Paris police tear down tents for homeless

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The Independent Online

An attempt to build a Christmas encampment for the homeless on the banks of the river Seine was swept away by police before the startled eyes of tourists at the weekend.

A homelessness action group, which generated worldwide attention a year ago by pitching an encampment of red tents in the centre of Paris, attempted an even more spectacular coup on Saturday morning.

Scores of red, "two second", all-terrain tents were erected along the quays of the left bank of the Seine opposite the Notre Dame cathedral. As tourists looked on, police moved in en masse using tear gas at one stage to sweep away the homeless people and their supporters.

There were brief scuffles. A protester fell into the freezing water of the Seine and had to be helped out by a police frogman. The tourists booed the police. The protesters sang the Marseillaise. Eventually, the encampment was dismantled.

The protest group Les Enfants de Don Quichotte (the children of Don Quixote) insists that the French government has failed to honour the promises made to resolve its protest last Christmas. Of 27,000 new lodgings promised, only 13,000 have been provided.

The founder of the group, a 6ft 6in tall actor, Augustin Legrand, boomed an explanation for the renewed protest through a megaphone. Switching to English to accommodate the needs of the tourist by-standers, he shouted: "Two hundred thousand homeless people in France." This claim is disputed by the government. So is M. Legrand's allegation that hundreds of SDFs (sans domicile fix or homeless people) will have to sleep rough in Paris this Christmas.

The Housing minister Christine Boutin supported last year's protest when she was a backbench deputy but angrily rejected M. Legrand's claims yesterday. "I condemn this action because I don't understand it," she said. "There has never been such a big effort (for the homeless). Since last year, 700 new places have been created in Paris... at the moment, there are 150 unoccupied."

However, the protest won the support of left-wing politicians, including the mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, and more embarrassingly for the centre-right government the Catholic Church.

Pierre Leven, secretary general of Secours Catholique, the church agency which helps the homeless, said that at least 6,000 places were missing in halfway houses and many more in emergency shelters. "If you don't protest and just ask for things politely, no one listens. We are obliged to demonstrate our anger. There is such a thing as a healthy rage," said M. Levene.

The leader of the Don Quixote group, M. Legrand, has not ruled out further high-profile, instant encampments of red tents unless the government gives way. "This minister is not capable of putting a strong programme for the homeless in place," he said. "She has no feeling for their suffering. Most of the halfway houses that were promised have never appeared. If they would rather we set up camp in the far end of the Bois de Vincennes, where we cannot be seen by anyone, that's what we will do."

Opposition politicians drew attention to what they called the "intolerant" and "repressive" approach taken by the government of the new French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

By contrast, the red tent encampment set up along the banks of the Canal Saint Martin last winter was tolerated by the then government of President Jacques Chirac for more than three months.