Nidra Poller is a novelist living in Paris. She is a member of the Board of Directors of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East spme.org
PARIS — High-pitched screams pierce the soft night air. Wave upon wave of piercing screams. Coming from rue du Roi Doré. The African squatters? The screams intensify, tearing into the soul of the night. What could be happening? Tribal warfare? Machete killings? No visual image goes with these screams that sear into the brain indelibly. How can a sound be so dense and so high-pitched? It’s a beautiful late summer night, people turn off rue de Turenne,* skirting the zone where something unspeakable is happening, and walk down rue Saint Claude, totally unabashed. As if two different films were spliced together. Suddenly flames appear, shooting over the rooftops into the sky. The squat is burning. Four days after a fire in the 13tharrondissement killed 17 Africans, 14 of them children.
From the piercing screams to the sky-high flames, approximately ten minutes had elapsed.
Neighbors pour into the streets. The fire department command post with its floodlights is stationed on rue de Turenne; ambulances, Red Cross personnel, police, and journalists are on the scene. Rescue workers want to bring the injured into the church on rue de Turenne but it is still closed for August vacation. No one can find the curé. Flames shoot into the sky, sparks flying.
Rumors circulate…people jumped from windows…at least two are dead. The African squatters are familiar figures in that quiet corner of the Marais. Women in boubous with babies on their backs, men in sweat suits, they draw their water from a standpipe on rue de Turenne. The children from the squat go to school with kids who live in comfort or luxury. Real neighbors.
Flames slice into the night sky. The heat is palpable. The building belches huge clouds of thick black smoke. The air smells of charred wood. Interminable burning. Finally, around midnight, the flames leap up one last time and die out.
The media report seven deaths, including four children. A pregnant woman threw her son out of the fifth-floor window in a desperate attempt to save his life. He crashed to the ground like a wounded bird, and died at the hospital. A couple with two children, the mother pregnant with twins, burned to death on the fifth floor. Several people were seriously injured.
The next morning friends, relatives, survivors, and housing rights activists gathered behind the barriers at the end of rue St. Claude, as close as they could get to the burned building. The activists shouted their anger, the bereaved expressed their grief. Women threw themselves to the ground, crying and pounding their fists, writhing and twisting as if they would tear themselves limb from limb. Cameramen ran up to film them. TV production trucks crowned with satellite dishes were parked all the way up and down the rue de Turenne. Anchors at every street corner.
After a lunch-hour lull, crowds gathered on the sidewalk in the narrow corridor between the church fence and the police barrier. The usual agitators were there with posters and slogans — small slapdash associations, a contingent from the anti-racist anti-Semitic MRAP, and the shock troops of DAL (Droit au logement, Housing Rights) a nasty association with questionable methods that feeds on the poor and vents anger against society with extravagant demands for subsidized housing and residence permits for all.
Firemen who had risked their lives to fight the blaze and policemen who had given their all to help the survivors are treated to clenched fists and insults from demonstrators who accuse the criminal capitalist State of deliberately burning immigrants. They go on for hours belting out their anger through bullhorns, beating war drums, mean and hateful, menacing. By grafting themselves onto the tragedy of the killer fire the professional agitators had acquired the same rights as the victims; riot police stood by stoically, not daring to confront them.
A plump woman, her angry face tightly framed in colorful African style hijab, told me outright, “We are going to burn white people’s buildings, then we’ll have our revenge. We’ll look at the mailboxes and make sure there are no African names, and then we’ll set fire to the building. We’re going to get revenge.” Asked if she belonged to any organized group, she replied that she is a survivor of the April fire at l’Hôtel de l’Opéra.
That was the first fire in the series. Its 24 victims are lumped together, in the public mind and on militant posters, with the 17 killed in the 13tharrondissement on August 25th, and the seven victims of rue du Roi Doré, for a total of 48 victims of the capitalist imperialist colonialist rich white man’s State.
The fire at l’Hôtel de l’Opéra was started by 31-year-old Fatima, who had a date with the hotel owner’s son, who worked as nightwatchman. She lit candles all across the dining room floor to create a sensual Oriental atmosphere. But her lover was dead drunk and out of commission. She threw piles of clothes on the floor and stormed out. The hotel burned. Africans (and other immigrants) who had been housed there while waiting for permanent lodgings were the victims…of Fatima. And one survivor is now planning to burn down white folks’ buildings in revenge.
Interviewed in front of l’Hôtel du Marais where the rue du Roi Doré survivors are temporarily housed, Pierre Aidenbaum, mayor of the 3rdarrondissement, where the burned building is located, deplores the failure of the central government to help municipalities finance public housing. Asked about the owner of the burned building, he answers vaguely that he lives in “the provinces,” neglected the building, didn’t reply to injunctions, and was finally served notice to repair or sell. He sold. At a bargain price.
The city planned to rehabilitate the building. They told the media that the work had already begun, but a tragically incongruous sign still posted on the charred remains of the building promises a more realistic starting date in 2007. Mayor Aidenbaum, who wants to provide decent housing for everyone, thinks that the illegal immigrants who lived in the squat (French for a building occupied by squatters) deserve to have residence permits “because they’ve been here for a long time.”
In fact, residence permits are not a panacea; many wage-earning legal immigrants also live in rotten firetraps. As for the residents of the burned building, they do not qualify for legal immigration, but they cannot be deported…because their children are French. A child born in France is French, regardless of the nationality of his parents. Given that there are thousands of ways to enter France and stay there illegally without getting caught, and there is a lovely way to make children, the legal-illegal immigration limbo is overcrowded and constantly growing.
By official admission, nearly a thousand buildings in Paris can be classified as filthy, dangerous, ramshackle firetraps. One third of them belong to the city. Another third belong to mixed public-private companies. This leaves one third in the hands of private parties. That doesn’t keep the housing rights professionals from shouting “REQUISITION!” When interior minister — and presidential hopeful — Nicolas Sarkozy says he wants all the squats vacated in short order, the requisitioners go wild with rage. They don’t want the poor people out of harm’s way, they want to use the charred victims as an arm to deprive the rich of their illearned gains.
And what of the arch villain, the owner of the burned building? Interviewed in Le Figaro newspaper, Joseph O’Dru, who lives in Lyon, explains that when he bought the building in 1983 it was operating as furnished rentals. In 1991 the rental manager died, and O’Dru was preparing to rehabilitate or sell the building. Squatters moved in four days later. He went to court several times, won his case several times, but the court-ordered expulsion was never carried out.
The residents of the building could not be regularized, could not be deported and, despite court orders, were not evicted. The owner of the building could not empty it and fix it up, but was found delinquent for not repairing it, and had to sell it to the city at, according to his estimate, one-third its market value.
Why should the city buy buildings when it has at least 300 firetraps of its own to renovate into decent housing for legal and illegal immigrants? A lucid analysis of the flow and the figures reveals a ramshackle situation that goes far beyond a thousand firetraps. The lunatic fringe demands everything for everyone, but responsible government officials are not much more reasonable; how can a modern industrial country absorb a constant influx of under-skilled people, entitled to welfare but, more often than not, unwilling or unable to adapt to the host society? Individual tragedies are humanly unbearable; the victims, whatever their superficial differences, belong to the one single human family; but their problems cannot be solved by humanistic sentiments. If the abiding racism of French society partially explains the difficulties faced by unassimilated African families, other factors are at work.
The case of Moussa Touré, a survivor of the August 25 fire, is eloquent. (International Herald Tribune, 27-28 August). “Why does it have to come to this,” he asks, “before anyone cares about what is going on here? Our problems didn’t just start today.” Moussa Touré’s problem is finding decent housing for his two wives and 13 children.
Who will subsidize housing for Moussa Touré, his two wives, and 13 children? Simple everyday experience yields the answer: an increasingly impoverished middle class, penalized for accepting the full burden of social and financial responsibilities. That is how misguided welfare-state economics punishes those who could create wealth and employment, leaving the lower classes locked in poverty, with no escape hatches in reach.
On another level, these African families living in misery in the City of Light, for all their human worth and dignity are, unwittingly, the stuff of which Eurabia§is made. They come individually for personal reasons and find themselves trapped in an inextricable situation, but their needs and suffering are exploited to undermine the societies in which they live. Officials from Mali and Côte d’Ivoire were not ashamed to visit the sites where their countrymen had perished and scold French authorities for not providing them with decent housing and residence permits.
EPILOGUE On the night of September 3, while the media were still focusing on dilapidated buildings and the housing rights advocates were stepping up accusations against the filthy rich, a fourth fire broke out, killing 18 people. This time disaster struck a clean, modern public housing project in L’Hay les Roses on the outskirts of Paris. Some but not all of the victims were African. The fire was started deliberately by four adolescent girls seeking vengeance against a friend they didn’t like anymore, who lived in the building. They have been formally charged.
In the interim, the August 26 fire had been reclassified from accidental to criminal. Though the exact cause of the rue du Roi Doré fire has not been announced, the tale of evil capitalists burning innocent immigrants is running up against some hard facts. From the disgruntled sweetheart of l’Hôtel de l’Opéra to the bitchy girls of L’Hay les Roses, an altogether different logic may be at work…in a country where 20,000 cars have been deliberately burned since January 2005.
*Rue de Turenne runs north-south from Place de la République to rue de Rivoli on the eastern edge of the Marais. Rue du Roi Dorée, runs one blcck east from rue de Thorigny (Picasso Museum) and is catty corner from rue St.Claude on the other side of rue de Turenne..
§ Bat Yeor. Eurabia: The Euro-Arab Axis. Farleigh Dickinson Press.
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