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Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 August 2005, 22:39 GMT 23:39 UK
Paris fires highlight housing shortage
By Hugh Schofield

One of the poignant ironies of the latest house fire in Paris - in which seven more African immigrants including four children died - is that it took place in perhaps the most sought-after and expensive part of the French capital.

Fire fighters tackle the blaze in rue du Roi-Dore, Paris
Authorities have identified hundreds of run-down buildings in the capital
The rue du Roi-Dore is in the heart of the Marais, a neighbourhood of converted mansions and atmospheric narrow streets just east of the city centre.

The famous Place des Vosges - where property prices touch 7,500 euros (5,000) per square metre - is a stone's throw away.

And yet in the midst of this prosperity was a building which the authorities had placed high on a list of the capital's "most insalubrious".

Number eight, rue du Roi-Dore, could have come out of one of the great social novels of the 19th Century by Balzac or Hugo.


There was no running water, so residents used a standpipe set up on the street for their washing and cooking.

Mains electricity had been cut off, so they made do with jerry-rigged attachments to light-fittings.

Cockroaches and rats infested the five storeys, which were connected by a rickety wooden staircase.

The ancient paintwork was full of toxic lead and in normal circumstances would have been enough itself to have the place declared uninhabitable. Naturally, there were no fire-extinguishers or fire-escapes.

Above all, there was the desperate overcrowding. Until recently, 22 families, mainly from the Ivory Coast, lived in the building.

Twelve families had been re-housed. The remaining 10 were what the French call "sans papiers" - illegal immigrants waiting for regularisation.

The glaring similarities with two other recent disasters - the Hotel Paris-Opera fire in April which killed 24 and last week's conflagration in an apartment building near the Austerlitz station which killed 17 - force the question: why Paris?

Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe
Delanoe is accused of failing to renovate the capital's ageing properties

The answer lies in a combination of two factors.

On the one hand, there is large-scale and often undocumented immigration from France's former African colonies.

This has recently been exacerbated by civil conflicts in countries like Ivory Coast, though the process has been going on for years.

On the other hand, there are in the capital hundreds of abandoned buildings, which for reasons connected with complex inheritance rules have been in legal limbo for decades, some since before World War II.

The Paris authorities have identified more than 1,000 run-down buildings, in which some 13,000 families are housed or are squatting - and the majority of these families are certainly African.

Their situations vary. Those killed in last week's fire for example were not "illegal" at all but regularised French citizens of Malian origin.

But what the families have in common is that they are either at the bottom of - or simply off - the vast and growing list of requests for subsidised accommodation.

Political failure

Pressure groups have seized on the tragedies to push their agenda for immediate investment in public housing.

They say Africans are the victims of racism in the allocation of scarce resources.

They denounce the rampant inflation of Parisian property over the last five years which has increased the number of modest income families who can no longer afford to buy and upped the pressure on the waiting lists.

In demonstrations over the last days, left-wing activists have even accused President Jacques Chirac - a conservative - as well as the socialist Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe of complicity in the deaths for failing to provide adequate housing.

The political fall-out of the fires is certain to be bitter. Already the right-wing opposition in city hall is accusing Mr Delanoe of failing to provide adequate funds to renovate dilapidated properties.

Instead, they say he has obsessively pursued his ideological goal of ensuring "social mixing" by spending vast amounts of unnecessary money on buildings for low-cost rental in expensive arrondissement such as the 16th.

Mr Delanoe's team retorts that it is doing what it can with scant help from the state.

The building in rue du Roi-Dore for example was itself bought by the city only six months ago and was earmarked for redevelopment. But behind the recriminations there is above all a feeling of helplessness.

Both left and right have tried to tackle the problem of inadequate housing, and both have evidently failed.

1. 15 April: Blaze at Paris-Opera hotel kills 24
2. 26 August: Fire in 13th district kills 17, including 14 children
3. 30 August: Seven die in Marais fire, including four children

See firefighters tackling the blaze

In pictures: Paris blaze
30 Aug 05 |  In Pictures

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