Paris' glitterati become neighbors to evicted families

September 11, 1991|By Diana Jean Schemo | Diana Jean Schemo,Paris Bureau of The Sun

PARIS -- Marie Antoinette would have loved it.

On one side of the corrugated metal divide, the beautiful people cool down in an enormous inflatable swimming pool, sip champagne beneath the circus tent or shimmy down a runway decked with gladioli while a camera flashes their arrival onto a giant screen.

On the other side, 95 homeless families live beneath donated U.S. Army tents in a dirt field. They wait until afternoon, when the sun has had time to heat the water supply, to bathe out of buckets, and they take turns cooking on the four stoves.

The two extremes of Parisian society come full circle here and end up temporary neighbors on the banks of the Seine River.

But they remain worlds apart.

Trans-Paris-Reves is the hottest nightspot of the season, a playground for grown-ups that aims to never leave enough time for boredom.

"It's not really a disco, it's a place," said Marcel Chiche, one of the owners of Trans-Paris-Reves, which means Trans-Paris-Dreams. "We wanted it to be a cross between a circus and a nightclub."

Two weekends ago, the owners built a miniature golf course, on a temporary floor suspended above the dance floor, and had a fireworks show. Before that came a contortionist named Rose, not to mention acrobats and clowns. Wine, beer and soft drinks are served at an outdoor cafe or in a giant bird cage.

The beautiful people don't seem to be bothered that they are dancing under a tent while next door people have to live under them.

"I don't find anything surprising in it," said Christoph Lorca, a 22-year-old from Poitiers who is just finishing his stint in the French army. "Life is like that."

Mr. Chiche did seem a little ill-at-ease with the 600 homeless men, women and children next door.

The homeless here, who include families from the Arab states of northern Africa, sub-Saharan Africa and a few native French, say that the music keeps them up until dawn every Thursday, Friday and Saturday. But they do not complain.

"The music is annoying, but we can't say anything," said Dr. Clement Aymerich, an orthopedic surgeon from Brazzaville, Congo, who is living here with his wife and two children.

"Since we're foreigners here anyway, it would be very explosive. They'll say, 'Look at this. The foreigners are now telling us how to live. We can't even listen to our own music,' " said Dr. Aymerich, who holds dual nationality.

The squatters pitched their tents after Mr. Chiche pitched his. They are families evicted from their apartments.

The families were sent to welfare hotels, where they cannot cook, and have little money for restaurants. Or they fall apart, with mothers and children going to public shelters and fathers sleeping in dormitories where they work.

The Right to Shelter, a non-profit organization that believes the French government has an obligation to provide housing for the homeless, brought the families here for an extended sit-in on the banks of the Seine.

They began with 37 families squatting July 13 and have since grown with the number of homeless. One night last week, four new families from the Paris area came to join the squatters.

According to the city's Prefecture of Police, 65,000 people are either living in the streets or living in inadequate housing. And according to INSEE, France's National Institute of Economic Study Statistics, the city counts 117,000 empty apartments.

The squatters have won two legal rulings since Jacques Chirac, the mayor of Paris, sought a court order to evict them, arguing that the homeless are holding up construction of an apartment and office tower on the site.

The homeless here breathe the dust and debris of the different worlds they disturb. When the cars park by the disco, they send swirls of dust to the squatters. On the other side of the lot, construction of the new French National Library -- President Francois Mitterrand's controversial $2 billion plan to make books accessible to the common people -- dumps more dirt their way.

"If people are willing to eat dust living here, it's because what they were living before is worse than whatever is here," said Philippe Chavance, an architect and volunteer at Right to Shelter.

The sub-Saharan Africans appear to be the most community-minded, with a few women waking early to cook breakfast for their group, keeping an eye on the children and sharing what supplies they have.

"This is not scout camping," said Dr. Aymerich. "The people who come here are destitute. They come here with nothing."

As Dr. Aymerich spoke, a steady flow of children came to show him their scrapes and bruises, seeking sympathy and an occasional Band-Aid. Earlier in the day, he said, he had to send an 18-month-old girl who had drunk lamp oil to the hospital in an ambulance.

"If Victor Hugo came back here, he could write 'Les Miserables' all over again," he said.

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