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The homeless of Paris are up in arms - in tents

May 20 2009
Rough sleepers and affluent French bourgeois joined together to greet the New Year Rough sleepers and affluent French bourgeois joined together to greet the New Year
French show solidarity with homeless in the capital city and throughout France Paris has been the theatre of protest and mobilisation for the better treatment of rough sleepers throughout France. A group named Les Enfants de Don Quichotte, or 'Don Quixote's Children', has been at the centre the protest - which received a great degree of media attention and even became a political springboard for the current electoral campaign ahead of the presidential election next spring. The symbols of the protest were hundreds of tents, scattered along the city's canal, the Saint-Martin. Rough sleepers and affluent French bourgeois joined together to greet the New Year as part of the protest. The red tents have been in the city since December 2005, when a charity called Medecins du Monde started giving them out. Now they are part of the Paris landscape, but have become particularly noticeable around the lively Canal Saint-Martin area. The Don Quixote's Children group led the movement of 'sans domicile fixe' - French for 'no fixed abode' - throughout last year, and on 16th December started preparing the run-up to the festive period. Many middle-class French people have been spending nights in the tents in solidarity with the country's estimated 86,000 rough sleepers. Some people travelled miles to join the protest, and similar happenings were organized in dozens of other cities around France. The objective was to grab the attention of French government, and to force them to do something about the problem of people living on the streets and about housing matters. The general populace of France seems to feel incredibly strongly about it, adding huge effort to these demonstrations. Official statistics state that there are 86,000 people living on the streets in France, which is the same estimated total as in Los Angeles alone. However, housing and homeless associations claim that France has almost one million people living without a permanent home. Although initially the organisers were arrested, the demonstration eventually led President Jacques Chirac to address the issue during his New Year's speech to the nation, in which he asked the government to improve housing affordability. This sentiment was echoed by French Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, who stated that his government should make housing a legally enforceable right. A new housing bill will be going to the cabinet on 17 January after the renewed pressure to the government to aid those without permanent shelter. Other local politicians lined up to use the protest for electoral campaign aims: Francois Hollande, leader of the Socialist Party, and Bertrand Delanoe, the Socialist mayor of Paris, signed the organisation's petition for a solution to the housing problem. Segolene Royal of the Socialists, the famous female candidate for the presidential role, has come out in support of the cause as well. Catherine Vautrin, minister for social cohesion, met with the heads of the group to announce a tenfold increase in spending to help the homeless - from €7 million to €70 million - which would allow homeless shelters to stay open on weekends and extend their weekday opening times. Meanwhile, some people took up a vacant office block in Paris near the Paris stock exchange - which has been given the nickname of 'ministry for the housing crisis'. The Don Quixote's Children group was founded by Augustin Legrand, a 31-year-old actor. He now co-ordinates the association with his family members and his best friends Ronan Denec and Pascal Oumakhlouf. The housing rights bill that will go to the French cabinet in January is expected to give housing rights to homeless people, impoverished workers and single mothers from the end of 2008. The government has also claimed it is planning to build 120,000 new homes every year up to 2012 and that the new legislation will put housing in the same legal category as education and health in French law. Founder Legrand plans to continue its protest. There are around 250 red tents with the SDF (sans domicile fixe) sign on them, and the people keep coming. The protest has spread to other French cities, including Orleans, Toulouse and Lyon. But this is no Mickey Mouse operation: the organisers have arranged portable toilets and a soup kitchen, and vans are carrying blankets and other supplies regularly.