How a band of dedicated housing activists got the French government's attention (and participation).

Activists with the Paris-based housing rights group Jeudi Noir entered a vacant office building in broad daylight on December 31. Experienced in illegal occupations, or squats, they did not expect to be stopped. One wore a worker's hardhat. They leaned a ladder against the wall and slipped through a second-story window.

As 2012 waned, they carried in mattresses and pillows, lamps, a stove, crates of food and tanks of water, orange juice and rum, duct tape, and brown paper to cover windows against unwanted eyes.

According to French law, squatters who occupy a space for more than 48 hours cannot be forcefully evicted. Instead, they must be sued by the proprietor, a process that can take months.

Jeudi Noir, whose name translates to "Black Thursday," are no ordinary burglars. A few of them are members of the city, regional and European governments. Since 2007, they've engineered squats aimed at generating media buzz and winning political support for their actions. An opened squat evolves into a campsite for activists and the homeless. "I support them because I believe they show what the government should do," says Eric Coquerel, national secretary of the Parti de Gauche, or Party of the Left.

This is not the first Jeudi Noir squat to generate headlines, but it may be the one to change policy. This latest occupation is the activists’ first since the Left swept the 2012 elections in France. Housing minister Cécile Duflot announced plans for reform on Monday after visiting the new squat. Interior minister Manuel Valls appeared on news network Canal+ to tell one of the squatters: "Madame, you are not outside the law, because housing is a right under the law." (The right to housing is constitutional in France.)

Julien Bayou, center, after an eviction in April, 2012. Photo: Flickr/RemiJDN.

Julien Bayou, who helped to found Jeudi Noir, was moved by Valls’ remark. The famously tough interior minister evicted illegal Roma settlements in September. "It’s more than we hoped for," Bayou says. "We’ve been doing this for six, seven years, and this is the first time that the forces of order have told us, 'You have a point.' "

Housing in France is the most overvalued in Europe, according to a study last month in the Economist. An estimated 3.6 million people are homeless or inadequately housed [PDF].

In Paris, housing is "globally inaccessible," says Dan Steinfeld, deputy director of the city’s housing bureau. He cites astronomical rent increases. "It is difficult to imagine, when one is not French, when one does not live in Paris, to what point things are strained," he says. Still, because of speculation, maintenance, inheritance, vacation rentals or pieds-à-terre, nearly 8 percent of residences in Paris were empty in 2009, according to Insee, which performs the French census.

The activists and their supporters decry these vacancies when so many need homes. “I recognize property rights, but I don’t recognize the right to do nothing with one’s property," says Gauthier Caron-Thibault, councilor to the city of Paris and a member of Hollande’s Socialist Party.

Squatter Saida Berrahel, who had been homeless since 2010. Photo: Jacqueline Feldman.

Shortly after taking control of a building, Jeudi Noir invites homeless and inadequately housed families to join them. “We do a ‘casting’ before we open a building,” explains Julien Boucher, an official at the city’s 17th arrondissement who is active in Jeudi Noir.

One occupant of the current squat, Saida Berrahel, had been homeless since 2010. Summers, she slept in parks; winters, she crashed with friends or checked into hospitals. "Personally, I’ve had enough of the street," she says. But she fears she will find herself homeless again.

"When the people were selected to live there, they were clearly told that they were going to be instrumentalized, that they were living there for the cause," says Thomas Fredet, who belongs to an artist collective that works with Jeudi Noir. About 60 people are currently living in the squat, which has over 21,000 square feet of space but only one shower.

Bruno Morel, director of Emmaüs Solidarité, which fights homelessness, calls the group’s methods “extreme” but concedes it commands attention on housing issues. “When Jeudi Noir did its squat at Place des Vosges, everyone knew about it,” he says.

“In Paris, there are empty buildings, and it seems absurd to leave them empty.”

The eviction of an unsuccessful squat in April 2012. Jeudi Noir (and European Parliament) member Karima Delli faces off with a policeman. Photo: Flickr/RemiJDN.

Jeudi Noir opened its first squat in 2007 with Macaq, an association that occupies buildings to stage art projects, and DAL, which performed some squats in the 1990s, along with garden-variety riots. Called the Ministry of the Housing Crisis, located at the city’s center, the squat attracted visits from every presidential candidate left of Sarkozy and a devoted blog at the website of the national newspaper Libération. The French call Jeudi Noir les nouveaux militants—the new activists—for their youth and media savvy.

The building Jeudi Noir entered December 31 belongs to a Champs-Elysées-based partnership comprised of a Dutch holding company and two Majorca-based companies who hold minority interests. This is no accident: the activists prefer squats like this one, a perfect example of the international real estate speculation they oppose. The proprietors have not yet filed a suit, though the activists expect they will.

This squat’s publicity makes its eviction impolitic for the owners, but no less inevitable. Marc Ganilsy, a lawyer who has helped squatters in Paris postpone eviction, says his strategy is "only buying time.” When the case settles for the proprietor—as squat cases eventually do—police can and will evict the occupants.

The current squat, at 2 rue de Valenciennes. Photo: Jacqueline Feldman.

Meanwhile, Jeudi Noir squatters have settled in at their new address, 2 rue de Valenciennes. Fatoumata Toure, an immigrant from Ghana who lived with seven of her children in a hotel room before moving them here, pops corn for her kids on the stove. The activists were delighted to find electricity and hot water in the building, which had stood empty for two years. Even the bathroom’s corporate-style hand-dryers run. Dusty phone cords trail from intermittent jacks.

Schedules for resident meetings and household chores paper the squat. Jeudi Noir and DAL volunteers man the door 24 hours a day, screening visitors. About eight activists live on the Jeudi Noir side of the building, largely separately from 14 families with 25 kids on the squat’s “DAL side.” Fredet’s collective, Comptoir Sauvage, provides children’s activities and homework tutoring several times a week.

Residence meeting at the squat. Photo: Jacqueline Feldman.

One night last week, Jeudi Noir squatters shared wine and sausage and discussed fire hazards: the squat has no smoke detectors. That night was the first snow in Paris, but outside, nothing was sticking. Although the activists are politically supported, they remain legally—and otherwise—precarious. “The worries are typical,” Fredet told me. “When are we going to be evicted? What if the power goes out tomorrow?”

Top image courtesy of Flickr user RemiJDN.

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