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While New Orleans is grappling with its floodwaters, the city of Paris is dealing with fires. In the deadliest year since World War II, 65 people have lost their lives in apartment blazes. The victims mostly have been immigrants and poor. Many of those killed were West Africans squatting in dilapidated buildings. The number of deaths has stunned the country and drawn attention to the plight of many immigrants, as Eleanor Beardsley reports.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY reporting:
For the past three years, 35-year-old Vamousa Kone has lived with his wife and son and 20 other African families in an abandoned Paris printing house, until last Friday when police expelled the group in an early morning raid. While they were promised alternative housing, four days later, they are still living in Red Cross tents set up in a nearby park. Kone, who is from Ivory Coast, said he fled the war in his country hoping to find a better life in France.
Mr. VAMOUSA KONE (Refugee): They always told us that it's a land of human rights; we came. And we are experience it, the human rights position, in the black skin position. It's not convincable.
BEARDSLEY: Kone has a job and is legally in France, but says he was forced to squat because he cannot find an apartment. Immigrant families make up a third of the city's 100,000 applicants for public housing, all competing for about 12,000 available apartments. A recent study by the French national statistics office showed that because of their large families and latent discrimination, immigrants tend to wait longer for housing. Many spend years in squalid, temporary accommodations.
Paris has hundreds of abandoned buildings caught in limbo due to complex inheritance laws, and the city is inundated with often undocumented African immigrants from former French colonies. The combination of the two proved lethal this summer.
Mr. NICOLAS SARKOZY (French Interior Minister): (French spoken)
BEARDSLEY: In response to the fires, French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy has called for all dangerous buildings to be evacuated and their occupants rehoused. Conay's building was the first on a citywide hit list, but critics call Sarkozy's campaign a publicity stunt. Without long-term solutions like more low-cost housing, they say, evicted immigrants could end up on the streets.
(Soundbite of protest)
Group of People: (Chanting in unison in French)
BEARDSLEY: On Saturday, tens of thousands of Parisians demonstrated for the right to a roof. Protester Olivier Besancenot says the conservative government's eviction plan is making a bad situation worse.
Mr. OLIVIER BESANCENOT (Protester): (Through Translator) There are thousands of vacant spaces in the city left by multinational companies and various organizations, and we simply have to enforce a law on the books since 1945 that says these empty spaces can be used to house the homeless.
BEARDSLEY: French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin has pledged to build 5,000 subsidized apartments in unused public buildings over the next two years and 5,000 emergency shelters within two months, but critics say it's not nearly enough.
(Soundbite of crowd noise)
BEARDSLEY: Back in the park, social workers have brought food and are dishing out hot plates to the hungry families. Ironically, aid organizations say this group was in no immediate danger as their building was equipped with fire extinguishers and they had a practiced evacuation plan. Parisian Joelle Killan, who lives in the neighborhood, said she came to the park to bring sanitary supplies to the young mothers.
Ms. JOELLE KILLAN (Neighbor): (Through Translator) I think it's unbelievable that this is happening in France, but we see the same thing in other countries like in the US with what's happening in Louisiana. It's as if rich countries can't even take care of their poor, or perhaps they just consider them as less than human.
BEARDSLEY: Paris City Hall says it offered temporary accommodations to this group at a hotel outside the city, but because many hold jobs nearby and their kids are in neighborhood schools, they don't want to leave. Paris' housing dilemma is complicated and won't be solved overnight, but officials say that's still no reason for people to die. For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.
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