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Europe

France Bows to Growing Protests Over Homelessness

The plight of the homeless has become a hot button issue in looming French elections as growing protests over homelessness led by a French charity gather momentum.

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A French charity group has led the protest by setting up a tent camp in a trendy part of Paris

Sleeping bags are scattered on the floor in the abandoned office building in Paris. Other bags filled with clothes and other belongings are strewn around. On the door, a sign reads, "back office."

This is where Hafida Sadek lives with her two children. As a maid, she earns 680 euros per month. That isn't much in Paris. A 10-square-meter apartment in the French capital costs about 500 euros.

"I have been trying for 10 years to get a subsidized apartment but they keep telling me there aren't any available," Sadek said.

It is people like Sadek -- an estimated 100,000 of them in France -- that an organization called the Children of Don Quixote is fighting for. It was this group which took over the abandoned office building in a ritzy part of Paris to provide housing for people such as Sadek and has been calling on the government to help them.

And it seems that these days, the French government is listening.

Politicians jumping on the wagon

This week, the French government announced plans to create a "legal right" to housing in response to a snowballing campaign that has seen a tent city for the homeless spring up in the heart of Paris.

Frankreich Obdachlose Nizza Zeltlager Obdachloser

Tent cities have sprung up all over France

Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin said a bill would be presented to the cabinet on January 17 and hopefully adopted before parliament breaks up ahead of April's presidential election.

The law, if passed, would make France the second European country to guarantee the right to housing, after Scotland which adopted similar measures with its 2003 Homeless Act.

President Jacques Chirac used his New Year's address to promise swift government action on a "right to housing" -- a key demand of the protestors.

Legally enforceable

Villepin said the government wanted the right to become legally enforceable by 2008 for "people in the most difficult situations: the homeless, but also the working poor and single women with children."

Frankreich Obdachlose Lyon Zeltlager

The protests and tent cities have garnered much attention

"That is the time necessary to ensure that all the people concerned can be provided with decent lodgings, whether in a transitional shelter or an individual home," he said.

By 2012, the government wants the right to housing to be legally enforceable for all, with a guarantee provided by the state, or in some cases regional or local authorities.

From that point onwards, "every person or family housed in unworthy or unsanitary conditions" will able to take legal action to have their rights enforced, he said.

Villepin said the law would "make France one of the most advanced countries in terms of social rights." Housing would become the third legally enforceable right in France, along with access to education and healthcare.

Four months ahead of presidential elections, with the homeless issue thrust centre-stage, the housing measure was seen as a bid by the centre-right to underscore its commitment to social justice.

The Children of Don Quixote

The protest wave started last month when a small group of campaigners -- called the Children of Don Quixote -- pitched a 200-strong tent camp along a trendy Paris canal, housing homeless people as well as well-heeled citizens prepared to sleep rough for a few days out of solidarity.

Frankreich Obdachlose in Paris

Celebritites have come out to support the homeless

Makeshift camps have since sprung up all over France, including in the Mediterranean port of Marseille, the historic town of Orleans, and the southern cities of Lyon and Toulouse.

On Tuesday a group of eight struggling families, backed by campaigners, moved into a vacant office block near the Paris stock exchange, a giant squat that has been dubbed a "ministry" for the homeless and ill-housed.

Politicians of all stripes -- including presidential frontrunners Nicolas Sarkozy on the right and Segolene Royal on the left -- had responded on cue, lining up with pledges to tackle the plight of the homeless.

Emergency plan

According to the charity Emmaus, one million people in France do not have a home of their own: 100,000 sleep rough, while the rest live in campsites, hotels or shelters. Another two million people have housing "problems."

The "right to housing" measures comes in addition to a 70-million-euro ($90 million) emergency plan for the homeless announced last month.

But a spokesman for Segolene Royal, the Socialist presidential frontrunner, warned the government against making "great announcements," saying what was needed was a massive commitment to build more public housing.

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