French solidarity forces action on homelessness

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The Independent Online

The plight of France's estimated 100,000 homeless people has leapt from the bottom to the top of the country's political agenda in just two weeks.

The Socialist presidential candidate, Ségolène Royal, yesterday became the latest politician to promise urgent help for the sans domicile fixe or "SDFs" - a once largely invisible army of down-and-outs, the working poor, the wandering young, illegal immigrants, alcoholics and the mentally ill.

Judged by events of the past fortnight, the most effective politician in France is not Mme Royal or President Jacques Chirac, but Augustin Legrand, a 31-year-old actor.

In mid-December M. Legrand, his brothers and a couple of friends established an illegal encampment of SDFs and sympathisers on the quays of the Canal Saint Martin in the centre of Paris. Within days, the double line of red tents was domintating news bulletins through the quiet Christmas period, forcing the government to crash through the gears of a new homeless policy.

Similar encampments have now sprung up in almost every large town in France, from Lille in the north to the chic Promenade des Anglais in Nice. The original Paris encampment has attracted high-profile, "sympathy SDFs" including the actors Béatrice Dalle and Jean Rochefort.

In the past few days, political parties from the centre-right to the far left have signed up for the six-point "Canal Saint-Martin" charter, calling for "an end to the [homelessness] scandal which shames a country like ours".

The only parties to refuse to sign are the far-right Front National and the ultra-Catholic conservative Mouvement pour la France. Both blame the crisis on illegal immigration.

In his televised new year address to the nation, President Chirac ordered his government to prepare snap legislation to make the right to a home legally enforceable in France. This was one of the six points in the charter drawn up by M. Legrand and his organisation, Les Enfants de Don Quichotte (The children of Don Quixote).

Mme Royal, who makes a point of making as few promises as possible, said yesterday that she would make housing one of the centrepieces of her presidency if she is elected in May. Each large town would be forced to create an emergency shelter capable of housing 1,000 people, she said. But M. Legrand refuses to be impressed by his success. "I just had a good idea and a few people behind me who believed in it. My strength is that I am sincere," he said.

Little has yet been done, he points out, to fulfil the other points in his charter, which call for an end to the "temporary solutions" and "emergency shelters" which "dehumanise" the homeless. Among other things, the charter calls on public authorities to rent or requisition, private apartments and houses to provide permanent homes for SDFs.

The success of M. Legrand's campaign has infuriated some charities which have worked with the homeless in France for years. Yves Perret, president of Notre-Dame-Sans-Abri, a homeless support group in Lyons, said the campaign was "indecent" and a "media stunt".

"It insults the efforts and devotion of the staff and volunteers who work with the homeless all the year long," he said.

The problem of the homeless was not just a question of poverty or lack of political will, he said. It was a complex issue, often involving mental instability, alcoholism and drugs.

Other homeless activists say the campaign will not help all homeless people, which include illegal immigrants and the mentally disturbed. But they say it has attracted attention to a problem ignored for years.

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