Four years ago the name Augustin Legrand circled the globe. His organisation, Les Enfants de Don Quichotte – The Children of Don Quixote – installed 100 illegal red tents on the banks of the Seine in December 2006 to draw attention to the plight of the homeless in France.
Nicolas Sarkozy, then just a prospective presidential candidate, promised that "two years from now, no longer will anyone be forced to sleep outside and die from the cold".
Despite new legislation that placed the right to housing on the same level as education and healthcare, the legions of French homeless – 4,000 rough sleepers in Paris alone; 146,000 in the whole country – are as large as ever.
Mr Legrand is campaigning again but this time he is insisting that the government should obey its own legislation. "The laws are there but the government still doesn't do anything," he told The Independent.
This winter – which has been even more severe than 2006 – the red tents have been out on the river banks again. This time they did not shelter the homeless but representatives of 80 per cent of the humanitarian organisations in France trying to embarrass the government into action.
The authorities did respond, by breaking up the encampments even more rapidly than in past years. Mr Legrand admits that he has lost faith in the persuasive power of the red tent campaigns. "Every year the tents go up, and every year they are taken down quicker than the last," he said.
Besides, he says, the temporary conscience towards the homeless which develops in France each Christmas may be counterproductive. The homeless are in need of more than a bit of festive generosity. "The government gives €1bn [£850m] a year to the homeless in France. They know it's not enough, so every winter they throw in €60m as a last-minute measure," he said.
Charity, either from the government or from the public, is not the solution, he says. It may even be a trap. "As far as I am concerned, charity is destroying our struggle."
Mr Legrand says that the plight of the homeless in France has deteriorated drastically since the economic crisis in 2008. The price of housing is at an all-time high in Paris. The average purchase price for an apartment within the French capital proper has passed the €7000-per-square-metre mark for the first time.
Not enough is being done to enforce the laws which order each town to provide a fixed proportion of social housing. As a result, Mr Legrand says, shelter is no longer a problem just for the down and out. "Sixty-five per cent of Parisians say that becoming homeless is a worry for them," he said.
All the same, he says, there is not yet a "counter-power" to speak to the government on behalf of the homeless. "So there is no danger for the government in not acting. We don't just need money, we need new political action (to make sure affordable homes are available). But the government prefers to spend money and do nothing."
Across the whole of France there are 100,000 places in shelters for the homeless and a further 10,000 in the winter. At the last official count, there were 146,000 homeless in France.
Mr Legrand was elected last spring as a regional councillor for Ile-de-France for the Europe Ecology-Green Party. He plans to use his position to launch a political campaign to ensure that laws on homelessness are enforced.Reuse content