The mayor of Paris is kicking councillors out of council-owned homes

Mayor Anne Hildago. Image: Getty.

Paris’ new mayor Anne Hidalgo has found a new way of liberating highly-sought after council apartments, and so help alleviate the city’s housing crisis: force their publicly-employed tenants to leave.

There are 163 city councillors under Hildago’s jurisdiction; 11 of them currently live in council housing (Habitation à Loyer Modéré, or HLM, a phrase which translates roughly as “rent-controlled housing”). Hidalgo has given them until 20 September to promise to seek alternative accommodation. While no city councillors have actively contested the directive, and some have already made the necessary move, the declaration has been met with reluctance: one described the departure from her apartment as being made “with a gun against my head”.

Social housing in France often conjures up images of forbidding concrete blocks, minimal toilet facilities, and a general air of delinquency and despair. But while this is true of some HLM blocks, others are remarkably pleasant, offering fantastic value for money and far more bang for one’s buck than many privately-owned apartments – particularly in central Paris.

These flats are meant to be distributed according to need, and there’s often a long waitlist – not least because a certain amount of fraud takes place. At its most basic level, individuals will lie about their adult children still living at home, so they can retain larger apartments. Once you’ve managed to obtain an HLM flat, you’re unlikely to be moved on, irrespective of changes in income or personal circumstances.

Some of the exceptions to this trend only highlight how long it’s possible to hang on to council housing you probably don’t actually need. Frigide Barjot is the stage-name of a notorious anti-gay rights activist and satirist, arguably best known for her song “Fais-moi l'amour avec two doigts” (“Make love to me with two fingers”). Last year she was asked to leave her 1,500 square foot council apartment in central Paris after she was found to possess six other properties in Paris, including a private parking space and three cellars, as well as two holiday homes elsewhere in France.

Two styles of Parisian apartment. Image: Jacques Demarthon/AFP.

In many cases, however, council housing abuse comes from much higher up: in 2008, the deputy mayor of La Corneuve, a north-eastern suburb of Paris, was found to be the tenant of two separate council apartments, one of which he was lending (but not, allegedly, subletting) to a “friend”.

The application process for HLM apartments is hazy and bureaucratic, with a mind-numbing number of forms that must all be impeccably completed. For recent immigrants with limited French, it can be a minefield, and while almost 70 per cent of Paris’ residents are eligible for council housing, many prefer to struggle with extortionate private housing rents rather than deal with the paperwork or negotiate the waiting list of over 135,000 people.

But, as in La Corneuve, it’s not uncommon for government and city council staff to fudge the application process in order to obtain cut-price housing for themselves. The French government has taken some steps to prevent this, for example stipulating that the assessing board must consider three separate applications for every apartment; but the opacity of the process means that fraud of this kind can be very hard to pick up.

Paris is a stratified city, where the rich prefer to rub elbows with the rich alone, and, in the leafy western arrondissements, municipal leaders have exploited France’s plodding legal system to block efforts to build council housing. But this may be set to change: Hidalgo has made a campaign promise to introduce more HLM housing in the west of the city, and to combat inequality across Paris by means of more affordable housing.

Prior to her election last March, she promised residents a more transparent application process, in which applicants can request particular areas and check up on the progress of their on-going application. Hidalgo has also promised to build some 10,000 new homes a year over the next decade.

Even if Hidalgo does succeed in kicking council staff out of council housing, there are likely to be other ways for municipal employees to exploit municipal services. In 2004, the-then mayor Bertrand Delanoë estimated that Parisian taxpayers were paying over €700,000 to give municipal employees access to city gardeners in their homes in affluent areas. And while the 11 councillors may be sent packing from their subsidised flats, the many former government or city employees who still enjoy rent-controlled housing must be counting their blessings: though they may have missed out on re-election, they have nonetheless been able to hold on to their homes.

 
 
 
 

Here’s how Copenhagen puts cyclists at the top of the social hierarchy

A cyclist in Copenhagen, obviously. Image: Red Bull/Getty.

Have you ever wondered why Britain is not a nation of cyclists? Why we prefer to sit in traffic as our Dutch and Danish neighbours speed through the city on bikes?

Forget about hills, rain, and urban sprawl: the real reason we aren’t cycling is much closer to home. It is not just lack of infrastructure, or lack of fitness, the reason that 66 per cent of Brits cycle less than once a year, is because of status.

An obsession with social status is hard-wired into our brains. As we have built a society that relies on cars, the bicycle has slipped to the periphery, and gone from being regarded as a sensible mode of transport, to a deviant fringe-dwellers choice.

Even though cycling to work has been shown to be one of the most effective things an individual can do to improve health and longevity, researcher David Horton thinks that there are a set of collective anxieties that are stopping us getting in the saddle. These include not just an unwillingness to be made vulnerable, but fear of being thought of as poor.

A quick look over the North Sea shows that there is an alternative. Danish culture has elevated cycling to the point of reverence, and the social status of cyclists has followed. As we have busied ourselves building infrastructure that testifies to the dominance of the car, Denmark has been creating magnificent architectural features, aimed specifically at bike users. The Cycle Snake, or Cykelslangen, literally suspends the cyclist above the city, metaphorically elevating the cyclist and creating a sense of ceremony.

In doing so, they are subtly persuading people of all backgrounds to see past their prejudices or fears and take it up as the clearly better choice. This means there are more women cycling, more older people cycling, and more ethnic minorities cycling. The activity is less dominated by comfortably middle class white males: there are cyclists from every side of the community.  

The Cykelslangen, under construction in 2014. Image: Ursula Bach and Dissing+Weitling architecture.

Despite abstract motivations like getting ripped and conquering global warming, it is only when the bike path becomes the obviously better choice that people will start to cycle. It can take years of traffic jams before people try an alternative, but if you make motorists jealous of cyclists, then the tables can quickly turn.

Another way that Copenhagen has done this is by taking privileges normally afforded only to the motorcar, and given them to the bike. The city has ensured that cycle routes do not include blind corners or dark tunnels, and that they form a complete, coherent network, and a steadily flowing system – one that allows cyclists to maintain a reasonable pace, and minimises the amount of times you have to put your foot down.

The ‘Green Wave’, for example, is a co-ordinated traffic light system on some of the main thoroughfares of the capital that helps minimise the amount of cycle congestion during peak times. It maintains a steady flow of cycle traffic, so that there is no need to stop at any point.


Small measures of prioritisation like this one increase the sense of safety and consideration that cyclists experience, making it natural for the citizens of a city to act in their own self-interest and get on their bike.

As well as redefining the streets around the bicycle, the Copenhagen Cycle Chic blog positively fetishises cyclists. The tagline “dress for your destination, not your journey” depicts the social fashion life of the cycle lane as a “never ending flow of happy people heading from A to B”. Its writers are  literally making cycling sexy, dispelling the idea that going anywhere by bike is odd, and helping the world to see that the bicycle is actually the ultimate fashion accessory.

So unlike in London, where cycling is still a predominantly male pursuit, Copenhagen sees a more even split between men and women. Not just because they feel safer on the roads, but because culturally they are comfortable with their appearance as part of a highly visible group.

So while our low level of cycling is partly due to our physical infrastructure, it is also due to our cultural attitudes. The mental roadblocks people have towards cycling can be overcome by infrastructure that is not only safe, but also brings old-fashioned notions of dignity and grace into the daily commute.

Of course, office shower facilities might stop cyclists being ostracised, too.