A hostel that once housed the female students of an elite French university has been transformed into France’s biggest squat and a bleak symbol of its failure to stem a flood of illegal immigrants.
Batiment F, a squalid, dilapidated building on the campus of the Ecole Normale Supérieure south of Paris, now houses 1,000 people, more than three times the number it was designed to hold.
In each small room into which a single undergraduate would once squeeze the necessities of student life, families of up to four people, almost all from Africa, struggle to stay healthy, clean and comfortable. Desperate to make new lives in France, the squatters are divided equally between illegal immigrants, asylum seekers and those with permission to stay but unable to find housing.
Their presence is deeply embarrassing for the interior minister, Dominique de Villepin, as he struggles to meet President Jacques Chirac’s demands for a strategy to fight illegal immigration.
France’s immigrant population doubled to 3.4 million in “glorious 30 years” of growth after the Second World War, with most of the influx from its former colonies in Africa. The country is believed to have up to six million Muslims, the most in Europe.
About 100,000 illegal immigrants are thought to enter France each year, although unspecified numbers are in transit, such as those who head for the Channel ports hoping to reach Britain.
Supported by the Left and determined to resist any attempt to disperse them, the Cachan Thousand are said to be provoking rows in the government over how best to deal with their case. The student accommodation agency Crous won a court order last April for the building’s evacuation and wants it demolished to make way for a car park.
But officials are wary of trying to enforce the order with a police raid that might cause a riot.
Instead, administrators for the local departément are looking for a “social solution”, in other words finding alternative accommodation for the squatters.
Unlike the economic migrants and would-be asylum seekers who flocked to Sangatte, near Calais, in the hope of crossing the Channel to Britain, the Cachan Thousand have already reached their country of choice.
But one ministerial aide summed up the squat’s importance in the debate on immigration by calling it “a Sangatte on Paris’s doorstep”.
On the sprawling campus, Batiment F is easy to find. The families’ untidy possessions are piled high on the balconies. Rubbish and pools of water litter the entrance and the building has an unmistakeable look of decay.
The squatters, the vast majority from Mali, Senegal or Algeria, cling to the clothing and music of their homeland and the sights and sounds are those of west and north Africa.
Fidèle N’Tiema, a teacher from Ivory Coast who acts as the squatters’ chief representative, said that while work could be found only in the black economy, the people remained proud.
“We have our own rules and enforce decent behaviour,” he said. “When we caught some young men burgling others, we expelled them ourselves and had their room closed.”
He said the squatters were essentially from French-speaking former colonies and just wanted “the right to live in peace and dignity in France.”