Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault made it official: the government would requisition vacant buildings regardless of who owned them, including office buildings. It would then convert them to apartments and make them available to the homeless and the “badly housed.”
As a first step, he asked for “an inventory of available buildings.” That list should be on his desk in “a few weeks,” he said. He was in a rush to identify these properties “so that we can undertake at least several operations in January and February 2013.” A desperate move to halt the collapse of his numbers. And another broadside at investors.
It’s getting tough for him and President François Hollande. As France sinks deeper into its economic mire, people are losing patience: those who still have confidence in Hollande plunged to 36%, the lowest level of any president six months after taking office (the data go back to 1981). He dropped to 31% among workers —a catastrophe for a Socialist—and to 21% among shop keepers, artisans, business owners, and CEOs.
And Prime Minister Ayrault hit 34%. Among his predecessors, only Édith Cresson in 1991 and Alain Juppé in 1995 were lower. Both were sacked, Cresson 11 months into her term, and Juppé two years into his. Only 19% of the shop keepers, artisans, business owners, and CEOs had any confidence in him—despite his “gaffe” that he would be open to discussing the 35-hour workweek to bring down the cost of labor, which was followed by furious backpedaling from the entire Socialist power structure. Among workers, his confidence level dwindled to 29%. An untenable position. He should be polishing his resume.
Instead, he’d requisition buildings.
With his announcement, he backed Housing minister Cécile Duflot. She’d already pointed at the “seriousness of the situation” and declared—as the first major cold wave imposed additional risks on the homeless—that she’d study the possibility of requisitioning vacant buildings for the purpose of converting them into housing for the homeless and the “badly housed.”
To preempt the conservative opposition from having public conniptions, she dragged their former standard-bearer Jacques Chirac out of the closet. Back in 1995 when he was still mayor of Paris, he requisitioned, “as everyone remembers,” about 1,000 offices and apartments.
Requisitioning buildings and apartments is a tactic for all sides of the political spectrum. The law that authorized it was passed in 1945 to deal with the post-World War II housing crunch. And during the 1960s, over 100,000 requisition orders were issued.
Advocacy groups such as Jeudi Noir (Black Thursday) and Droit au Logement (Right to Housing) have been pressuring the government to do something about the “housing crisis.” To make a public point, they chose a famous symbol as backdrop for their press conference: 1a, Place des Vosges—a building of 1500 sq. meters (16,000 sq. ft.) that has been vacant since 1965.
I used to live not far from there and walked through the Place de Vosges a lot, always wondering why someone would allow such a valuable property to remain empty. At the time, it was visibly going to heck. Yet it’s in an awesome location, facing the garden in the middle of the square, with galleries and cafés on two sides, and no traffic—an immense luxury in Paris. Members of Jeudi Noir squatted that building for a year until they were removed in 2010, a highly mediatized affair.
Instead of doing his utmost to encourage private sector construction, Prime Minister Ayrault has jumped on the bandwagon of the squatters, sending shivers down the spines of those who invest in real estate development and construction. With perfect timing: just when France desperately needs that business to pick up speed—not only to create sorely needed housing units, but also to create jobs.
Unemployment is over 10%, youth unemployment over 25%. In disadvantaged areas, such as a number of volatile suburbs, unemployment is far higher. For example, in Clichy-sous-Bois, an eastern suburb of Paris, unemployment is 22%, and youth unemployment is astronomical. The pressure in these areas is rising. They’ve blown up before. Jobs would relieve some of it. But requisitioning buildings and scaring investors won’t.