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The “Don Quixote Kids” of Paris


parishomeless.jpg In France today the only heroes are the homeless, the new Pet Rocks of Paris and its prime time media. by Nidra Poller, PJM's Paris Editor One hundred days from the presidential elections, what is on the mind of an aspiring world power like France? The nuclear threat from Iran? The Hizballah putsch fomenting in Lebanon? War between Fatah and Hamas? The defeat of Islamists in Somalia?

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January 10, 2007 - 10:25 am

The rise of populism in South America? The impending death of Castro in Cuba? The ongoing massacre in Darfur? The future of the European Union?

Any one of these topics may have attracted a few seconds of prime time news attention, a few minutes on the radio, an article or two in the print media, but none of them can compete with The Subject that has been front and center for three weeks: The Winter 2006-7 fashion collection, the défilé de mode, the lineup of tents on Canal St. Martin, the homeless and the knights of the sad visage, les enfants de Don Quichotte, the Don Quixote kids.

The tents, the homeless, the charitable souls who come to succor them, and the charismatic Don Quixote Kids have been served up every which way, all day, and everywhere, but no one has asked who’s playing the windmills and whether this combat, self-defined as Quixotic, is in fact real or a fantasy. When the media pump up this kind of grass roots movement, force feed it and then watch wide-eyed as if it were growing of its own inner force, carry it to some kind of triumph slyly accredited to the pressure of public opinion when it’s the media themselves that make the opinion, one is hard put to separate the sincere from the hype. All the more so when presented–by the media and its instant stars–as a prise de conscience. “Ah, finally our society is awakened to the needs of the homeless.” “Ah, these homeless sleeping in streets and alleyways, stepped over and ignored, have finally stood up and now demand to be heard.”

This summer it was the Cachan squatters who had moved into an elite school dormitory slated for rehabilitation and lived there for eight years before the expulsion order could be implemented. Temporarily housed in a school gymnasium, they dug in and refused to evacuate until everyone obtained residence permits and decent housing.

A camp kitchen was set up, movie stars came to visit and snuggle up to doe-eyed children, salt of the earth citizens brought clothes, toys, food, bicycles. Between Cachan and the tent cities there was the citizen’s revolt against deportation of illegal immigrant families. Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, the big bad wolf, offered to grant a limited number of residence permits according to precise criteria; those who did not qualify would be deported. In these times where any situation can become instant Playmobil, the deportation of illegals outdid the deportation of French Jews to Nazi death camps in the 40s. Earnest citizens interviewed at length on the evening news proudly admitted their refus d’ob√©ir. “We are hiding little XXX, we will not let her be deported, we can hold out as long as necessary.”

Ask your average French person what has become of the Cachan refugees and the deportable illegals, you’ll get a Gallic shrug. The plat du jour is homeless men, women, children, and dogs, living in tents along the Canal and in public squares in major cities all over France.

Each installation was the occasion for extensive coverage. Actor Augustin Legrand, who spearheaded the Quixotic happening with two of his brothers, was in the spotlight while older charitable organizations such as Emmaus, Médecins du Monde, Secours Populaire had to be contented with brief guest appearances, a few seconds to explain that the problem is indeed long standing, in fact they have been trying for decades to convince the government to solve it.

You can be sure that some French people thought the hoopla was another downscale publicity stunt, and that most of the homeless are psychiatric cases, another most are drunks, junkies, and anti-socials, those that can be helped to get on their feet again can probably find their way to existing services, and if anyone thinks the middle classes are going to fork up, again, to provide for the chronically unstable, they better think twice. I am just guessing that some people reacted this way. Their voice, their point of view, their interests have been majestically ignored over the three week boom of the tent cities and all the miraculous solutions they provoked.

Les Enfants de Don Quichotte drew up a Charter guaranteeing housing for all, always, under all circumstances, no ifs ands or buts. Most of the presidential candidates signed so fast you’d have thought they were buying la Tour Eiffel. Nicolas Sarkozy sent Arno Klarsfeld, son of Nazi-hunters Serge and Beate Klarsfeld, to the banks of Canal St. Martin to check out the movement. Ma√Ætre Klarsfeld thought the Charter was pretty good, except for the part about requisitioning unoccupied apartments, homes, and buildings and giving them to the homeless. Nevertheless, in subsequent news reports, he was lumped together with the others, for a perfect score, everyone agrees with the Quixote kids, everyone agrees with the homeless, everyone agrees that the problem should be solved the day after tomorrow.

Ségolène Royal scheduled a visit on the banks of the Canal but cancelled at the last minute. She explained, in a Journal de Dimanche interview, that she backed out because it was supposed to be a strictly private visit, but the Legrand brothers inadvertently informed Agence France Presse. Excuse me, but how could she dream for an instant that the visit would be private? The press was down at the Canal from morning to night. The banks of the canal are just so wide. Where could you slip in discreetly and parlay with a few homeless saints out of the limelight? I know a photographer who asked a homeless guy if he could take a picture. The guy wanted 5 euros. You dig? The bourgeois bloodsuckers should divide up their housing and give half to the underprivileged, but les misérables can unashamedly indulge in sidewalk capitalism.

Before the Quixote Kids, an aggressive association called Droit au logement (Housing for All) has been organizing a variety of commando operations. They have an office in a hôtel particulier on rue des Francs Bourgeois in the heart of the Marais. I wonder who pays the rent?

At the height of the tent city craze, DAL, Jeudi Noir, Macaq and a grab bag of organized, unorganized, disorganized individual anarchists requisitioned a posh bank building across from the stock exchange and turned it into the Minist√®re de la Crise de Logement [Ministry of the Housing Crisis]. It looks nothing like the usual squatter’s pad with leaking pipes, loose hanging wires, broken windows, rusty toilets, and fat rats. The owner claims that the sale of the fully renovated building, unoccupied for three years, is underway. The occupiers consider that they are in their rights. You notice that Americans risking their lives in Iraq to get rid of one of the worst dictators in contemporary history is evil, but occupying a building that doesn’t belong to you is cool.

The same logic applied during last spring’s anti-CPE movement and it would be a fair guess that some of the people who trashed centers of higher learning in protest against job flexibility are now nestled in high class financial institution digs. Some of the squatters work in high-tech day jobs and squat militantly at night. They have a blog. A recent entry tells how they made an appointment to visit a 70 m2 apartment near the Bastille, selling for 370,000 euros. Instead of a young couple, the agent found herself with 50 self-righteous invaders who partied for an hour. Though Quixote’s kids declared it was time to disband, the Housing Crisis Ministry has no intention of closing down…at least not until all their demands are satisfied. Their combat goes beyond the issue of the homeless and attacks the basic cause of their distress: real estate speculation, high rent, prohibitive cost of home ownership, inadequate public housing.

Villepin learned his lesson in the anti-CPE revolt. In that crisis he tried to stick to his principles and refused to rescind the measure. He ended up backing down and lost his chances to run for president in the bargain. This time he immediately gave the tent-dwellers what they wanted: an opposable housing right. Or, to be more exact, the promise that his government would draft and pass a law to that effect. No one has the slightest idea how such a law could actually be implemented, but the charismatic leader of the Quixote movement announced that they had obtained what they wanted and would fold the tents and slip away.

Whaaaa? Heeeey! Whooooa! No way! Neither the rank and file nor the raggle taggle homeless can be disposed of with a flick of the wrist. Let the charismatic leaders go, the tents are staying. That’s where things stand today…

…One hundred days from the first round of the presidential elections. Yves Calvi, one of the better investigative TV journalists, convoked representatives of major candidates last night for an overview of everyday issues of concern to French voters. Marine LePen, for her father (FN), Olivier Besancenot of the far left Ligue Communiste R√©volutionnaire for himself, Patrick Devedjian for Nicolas Sarkozy (UMP), Jean-Christophe Lagarde for Fran√ßois Bayrou ( UDF), and Manuel Valls for the Socialist S√©gol√®ne Royal. The program, Mots crois√©s, started at 10:45 PM. First issue: to appear on the ballot candidates must get 500 signatures from municipal officials. Besancenot the mailman, who is against capitalism in any way shape or form, hasn’t got his 500 yet. LePen is sputtering as usual about not being able to get them, it’s unfair, it’s discriminatory, it’s undemocratic. And the other speakers agree that somehow or other LePen must be able to run. Twenty years ago the consensus was that the Front National should be banned. No one knew how to do it. Or perhaps the left was too happy to use it against the right. In any case LePen went on to reach the second round in the 2002 elections. This year he is confident that he will compete victoriously against S√©gol√®ne Royal in the second round. Could the French really elect the 78 year-old snarling LePen? Or massively support S√©gol√®ne to avoid that fate worse than disgrace?

It took one half hour to exhaust the question of the 500 signatures. Next item? You guess. French pundits, the current government, Ségolène Royal, the academic community, and 99% of journalists claim to the high heavens that even if the U.S. is not the source of all evil, it should not be lording it over a unipolar world. Noblesse oblige, democracy demands, and the French insist on multipolarity. Their favorite place to want to be is the Middle East crisis. If only they were the ones everyone listened to the conflict would have been solved long ago.

Next item? Don Quixote’s Kids of course!

One hour, more than an hour of dispiriting discussion. The more they talked the more homeless people became. It’s not just the down and outers sleeping on the pavement. It’s the ill-housed and the cramped housing and the dilapidated crime-breeding high rise housing projects, and the mangy little underheated houses in pokey towns, and the expensive apartments, and the real estate boom, and the high cost of financing, and the low rate of building, and the backlog, and the injustice, the subsidized who could pay and the unhoused who should be subsidized. By the end of the hour the only ones who still had a roof over their heads were the ultraminority overprivileged fatcats who should be kicked out of their lodgings so the homeless could move in.

The more the presidential candidates’ reps talked about the problem, the more insoluble it became. It would take 60 years to absorb the backlog of demands for subsidized housing in Paris alone. The leftists zeroed in on the tiny municipality of Neuilly, despised because Sarkozy is–nominally–the mayor (the vice-mayor handles day to day affairs), detested because they won’t build housing projects. The hatred for Neuilly almost obscured the fact that if all of Neuilly were turned over to the homeless tomorrow, it would be a drop in the bucket.

Third and last subject: should shops be allowed to open on Sunday? I spare you the discussion. For the left, Sunday must be an undisturbed day of rest. The right thinks they could be allowed to open under certain conditions. Marine LePen, exasperated, said: “Just let people work and earn money!” And if a pollster comes around and you say you think people should be allowed to open and close their shops as they see fit, you will be catalogued with the LePenists.

I turned off the TV before the end of the show. The impression of zero dynamics was unbearable.

The purpose of discussing a practical problem like housing would normally be to come up with concrete measures to alleviate without curing a condition that can never be solved once and for all. Sarkozy has exposed, elsewhere, concrete ideas for dynamizing the market, rewarding effort, facilitating access to home ownership but there was no place for this kind of thinking in the discussion on Mots crois√©s [crossword puzzles/crossed words], which often degenerated into shouting matches as it went over and over the same impossibilities, squeezing out the very idea that a bit of free market economics might produce a bit more money in pockets, encourage construction, and spread the population out into newly vitalized “provinces.” No, the only possibility that seemed to emerge was a dizzying multiplication of civil servants who would study case by case every last situation of need, supplication, incapacity, deprivation.

A few days later, Besancenot and his buddies put up the beginnings of a concrete-block wall in front of the ornate Neuilly city hall. Their eloquent statement was: “Neuilly won’t build public housing; we’re giving them a helping hand.”

S√©gol√®ne Royal has solemnly promised to avoid insults, personal attacks, and low blows in the course of the campaign. Her aides have just brought out a brochure attacking Sarkozy, “an American neocon with a French passport.”

So he should set up his campaign headquarters in a teepee?

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