Text: Aidan Mac Guill
Image: Flickr CC Neno°
In January of this year riot police entered 22 avenue Matignon, a 4000 square metre office building in Paris’ prosperous 1st arrondissement. They had been tasked with evicting a group reportedly made up of students, political activists, parliamentary assistants, office managers and journalists who had been occupying the building, which had lain unused since 2006. The occupation had made news headlines around the world, as the top floors of the building, owned by the insurance group AXA, looked down onto the neighbouring Elysée Palace, home of President Sarkozy.
The group was Jeudi Noir, so called after the day of the week where many students can be found desperately scanning the small ads in newspapers and magazines in search of a place to live. Their stated aim, according to their website, is to “denounce the government’s indifference to a housing crisis that is becoming critical as the property bubble swells.”
Paris’ property boom has accelerated rapidly in recent years, with surveys suggesting rent prices increased by an average of 4.4% in the last year alone. A central demand of Jeudi Noir is the provision of more affordable housing options for students and those on low wages. While no official figures exist on homelessness levels in the capital, the French homeless charity Emmaus put the number at between 800 and 1000 this winter, of which 25% were those without official papers.
Jeudi Noir first drew attention in 2009 when they occupied a 403 year old building off the historic Place des Vosges in the 3rd. The building, dubbed La Marquise, had been abandoned by a banking heiress who had reportedly lost her mind, and lay unused for 44 years. The owner, living in a nursing home, claimed the house was her main residence and that she was conducting renovations on it.
With the help of Encore Heureux, a Parisian architecture office, Jeudi Noir worked on repairing the building and making it habitable again. Over the course of less than a year La Marquise was transformed into a valued cultural centre in the neighbourhood, hosting film screenings, concerts, rehearsals, seminars, workshops and exhibitions. Locals would pick up produce from the newly planted vegetable garden each weekend. Open days were hosted regularly, and the group would even provide tours detailing the history of the building to curious members of the public.
The courts ruled their occupation of the building illegal, and imposed enormous fines (€3400 for every month of the occupation). Despite appeals and campaigns of support, in October 2010 they were forcibly evicted from the Place des Vosges site by riot police.
In March this year Jeudi Noir were involved in the occupation of another apartment building opposite the Parc Monceau, this time owned by an Egyptian insurance company close to deposed President Hosni Mubarak. The building had been empty for more than 10 years, aside from squatters who occupied it from 2007 to 2009. They have also recently squatted another building belonging to Ali Bongo, President of Gabon.
Reliable figures on the number of vacant buildings in Paris are difficult to come by, in part because of the interpretable definition of what constitutes a vacant building. In many cases owners can claim renovations are taking place on ostensibly vacant buildings, even if no work takes place for years at a time. In any case, estimates range from 21,000 to anything up to 136,000 empty buildings.
Ironically it’s laws designed to protect tenants that contribute significantly to the difficulty of finding a flat. As it is illegal to evict tenants between November 1 and March 15 in France, because of the cold weather, landlords often complain of tenants not paying rent during those months. In order to prevent such cases, landlords and owners have imposed prohibitive application procedures, often requiring as much as 3 or 4 months rent in advance, a guarantor, and proof of employment.
Students and immigrants are the group most obviously affected by these requirements, and with insufficient student and affordable housing provided, and space at a premium in the capital, the problem continues to grow.
It would appear that Jeudi Noir’s current modus operandi is to target high profile, luxury unused apartments and offices in well-off districts of Paris. That policy is paying off, drawing huge press attention to the issue of affordable housing, and instigating healthy debate. While it’s more than likely the majority of Parisians believe in some kind of owners rights, many are now asking how long exactly is too long to leave a building empty in a city where living space is at such a premium? When can the council step in? And if not the council, why not groups like Jeudi Noir?
In any case, the Marie’s current ‘zero tolerance’ response seems at best to be misguided machoism, and at worst to go against the spirit and values of Paris’ history. Either way it seems to this author at least counterproductive to attempt to outlaw a group of intelligent campaigners interested in finding a solution to a very real and growing problem.