going rates to live in this neighborhood? I asked. They’re lucky to be able to pay, he replied. Just lucky? He knows nothing about teachers’ salaries or housing costs in other countries. He’s not interested in student loans, part-time jobs, or long-term mortgages. Anyway, why should he look for solutions elsewhere? Rents are sky-high in Paris, he said, because there are so many empty buildings; the government should requisition them and convert them to public housing. He admitted that other, needier candidates—immigrants with big families and dead-end jobs—would compete for that subsidized housing. But he shrugged this off.

Schoolteachers earn modest wages, but they enjoy many advantages as civil servants. I wondered what the Ministry of Education would think of this squatting teacher’s disrespect for the law. In fact, the law—in the person of two (Socialist) deputy mayors—was in the churchyard with the squatters. It’s not quite Zimbabwe, but ideology clearly trumps property rights in France. What did Roque-Letelier think of Sarkozy’s efforts to make the economy more competitive and rewarding for people who work hard? He thought it indecent to allow property values to rise. Housing should not be allocated on the basis of income, he said.

Once your group had occupied the building, I asked him, could anyone who needed housing move in? Only if there was space available, he replied. Meaning what? We were a group of 57, he said. It came out that they had locked the building’s entrance as well as the entrance to each apartment. So, I asked, you had your own system for allocating property? But it was time for the teacher to pick up his son at the (free) public day-care center. (Roque-Letelier was a newborn when the Marais was first gentrified. During the sixties and seventies, students, artists, and young workers had lived there on the cheap in shabby apartments. Further back, before the war, the Marais had been a schmatte district, its beautiful old buildings grim and dilapidated, and its stately homes used as sweatshops where Jewish immigrants from central Europe made clothes, bonnets, and leather goods. Then they were evicted; many died in the camps.)

Jeudi Noir’s occupation of the churchyard was short-lived. Thundershowers broke out in the early evening. Policemen in riot gear emerged from the vehicles that had been waiting around the corner. With the curé’s permission, some entered the church from the side, while others went around to the front, cut the chain, threw open the iron gate, and carefully extracted the squatters, one by one, as if they were transplanting delicate saplings.

Poller is an American writer living in Paris since 1972.

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