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Last Updated: Saturday, 3 September 2005, 11:51 GMT 12:51 UK
Living in squalor by the Eiffel Tower

By Caroline Wyatt
BBC Paris correspondent

Up to 60 mainly African immigrants, many of them children, have died in recent house fires in Paris. It has highlighted a long-standing housing crisis and raised serious questions over the treatment of immigrants in France. Caroline Wyatt met one of the families affected by the crisis.

Paris skyline
France is one of the richest countries in the world

Paris is the city of dreams.

Who on a grey and rainy day in London has not dreamed of owning a little flat in the French capital, overlooking a cityscape of slate rooftops, where you can stand at the window and watch the setting sun turn the clouds a vivid pink over the Eiffel Tower?

When Fofanna Satou and her husband came here from Ivory Coast, they held in their hearts a similar dream, albeit a more modest one.

What they wanted was a country where they could live in peace and raise their children without fear of civil war.

All they wanted was a job and a decent home to live in.

Ten years on, they live in one of the most sought-after districts in Paris, where developers sell renovated flats for up to half a million euros.

Mildewed walls

The street Fofanna lives on looks idyllic.

A quiet pedestrianised alley, where it is safe for her three children to play chase with their friends, their laughter echoing against the sandstone walls.

The state of this slum in the middle of a wealthy, western European city came as a physical shock
And when you look up, the blue sky is framed on either side by the grand Haussmann buildings five storeys high, their iron shutters closed against the late summer heat.

But then Fofanna invites us into her home.

In the hallway, the paint peels dejectedly from the mildewed walls. Bare wires hang down from derelict sockets as water drips through the roof of the hallway.

The smell is of damp and neglect.

"Come in," she beckons, seeing me hesitate on the doorstep with my TV cameraman, Matt.

I hesitate partly because I am not sure how all three of us are going to fit into the flat.

Slum conditions

I have seen poverty across the former Soviet Union, in Afghanistan and southern Iraq.

Yet the state of this slum in the middle of one of Europe's richest cities comes as a physical shock.

Firefighters tackle the blaze in the rue du Roi-Dore, Paris
Authorities have identified hundreds of run-down buildings in the capital

The front door opens into the living room, which is where this family of five lives, cooks, eats and washes.

Just space for one sofa, two chairs and a gas oven in the corner, powered by a canister, near where the washing hangs out to dry.

All immaculately clean, or as clean as you can keep somewhere when you have no kitchen and no bath; where you wash up in a tiny sink next to the lavatory, making sure that you watch the floor so you do not get bitten by the rats. But at least they scare off the cockroaches.

Slung on Fofanna's back in a bright, West African scarf is her youngest child, 17-month-old Baba.

After 10 years on the waiting list for a council flat, Fofanna no longer believes in her dream of a decent home

He is dozing but occasionally wakes to give an asthmatic cough.

"It's the damp," his mother explains. "He's been sick since he was born."

But now Fofanna has had enough.

She is frightened. Her cousin was badly injured leaping to safety from a second storey window when fire broke out recently in a similar squat a few streets away.


His neighbours were not so fortunate.

They and their children died, trapped on an upper floor as the flames turned the night sky red with fire and black with billowing smoke.

Fofanna is terrified the same thing could happen in her building. The landlord abandoned it when the families stopped paying rent in protest at the state of the flats.

Yet after 10 years on the waiting list for a council flat, she no longer believes in her dream of a decent home.

Her husband has a job at the airport. The family could pay rent but not at Paris rates, where the property boom saw prices rise by 15% last year alone.

"If we'd known what it would be like here," Fofanna tells me, "we might never have come."


I leave her flat feeling curiously ashamed.

Demonstrators protest at housing conditions in Paris (Photo: Pascal Pavani/AFP/Getty Images)
Hundreds of people have taken to the streets to demand better housing

How, in this comfortable capital of a nation which prides itself on its egalitarian instincts, is it possible for so many to live in such squalor?

I asked an official from Paris City Council. She sighed and gave an eloquent shrug.

"It's been a problem for years. We can't build more homes in the city centre. We have 100,000 people on the council waiting list and only 10,000, maybe 15,000, flats free each year."

Paris City Council has started renovating some of the tumbledown buildings.

But it is a slow process and property developers are more lucrative clients than the poor.

And there is another hurdle. Four hundred thousand immigrants in France live here illegally, without residence or work permits, so they have no right to council housing, even if it were available.


The shock of so many fires in just four months has at least prompted a government promise to close down these dangerous buildings, as they become an increasingly lethal refuge for the dispossessed.

But what then? Where do families like Fofanna's go?

Some have ended up in a tent city in the suburb of Aubervilliers, living with their children in a makeshift refugee camp on the streets.

And they are still there as winter approaches.

The fires opened Parisians' eyes to a secret world of poverty in their midst, long hidden behind the shutters and the grand facades.

But after the public outrage and the demonstrations, will anything really change?

Fofanna and her neighbours doubt it.

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

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 3 September, 2005 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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