French squatters join political mainstream
Angered at the spiralling rental prices in Paris, Jeudi Noir founder stands for election to the regional council to do more for the rental market.A group once best known for rowdy parties in graffiti-plastered Paris squats is poised to join the political mainstream, propelled by anger at injustices in the French capital's housing market.
Julien Bayou, who helped found the grassroots collective Jeudi Noir (Black Thursday) in 2005 and a year later seized control of an empty bank opposite the Paris stock exchange, stood for election to the regional council as a candidate on a merged Socialist and Green list.
With 59.69 percent votes, the Socialist-led opposition emerged as the winners of the regional elections in Ile-de-France in March.
Jeudi Noir’s political goal
"Behind our tomfoolery there is an important message," he told AFP at one of the squats requisitioned by his student activists and young workers. "With each empty building we requisition, we put in homeless people.
"I was struck by the rise in rents as a result of housing standing empty, and the failure to build new council properties," the charismatic party animal turned party political candidate explained.
Jeudi Noir left the abandoned bank by the bourse in 2009 and has since taken over an empty luxury apartment on the Place des Vosges, a spectacular Renaissance square in the heart of the fashionable Marais district.
Flats in the district sell for up to EUR 15,000 the square metre.
The group now faces back rent, fines and legal fees of EUR 80,000.
"It is incredible to be fined so much when the building has been vacant for more than 40 years," Bayou said. "We estimate the landlady could have earned over EUR 20 million over this time if she'd rented out her property."
Many landlords prefer to hang on to vacant homes rather than risk renting out to tenants who, in France, enjoy generous protections against eviction even if they default on rents.
Those who do rent out impose tough hurdles on prospective tenants, demanding hefty deposits, proof of income three times higher than rent, guarantors and even parental bank statements and tax returns.
Groups like Jeudi Noir argue that this adds up in effect to discrimination against the young, those on low income and immigrants.
"Ownership rights have an irrational hold on the French psyche," said Bayou. "But for every empty property there is a homeless tenant or family who stands to lose out."
Annual wave of spring evictions
Tension is rising again with the start of France's annual wave of spring evictions. Landlords are forbidden to kick out late-paying tenants during the winter, leading to a batch of new homeless in April.
In Britain, many landlords rent out property through housing associations that guarantee rents. Paris authorities complain that this practice is much less widespread south of the Channel.
Even Housing Minister Benoist Apparu has conceded that this is an "absurdity", in an interview with Le Monde.
Jeudi Noir would therefore like to see a tax on vacant properties to encourage landlords to put them on the rental market.
The homeless on the lowest rung of the property ladder -- immigrants, students, interns on unpaid work placements and even relatively well-paid young workers -- face a humiliating ritual every Thursday morning.
On this day new housing ads appear and landlords can cherry-pick applicants for the tiny number of available properties from a huge poll of often desperate applicants.
"When I was 26, I was one of few people my age in secure employment," said Bayou, who works as a consultant for humanitarian campaigns.
"What was even stranger was that I was earning EUR 1,500 per month, and despite my solid application, I was still unable to find housing in Paris," he said, still homeless, but poised to win a seat on the regional council.
AFP / Christina Okello / Expatica