PARIS: The night has been cold but Rama Kanoute and her family will sleep outside again, crouched on a pile of mattresses, their belongings beside them. French police evicted Kanoute, her husband and two children last month from the run-down flat they squatted in for years but she has vowed to stay on the cobblestones in front of the house until Paris city authorities offer them a permanent home.
“All I want is dignity, a place to live,” said Kanoute, whose parents came from Senegal, a former French colony.
Dozens of families of African origin have been expelled from Paris squats in the past few weeks.
Anti-racism groups say their expulsions show the difficult plight of immigrants and their descendants in France, where many live a half-life on the fringes of society, discriminated against for jobs and housing because of their origins.
In the past five months, fires in crowded and dilapidated Paris buildings have killed almost 50 people, many of them immigrants and children.
The deaths shocked a city best known abroad for its spacious boulevards and historic monuments, lifted the lid on living conditions for immigrants and exposed a grave housing shortage.
Conservative Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy called for squats and run-down buildings to be closed after the fires.
The ambitious Sarkozy, who is the government’s number two, has also angered opposition parties with vows to get tough on immigration — comments many see as an attempt to win over right-wing voters in his bid to become president in 2007.
Officials say Paris has about 60 unsafe squats and around 1,500 families live in flats that are considered unhygienic.
Many poor people say they have no choice.
“Rather than staying outside with our children, we came in,” Kanoute said. “The walls were damp and mouldy. There was no electricity in the bathroom. I have been washing in the dark for years.”
In 2004, there were 4.5 million immigrants aged over 18 in France, making up 9.6 per cent of the population, according to the national statistics office INSEE.
The interior ministry has said there are between 200,000 and 400,000 illegal immigrants in France, seen as a kind of “promised land” to unemployed youths in former African colonies.
In Paris, more than 100,000 families, many immigrants, are waiting for permanent social housing, officials say. For now, they live with friends or stay in shabby hotels or squats.
Rene Dutrey from Paris’ Green party, which is a partner in the city government, says it is hard to say how many of these are foreigners but a majority of those living in unhygienic flats have an immigrant background.
“They are the most vulnerable,” he said. “They face discrimination on the private housing market because many landlords don’t want black people. And they are discriminated against because they don’t have the resources.”
Others say the discrimination extends to the job market.
“Many immigrants are doing the work the French don’t want,” said Jean-Pierre Dubois from the LDH human rights group. “They are more likely to take on short-term contracts.”
Two fires killed 24 people in derelict houses in Paris at the end of August.
“It’s always Africans. Always, always, always,” Kanoute said, watching her children play around their makeshift camp.
“We are the ones who get up in the mornings to work in buildings ... It’s African women cleaning up the mess of politicians in their offices in the morning. And at night, we come back to our derelict homes. Is that normal?”
After the fires, the government vowed to make land available to build more than 20,000 homes and said it would provide 50 million euros ($60 million) to renovate decrepit buildings.
But opposition parties and anti-racism groups have said the measures will not be enough to solve the housing crisis.