Homeless debate enters election campaign

3rd January 2007, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Jan 3, 2007 (AFP) - From a tent city for Paris street dwellers to a mock "ministry" for the homeless set up in a giant squat, a snowballing campaign in favour of France's down-and-out has thrust the issue centre-stage ahead of presidential elections in April.

PARIS, Jan 3, 2007 (AFP) - From a tent city for Paris street dwellers to a mock "ministry" for the homeless set up in a giant squat, a snowballing campaign in favour of France's down-and-out has thrust the issue centre-stage ahead of presidential elections in April.

Spurred into action by the headline-grabbing campaign, politicians of all stripes -- including the presidential frontrunners Nicolas Sarkozy and Segolene Royal -- have been lining up with pledges to tackle the plight of the country's estimated 100,000 homeless people.

In his New Year's address to the nation, President Jacques Chirac promised the government would act in the coming weeks to create a legal right to housing -- one of the key demands of a charter drawn up by the protestors.

Chirac's government has already announced a 70-million-euro (90-million-dollar) emergency plan for the homeless and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin was to outline the new "right to housing" measures to the press on Wednesday.

Late last month, campaigners pitched 200 bright red tents along the Canal Saint Martin, in a trendy district of northeast Paris, creating a camp for around 100 homeless people and a similar number of well-heeled Parisians prepared to sleep rough for a few days out of solidarity.

Makeshift camps have sprung up in the Mediterranean port of Marseille, the historic town of Orleans and -- since Tuesday -- in the southern cities of Lyon and Toulouse, where a dozen tents were set up in the beating rain.

Launched by a small group called Les Enfants de Don Quichotte (translated as "The Children of Don Quixote") -- the campaign grabbed national headlines over the Christmas period.

This week eight struggling families, along with several pressure groups, moved into a vacant office block near the Paris stock exchange, creating a giant squat that is to serve as headquarters for the protest movement -- which has since widened to the broader question of decent housing for all.

Campaigners have dubbed the squatted building the "ministry for the housing crisis," which they blame on rising speculation in the property market.

According to the charity Emmaus, one million people in France do not have a home of their own: 100,000 sleep rough, while the rest live in campsites, hotels or shelters. Another two million people are struggling with housing "problems".

Hafida Sadek, 47, a cleaning lady who raises two children on a monthly salary of 680 euros ($900) was evicted in September from the small flat where she had lived for the past 10 years. She moved into the third floor of the "ministry" just after Christmas.

"They tell me there is no housing available. But it's not true... look around you," she said, watching her nine-year-old son play with the squat's other children on sleeping bags laid out on the floor.

The campaigners have already been ordered to leave the building, which belongs to a French bank and is in the process of being sold, but are confident they will be able to stay on until at least after the election.

Though they realise that serious progress will take several years -- the country lacks an estimated 800,000 homes -- they are determined to use the run-up to the election to extract some hard pledges from the candidates.

At the weekend, Royal, the Socialist candidate for president, called for a "vast plan" against poverty and exclusion.

Her right-wing rival Sarkozy vowed last week that "in two years' time, nobody will be sleeping in the street any more" -- but his ruling UMP party insisted that public housing should be a stepping stone to help more French people out of rented lodgings and onto the property ladder.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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