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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: La misère n’est pas moins pénible au soleil

by Jean-Paul Piérot

Sunshine Brings No Relief to the Destitute

Translated Saturday 25 July 2009, by Isabelle Métral and reviewed by Isabelle Métral

The way a human community addresses the challenging issue of housing for the weakest and frailest of its members is a sure symptom of the state of that society. From the human figures discernible under a few rags lying along cold streets on early winter mornings to the line of tents along Saint Martin’s canal, to the squalid, exorbitantly-priced hotels run by greedy slum-owners - the stigmata of regression have clearly followed France into the 21st century. The crisis of pro-market policies, which have been promoted for more than twenty years as the new paradigm of modernity, only aggravates the difficulties of the greater part of the population, makes life even more difficult for the have-nots and isolates them even more.

This problem has nothing to do with the seasons, even if compassion runs high on winter nights when temperatures dip and death by hypothermia hits the headlines. Homeless men and women are just as destitute in July as they are in January, since a recent law makes it easier to expel tenants (by shortening the indebted tenants’ reprieve from three years to one), quite independently of the weather forecast. [1] Death in August in Paris - from starvation or lack of access to medical care or treatment (as public social services and associations are just taking hold) - is just as inacceptable as on Christmas Eve.

There are men and women who stand up and fight for human solidarity, whether from the militant ranks of associations, leftwing local councillors, or doctors, lawyers... All put their respective professional skills in the service of social housing, emergency assistance, or human dignity.

The “prowl” for destitute persons on which our colleague Lina Sakari recently accompanied militants of the Emmaüs association [2] sheds a crude light on the violence to which capitalism subjects people. Two yards away from the exclusive residential districts, Jean-Marc, a sound engineer who has worked for some of the most famous artists, has found shelter under the foliage of the wood. Like so many other “residents” of the trees, he tries hard to preserve his human dignity in his exile. But what a sad waste of talent it is when fully qualified workers fall so low just because they have been found insufficiently profitable under the supreme law of selfish profit that Sarkozy adopted for his political motto.

For these sad facts are nothing else but the consequences of political choices.

When a government absolves local councils that obstinately refuse to observe the law that obliges them to keep at least 20% of their building programs for social housing, when taxes get lighter for the well-stocked and when a former socialist minister advocates a new, heavy tax (which he camouflages under thick paint) which will be borne by low-income families, social cohesion is sure to be further undermined. Judging by its own data, the Fondation Abbé Pierre [3] puts the number of people like Jean-Marc at 100,000, and the number of people suffering from the housing shortage at 600,000: we are clearly facing a phenomenon that calls for a massive mobilization and the invention of alternative dispositions by the Left.

[1Especially as it is illegal to turn tennants out of their homes between October and March

[2A highly-respected association of long standing, les Compagnons d’Emmaüs promote the social insertion of destitute persons by encouraging them to join one of their local communities: reclamation of second-hand or discarded items of furniture is their main econonmic activity. The aim is to restore self-respect and dignity.

[3Another non-profit organization that cares for the poor and the homeless, whose founder, Abbé Pierre, has long been a publc favorite.)

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