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Down and out in the Paris Olympics Refugees are being evicted from the glitzy development

A squat in Ile-Saint-Denis is evicted. Ameer Alhalbi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

A squat in Ile-Saint-Denis is evicted. Ameer Alhalbi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images


December 13, 2023   5 mins

This April, 27-year-old Abdelkarim was forced to leave his home in the Paris suburb of Île-Saint-Denis — a decrepit squat inhabited by more than 300 migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees like himself. “There were about 200 police. They told everybody: ‘Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go’,” recalls Abdelkarim, a native of Sudan, who has lived in France for the last three years. “They stopped buses next to the front door, and people got onto the buses.”

The buses took residents off to a slew of temporary shelters as far away as Toulouse. Abdelkarim was sent to a hotel in the town of Épinay-sur-Orge in the outer suburbs of Paris — though with a stay limited to just 15 days. “Two weeks later, we were on the street,” he says, searching for words in a language he is still learning.

Squats are not an uncommon sight around the French capital — a city whose average real estate prices tripled between 2000 and 2020, and which loses around 12,000 inhabitants every year largely due to its high cost of living. But this particular squat in Île-Saint-Denis — inside the abandoned property of cement producer UnibĂ©ton — had the misfortune of being located a quick stroll away from the Olympic Village. When the 2024 Paris Olympics kick off in July, this 52-hectare neighbourhood of glitzy residences will be filled with athletes and team officials — and thanks to the police intervention this year, VIP visitors will likely be spared the sight of migrants.

The prefecture of the dĂ©partement of Seine-Saint-Denis, which carried out the eviction, insisted it had nothing to do with the Olympics. But Faris Youss, a 31-year-old refugee from Chad who leads the activist group RĂ©fugiĂ©s autonomes (Autonomous Refugees), rejects the official narrative. “The prefecture doesn’t want to own up to the reality,” Youss tells me. “We had meetings with elected officials from city hall, where it was said: ‘the Olympics are coming soon — you’re going to have to leave here.’”

Abdelkarim, along with dozens of former residents of UnibĂ©ton, has since moved to another squat in an industrial zone in the suburb of Vitry-sur-Seine, far away from the bright lights of Paris and the Olympic Village. When I visited in late November, I had a glimpse of the alarming conditions of this makeshift residence: a busted ceiling in the stairwell; bedrooms crowded with multiple occupants; limited common space overwhelmed by drying clothes; trash overflowing in dumpsters outside; a slew of space heaters to protect against the looming winter. Abdelkarim, who now sleeps in a roughly 15 square meter room with two other people, says: “The best solution is social housing. In Île-de-France, there’s a lot of people [who want it]. There aren’t many people who can get it.”

It all casts doubt on the notion that the eviction of the squat was somehow beneficial to the residents. “It didn’t resolve any problems in the long-run,” says Paul Alauzy, spokesperson for the group Le Revers de la MĂ©daille, a coalition of prominent anti-poverty, migrants’ rights, and affordable housing groups critical of the Olympics. “What it did was cross off a location on the map for the prefecture and disperse 500 refugees across Île-de-France.”

The clampdown at UnibĂ©ton not only illustrates the staggering failures of the French state to welcome migrants and refugees — it is also symptomatic of another problem: the 2024 Summer Olympics threaten to aggravate Paris’s affordable housing crisis. Already, the Games are piling pressure on the housing market, affecting not just refugees, but also students and working-class residents.

In October, Le Revers de la MĂ©daille published a harshly-worded public letter to the Olympic organising committee, warning against a “social cleansing” of the Paris region that would affect the homeless and others living on the margins. The coalition called for a better “handling of people in situations of precarity and exclusion before, during, and after the Games”. Meanwhile, in an interview with UnHerd, Alauzy lamented the recent installation of fencing around the Charles de Gaulle bridge in southeastern Paris, a spot frequently used by homeless people for shelter.

University students are also feeling the pinch. Earlier this year, the Paris affiliate of the Crous, a public institution that manages student housing, announced plans to seize flats during July and August 2024 to make way for Olympic volunteers and partners — thereby removing 3,000 students from their residences two months ahead of schedule. The ministry of higher education has promised a €100 cheque and two tickets to the Olympics to each student affected.

“It feels like a joke,” says Esther Laudet, spokesperson for the student union Solidaires. “I don’t think students care much about tickets to the Olympics. What students want are places to live, meals, and dignified conditions to study.” However, it is still unclear whether the plans will go through: Solidaires has filed lawsuits against Crous, with key decisions expected in the coming months, according to a lawyer involved in the cases.

If Crous does get its way, it will effectively force students into the punishing private sector, where they will have to compete with other low-income earners. “The reality is that students are accepting conditions that are pretty indecent because they don’t have the choice,” Laudet says. “In Paris, it’s impossible to find housing for less than €400 [a month]. Or at least, it’s really, really hard to do so.”

The problem is most acute around the Olympic Village, which sprawls across the three municipalities of Saint-Ouen, Saint-Denis and Île-Saint-Denis. Featuring scores of modern, environmentally-friendly flats to be converted into social housing after the Games, the Village represents the crown jewel of the organisers’ pledge to deliver a socially responsible Olympics. But it may well become a symbol of the emptiness of that promise.

The lead project developer has promised that at least 25% of the Olympic Village flats will be reserved for social housing. But that number isn’t nearly as generous as it sounds. For one thing, the pledge of 25% is in line with the minimums required by French law. The number also falls below the current rates of social housing in the cities of Saint-Denis and Saint-Ouen, former bastions of industrial workers long governed by the French Communist Party. Then there’s the fact that developers are yet to announce what type of social housing will be hosted: will it be reserved for low-income residents, who make up the majority of housing requests, or middle-income ones? “They don’t want to give the numbers,” says CĂ©cile Gintrac, a Saint-Denis-based teacher and activist with the 2024 Olympics Village Committee, sounding exasperated because she has been asking for such details for years.

Meanwhile, the flats intended for the private sector are wildly more expensive than existing houses in the area. Vinci, one of the main developers in the Olympic Village, is already advertising flats at around €7,000 per square meter — roughly five times the median monthly household income of the dĂ©partement. “There are very few of these that are going to be accessible to residents of Seine-Saint-Denis,” Gintrac said.

Beyond the Olympic Village, Gintrac is also concerned about the Games constricting housing supply next summer — and in particular Airbnb swallowing up much-needed apartments as landlords pivot to more attractive sources of income. “These big events tend to result in reduced housing supply for the most precarious people and the number of available flats more generally in the private sector,” says Gintrac, pointing to this autumn’s Rugby World Cup.

While Airbnb has come under fire in Paris proper, it is rapidly expanding in the banlieues, which now account for roughly half of the flats rented out on Airbnb in the Paris region. A November report from researchers at the Université Paris Cité and the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) found that, from 2015 to 2022, the number of flats on Airbnb in Seine-Saint-Denis rose from 1,311 to 9,341. Will Airbnb continue its expansion here after the Games as landlords discover that short-term rentals can be more profitable than renting to financially-strapped tenants?

At the squat in Vitry-sur-Seine, the Olympics don’t appear to be viewed with any fondness. When I asked Abdelkarim about them, he shrugged his shoulders. “It’s a big festival, it’s good for France, it’s good for Paris, but for us
” He trails off.

That sense of ambivalence could turn to hostility if the ultimate legacy of the Paris Olympics comes to resemble that of its predecessors: low-income residents of Athens, Beijing and Rio de Janeiro all experienced well-documented forms of displacement, and even the 2012 Games — which were supposed to be different — failed to deliver on the ambitious vision of “social inclusion” promised in East London. Despite this grim record, French authorities still cling to the notion that the Paris version will somehow be exceptional. But the early signs aren’t encouraging: next summer’s spectacle may well reproduce an experience of urban exclusion that has become painfully ordinary.


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Cynthia W.
Cynthia W.
5 months ago

** Abdelkarim, who now sleeps in a roughly 15 square meter room with two other people, says: “The best solution is social housing. In Île-de-France, there’s a lot of people [who want it]. There aren’t many people who can get it.” **
If I understand this correctly, Mr. Abdelkarim is saying, “I’m here. You owe me a free house.” Is that right?

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
5 months ago
Reply to  Cynthia W.

Two would be better..

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
5 months ago

“The clampdown at UnibĂ©ton not only illustrates the staggering failures of the French state to welcome migrants and refugees”.

Why does the writer consider the state should welcome migrants and refugees? Building suitable accommodation where demand is already high (as illustrated by the high rentals that can be commanded) for people coming into a country at the expense of the existing inhabitants should not be the priority for the French state. Presumably the appalling accommodation and squats available to the migrants provide them a better life than was available in their countries of origin else they would have returned.

Those who would like to see the migrants better accommodated can always club together to pay for better accommodation themselves rather than expecting others in their country who don’t welcome more competition for jobs and accommodation to fork out through taxation.

NIck Brown
NIck Brown
5 months ago

At no point does this article address the question of why these people are in Paris – or indeed, France; what they are refugees from and why they should have some sort of automatic right to remain.

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
5 months ago
Reply to  NIck Brown

Exactly. The author writes:pressure on the housing market, affecting not just refugees, but also students and working-class residents.

The order and emphasis is clear here and working class Parisians are clearly the least of his concerns.

can't buy my vote
can't buy my vote
5 months ago
Reply to  NIck Brown

It’s the same on the other side of the Atlantic. “Now that they’re here, how can we make their lives wonderful?” is the message that is broadcast throughout the world.

R Wright
R Wright
5 months ago

I’d have enjoyed this article more if it had focussed more on the housing, Airbnb and poverty issues, not merely caricaturing a wannabe Jacobin piece by whining about squatters and illegal immigrants losing their free accommodation.

Aidan Trimble
Aidan Trimble
5 months ago
Reply to  R Wright

Agreed. My big take away from the opening couple of paragraphs was that Abdelkarim has been in France for three years and still can’t speak the language well. That’s more revealing than the author realises, I suspect.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
5 months ago

There needs to be a huge clampdown on AirBnB, especially in towns and cities where housing affordability is a critical issue. It’s a blight.
It also annoys me that it allows landlords to offer holiday accommodation without having to comply with the same laws & regulations that apply to other establishments like hotels, B&Bs etc. There should be a level playing field.
Finally, it’s unfair on other residents of houses with multiple units. If one (or several) units in the house are rented out on AirBnB, they have the risk of unknown people always coming in and out of the house – and those people don’t always behave well, leaving rubbish everywhere, making noise and (I’ve heard) being unpleasant towards the genuine residents.

Last edited 5 months ago by Katharine Eyre
Billy Bob
Billy Bob
5 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

I agree with every word of this, it needs eradicating from society

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
5 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

AirBnB should be a win win for property owners and visitors to a town or village ensuring that accommodation that is available and would not otherwise be used enables travellers to stay at more reasonable rates than they would otherwise pay and in more interesting properties. Many of the laws and regulations applicable to hotels are totally inappropriate for someone letting out an extension to their own home or an ordinary flat or house.

The idea that much of the AirBnB accommodation would be available for ordinary long erm residents is unrealistic while regulations exist to make getting rid of unsuitable tenants a nightmare for landlords. A landlord who might be happy to let out an extension to their property or a flat or house that they temporarily don’t occupy on a short term basis is often reluctant to take on a longer term tenant that they can’t easily get rid of if they turn out to be unsuitable or unable/unwilling to pay on time and comply with the terms of the lease or they wish to repossess for some other reason.

It is the inflexibility and tenant favourable nature of much landlord and tenant legislation that makes AirBnB more attractive to many who only wish to relinquish property for a limited time with the ability to repossess when they wish to do so.

Of course, flats bought specifically to commercially rent out for AirB&B can be a blight on the neighbourhood and drive up accommodation costs but simply targeting AirBnB accommodation without providing flexibility for individual short rentals is not going to solve the problem of high housing costs.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
5 months ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

Vienna introduced a limit of 90 days per year on short-term rentals of entire units which will come into effect next summer. It aims to keep the sharing economy going and allow landlord to do short-term lets without taking much-needed residential space off the market.
Seems sensible, but I have no idea how they will police and enforce the rule.
I still can’t stand AirBnB though and would not shed a tear to see it disappear, even though I know it won’t. It started off with a good idea, i.e. giving people with a spare room a chance to earn some extra cash, but then morphed into Frankenstein’s monster.
Ooo, yeah – I wish I could summon up some sympathy for landlords, I really do. But unfortunately, I’m part of a growing army of millennials and younger generations who will never own property and will be renting our entire lives, never being able to really set down roots (and people still wonder why birth rates are plummeting!). There’s some part of me which understands that property owning is a challenging lark, but sympathy? Sorry, you and your asset security are barking up the wrong tree.

Last edited 5 months ago by Katharine Eyre
Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
5 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

I certainly didn’t wish to evoke sympathy for Landlords, who as you say are usually better off than most still renting, I simply wanted to highlight that regulating AirBnB out of existence may not produce more accommodation for long term tenants or lower the cost of such accommodation.

I do agree that commercial interests have to some extent morphed the original idea into something of a Frankenstein monster but that is the result of bad legislation downstream – in the UK at least.

Interesting to hear about Vienna’s approach. My wife and son enjoyed their recent visit to the city and commented on the cheapness and efficiency of the transport system in contrast to the high cost of museums and food. They stayed in a reasonably priced hotel you will be pleased to know!

Andrew Wise
Andrew Wise
5 months ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

What is wrong with sympathy for landlords? They provide a valuable social function (essential)
in the UK we’ve been pillorying landlords over the last few years and guess what they are leaving the market and the rental prices are going up as a consequence.
Investing capital and making money is a good thing not a bad thing

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
5 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Wise

Agree with what you say. It was simply that my motive for writing was to point out the problem rather than evoke sympathy. Landlords don’t need sympathy just a system that makes it worth the hassle and risks of renting out their property.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
5 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

I have just posted something regarding AirBnB which has gone straight into Awaiting for approval. Rather bizarre.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
5 months ago

Are they really going to sanitise Saint-Denis? If so that is simply splendid news!

Saint-Denis houses perhaps the most impressive building in
medieval France if not Europe, the former Royal Abbey of Saint- Denis. Here in the mid twelfth century Abbot Suger experimented with what would later be called ‘Gothic’ architecture when he rebuilt the Choir*. The Abbey was also the necropolis or burial place for nearly all the Kings of France, it also held all the paraphernalia for the Coronation, Crown Orb, Sword etc plus the great war banner of the French, the ‘Oriflamme’. Additionally most Queens of France were crowned**here. Even to this day the 18th century claustral buildings of the Abbey accommodate the prestigious Legion d’Honneur school (girls only).

The fact that this wonderful place has been allowed to become a carbuncle on the backside of Paris is nothing short of a national disgrace. Now at last salvation is in sight!

(*Completed 1144, although Sens might challenge this!)
(** Kings crowned in Reims.)

Bruno Lucy
Bruno Lucy
5 months ago

Charles, your naivety is very refreshing. It will remain exactly as it is

Last edited 5 months ago by Bruno Lucy
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
5 months ago
Reply to  Bruno Lucy

I hear there are plans to rebuild the NW Tower, do you happen to know anything about this?

Bruno Lucy
Bruno Lucy
5 months ago

NW ‘?? As ??

J. Hale
J. Hale
5 months ago
Reply to  Bruno Lucy

So the resting place of French kings is now a slum. I suppose the Marxists got what they wanted.

Bruno Lucy
Bruno Lucy
5 months ago
Reply to  J. Hale

The thing is, the French pay lip service to the idea of kings. Anyway, we get a new one every 5 years( or ten if he pulls off a new term ) nowadays, a lot less messy than 1793.
Had St Denis burned 4 years ago, it would have caused a lot less commotion than Notre Dame. It’s nice for tourists to wander around Île de la CitĂ©, much less around St Denis if you cherish your dear life. The place is a slum with this cathedral standing in the middle of it. Although Macron in one of his deliriums called it once the new California. This place is really odd, at the same times it houses the best cardiological hospital in the country.

Mark Gourley
Mark Gourley
5 months ago

How true. The Abbey is very splendid and historic but, alas the surroundings…
 It is as though Westminster Abbey were located in the middle of Peckham.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
5 months ago
Reply to  Mark Gourley

I wondered what was wrong with having Westminster Abbey located in Peckham apart from being a bit off the beaten track for tourists until I checked the statistics. Majority black and Asian population and a high violent crime rate – no necessary connection of course.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
5 months ago

“In Paris, it’s impossible to find housing for less than €400 [a month]“

Surely this should be €400 a week in Paris? The median rent in NZ works out around €350 a week, most youngsters here would give their right arm to only be paying €100 a week in rent.

Last edited 5 months ago by Billy Bob
Bruno Lucy
Bruno Lucy
5 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

A “ Chambre de bonne “ or maid bedroom, right under the zinc roof, communal toilets, about 9 sqm ( that’s the legal minimum ) rents for 600 eur a month in my neighbourhood

.no shower

.and the tenant is happy as a clam not believing his luck. Just to show you how bad it is.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
5 months ago
Reply to  Bruno Lucy

That’s no worse than NZ. I just had a rough search on the countries main property advertising site and there are only 10 properties in the whole of Auckland that are available to rent at that price. I’d hazard a guess London is just as bad as well

Bruno Lucy
Bruno Lucy
5 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

I lived in New Zealand and the comparison doesn’t stick. Even your 10 properties in Auckland wouldn’t offer the squalid conditions these Maid rooms offer.

J. Hale
J. Hale
5 months ago

Chad is the destination for refugees from war torn Sudan. So why does someone from Chad get to move to France? France needs better immigration laws and they need to enforce them.

Bruno Lucy
Bruno Lucy
5 months ago

Airb’nb is a plague but the author conveniently forgets to mention that City Hall is already limiting the number of days owners can rent ( 120 days a year) A lot of apartment owners refuse to see their buildings turned into a wheeling suitcase paradise and a lot of body corporate simply forbid it

like in my building. In my view, it should simply be forbidden, period.
But getting back to the article
..I am baffled to read somebody who most certainly is illegally in the country has claim to social housing when low income people born in the country ( my cleaning lady for example ) can’t even get one after having lost their private rental ending up in a years long waiting list and having in the meantime to live far away from where they work. As to gentrification

far from it. Have a look at Porte de la Chapelle where a new Calais is now what local residents have to put up with watching the value of their dwelling heading south. Even the posh 16 th arrondissement has become a drug dealer paradise like Porte de Saint Cloud. Have a look at the TrocadĂ©ro 

and most of all 
.be careful. Right across the river from there
..the Eiffel Tower is somewhere I would not spend a minute of my time. Paris has just become a filthy mess and there is plenty to be done before spending millions in a useless Olympic game.
Clamping down on illegal immigration would already be a good start we are not about to see when other countries like Sweden, Denmark

.and even guilt ridden Germany are changing their tunes. So we end up playing musical chair with these people, shifting them from towns to villages in the country where nobody wants them.
Personally, I wish we didn’t get the Olympic Games in Paris. We need this like a hole in the head in a city already soooo difficult to live in and the mess it will be is already written on the wall.

Roger Inkpen
Roger Inkpen
5 months ago
Reply to  Bruno Lucy

Paris also bid for the 2012 Games. I was hoping they would win as it would avoid us having the expense and problem of redundant structures post Games. Selfishly, I was hoping to catch some of the sailing as Le Havre is just a ferry ride away for me!
However, I’m glad to say the London Games went exceptionally well. The main stadium has a tenant and the park looks great. Bon chance to Paris!

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
5 months ago

I think the potential for riots and terrorism is the greater issue. Terrorism is perhaps the explanation why so many Christmas fairs and carol services are being cancelled in the UK.

Michael McElwee
Michael McElwee
5 months ago

The “better handling of people?” Who said there is a better way? To assume there is a better way is to assume there are never too many people. And is this not precisely what the EU assumes?

Wild Mare
Wild Mare
5 months ago

Surely the next stop is Calais followed by 5 star accommodation in the UK?

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
5 months ago

The paradox of locating a new business park centred on the national sports stadium on the outskirts of one of the poorest towns in France. The interest for international visitors has been balanced by social tension and overpolicing of events within this troubled ‘banlieue’ (public housing-based suburb of a major urban centre in France).
For the logic persists that Paris the museum city should be preserved without alteration for global tourism. Much peripheral ghettoism persists as a consequence which can’t help but overspill and menace these logics of major international spectacle.

Rick Frazier
Rick Frazier
5 months ago

The professionalism of the Olympics makes it a mostly unnecessary sporting event. Viewership has steadily declined ever since professional athletes were allowed to compete. It proves to be an economically bad decision for cities to host this event. Some sectors of the ecoonmy will benefit, e.g., construction industry, trade unions, lodging, but overall it will be a net loss. It’s a sure bet the ultimate cost will be much higher than initial projections, draining funds that could otherwise be used to alleviate some of the city’s existing problems.

Last edited 5 months ago by Rick Frazier
J S
J S
4 months ago

Social housing and rent controls limit supply and drive prices up. If governments were serious about affordable middle class housing they would phase these out.