The Fruits of European Socialism: Homelessness in France
When the first of 16 families entered a vacant four-storey office block in Paris one night last December, they placed repeated food orders so the neighbors could see from the comings-and-goings of delivery men that the address was occupied. Under French law, witness accounts of residency make eviction harder.Protecting people from the evil, rapacious landlords is a notion to warm the hearts of every leftist and socialist. But that has consequences.
But it was their next act that really had the building’s owner shaking his head in disbelief.
“What amazed me was when they invited in the housing minister a few days later,” said Spanish property developer Ignacio Lasa Georgas, who has temporarily lost control of his 7- million-euro ($9 million) office block between the Gare du Nord and Gare de l’Est railway stations.
“And over she came to give them her support.”
The squat at Number 2 rue de Valenciennes is both a political battleground and a symbol of France’s dysfunctional housing market. Activists helped the families move in to draw attention to how Europe’s second biggest economy, which prides itself on its welfare system, is struggling to provide basic shelter for many of its 65 million citizens. The problem is not unique to France, but the reasons for it are both aggravated by, and feed into, the country’s wider economic woes.
The housing shortage is further fueled by long-standing policies to protect tenants that discourage many owners from putting properties up for rent. Housing experts say as many as 7 percent of all apartments in Paris are vacant.
The red tape that clogs up bids for planning permission, as well as a steadily growing list of regulations on everything from safety to parking spaces, has also discouraged new building. Strict rules on building figure prominently in the total 400,000 regulations in France’s law books. In Le Mans, a city famed for its motor races, plans for a new school have hit trouble because authorities are insisting it be earthquake-proofed — despite a government report stating there has never been any evidence of seismic activity in the region.Again, the idea is to protect people. But politicians and bureaucrats can always find the need to “protect” people from dangers that aren’t significant, or if they are significant, the protection turns out to be vastly worse than the hazard.
The shortage is plain on the streets of the capital. An early morning walk reveals huddles of cardboard and blankets in doorways, the makeshift abodes of some of the 33,000 people estimated by housing charity Abbe Pierre Foundation to be living rough in France — a figure that rises to 274,000 including those in shelters, short-term bedsits and improvised homes on campsites or the like.Doesn’t sound like the stereotype of European socialism found among liberal U.S. journalists, or leftist American professors.
That is nearly half the 633,782 people officially recorded as homeless on a single night last year in the United States, a country whose population is almost five times that of France. Exact comparisons are difficult because the countries use different methods, but both measures include people who are living rough or in temporary shelters.
Add to the homeless those living in acute overcrowding or moving from sofa to sofa, and Abbe Pierre, the charity, estimates a total of 3.6 million people in the country lack decent housing. The group puts the shortfall of affordable housing at more than 800,000.
Under French law, squatting is a civil offence and evictions not simple. In France, no one can be evicted in winter. Data on squatting is hard to find, but the latest estimates suggest it has risen sharply in Paris — helped by increasingly organized activists — to around 20,000 squatters from about 3,000 in 2002, said Hans Pruijt of Erasmus University in Rotterdam, who has studied the practice across Europe.So leftists in France (and even right-of-center governments have to make concessions to a socialist culture in Europe) fail to protect an owner’s property rights. They allow squatters to occupy his property, and then threaten to de facto confiscate it at far less than fair market value. Redress in the courts is questionable.
Lasa Georgas, owner of the rue de Valenciennes building, has launched legal action to regain control of his building. Its last tenant — jewellery shop “Histoire d’Or” — moved to a more upmarket site before its lease ran out in March 2012. Lasa Georgas says he had new takers lined up including a private college, and an investor who wanted to buy the building to convert into a hotel. They even made a formal offer, but both projects are now on ice while he sorts out the squatters. Given the local government has intervened to support the families, that may take some time.
Despite his legal claim, Lasa Georgas is unsure when he will have access to the place, if ever. Hollande’s Socialist allies at Paris City Hall announced in April they would make an offer on the building, with a view to buying it to convert into social housing.
In France, local authorities have a pre-emption right to bid for buildings for the wider public good. This does not mean they can force a sale, but it obliges owners to either enter negotiations or challenge them in court, which can take years.
Jean-Yves Mano, the Paris deputy mayor in charge of housing, said City Hall made a “symbolic” gesture to buy the building. He declined to say how much it had offered, but called the price a “significant mark-down” on the market value which a government agency had put at 7 million euros.
He says City Hall uses its pre-emption right on up to 30 buildings a year and has no qualms about bidding low. “After all, we are responsible for looking after the money of the people of Paris,” he told Reuters at his office.
Lasa Georgas said the city’s offer was 4.3 million euros, which he rejected. He is angry. “I invested in France back in 2005 because at that point Spanish property prices were already sky-high and I thought French law would give me protection. But the authorities seem to have a clear aim of taking away my building.” A hearing on the case in early May was postponed on procedural grounds.
The consequence of these sort of policies is obvious: people don’t invest when their investments are not secure.
So France has a much larger per capita population of homeless people than the U.S.
A naïve view would say that this is idealism gone wrong. But socialism has never been based on idealism. It has been based on the selfishness and envy of the poor and working class people in Europe, and the lust for power of the leftist elites: the political activists, union officials, college professors, intellectuals, journalists and government bureaucrats.
And under Obama, the U.S. is moving in the same direction.