Radical movements in music, art, and fashion were founded in these French capital squats, but the government is clamping down
Halfway up the hideously steep Rue de Ménilmontant, a hip boulevard in the former working class Belleville neighbourhood of Paris, lies the depressing remains of the legendary La Miroiterie squat.
Metal fences block off the entrance to what was once a venue for some of the city’s most radical art and transgressive parties. In 2014, the site was sold to property developers and the squatters were forced to leave. Now, it’s been completely demolished, as if it had been bombed, and the two buildings on each side emphasise the glaring void.
Construction work will start soon, and the squat will be turned into a collection of boutiques, a luxury spa, and a concert hall – but under the same historic name of La Miroiterie.
“It's a terrible shame what has happened there,” Gaspard Delanoë, a veteran squatter and perhaps the most famous figure in the Paris scene, tells Dazed. “We don’t agree with what the city is doing. It will become something bourgeois.”
For some, the snuffing out of La Miroiterie was a watershed moment. Once an ambitious, daring home to the city’s avant-garde underground, the Parisian artistic squat, at least in any meaningful form, is almost dead. Over recent years, the Paris city council has moved to, on the one hand, tame the movement by gradually legalising certain squats as city council-approved “places of collective creation” for exhibitions and artist spaces – albeit with caveats, while on the other, ratcheting up laws against illegal squatters.
This is all set to escalate under last year’s “Elan Law” which makes evicting squatters easier than ever before – removing the need for two months’ notice of eviction and a rule giving squatters amnesty over winter. A further proposition tabled earlier this year could penalise squatters from inhabiting any kind of building, rather than just homes.
“The direction of travel has been of criminalisation and repression, and the ELAN law in France is just one example of that,” says Alexander Vasudevan, a professor at Oxford University that published The Autonomous City, a book on urban squatting in Europe. “At the same time, gentrification, housing market forces and urban governance have put pressure on people occupying properties. They're facing this double-bind.”
Legalisation, however, poses a more subtle threat – and one that could in the end be a greater risk to the future of squatting. Paris now has over a dozen former squats which have been turned into legal cultural centres, with the city capitalising on their cultural capital and accelerating gentrification.
Back in 1999, a squat was founded by a group of young rebellious artists at 59 Rue de Rivoli, a six-storey 19th century Hausmannian building right in the centre of Paris. It became an icon, known as Rivoli 59, renowned for wild parties and performances. But in 2006, Paris city hall bought the space. The parties stopped, application processes and monthly fees were introduced, and now legal, it is a heavily-beaten path on the tourist trail, attracting 70,000 visitors every year to its 30 resident artists. Whether this has been positive for the artistic community remains the subject of fierce debate.
“Rivoli 59 is the best example of villainous artistic squats, with legalisation, transformation into an enormous gallery for tourists, rents to pay and even invitations to politicians,” said a spokesperson for the Squat! collective in Paris. “It’s no longer a squat, not administratively, spiritually or politically.”
“The city wants to legalise squats that are clean, tidy, and that are opened to privileged people, and at the same time criminalise those squatters who don't fit within that ideal” –anonymous Paris squat resident
Yet squatter Delanoë, one of the three original founders of Rivoli 59, who continues to be a resident, argues it has been for the good. “We don't lose through legalisation,” he says, speaking from his ramshackle studio full of found paintings emblazoned with provocative slogans. “Before our situation was very precarious. We would find a place and then be evicted a few months later. Us artists need a place to work, to rest and reflect.”
As a result, a thick wedge has been driven between the squatting community. “The dividing line is framed as between good squatters, who have some kind of cultural cachet, and the bad, often doing so in a way, in the eyes of the state perceived to be illegal,” adds Professor Vasudevan. “Are they being co-opted by the state? Are they pioneers of a new wave of urban regeneration?”
Delanoë was one of those to open a new squat in the south of Paris this summer, a grand former convent in the wealthy 14th arrondissement called Jardin Denfert. “If it had been other people, in my opinion they would have been evicted immediately,” he says. “But because it was us, who have a lot of experience and are well known around Paris, they said we could keep it open for now.”
Jardin Denfert has been squatted in by around 60 people, and is open to the public on weekends for exhibitions and concerts as well as free bike and language workshops. Each Monday, they hold a general assembly to discuss administrative decisions.
“It’s a project of urban rehabilitation, creation and artistic diffusion, open to all in the neighbourhood and the city,” says Maxime Colin Yves, 31, an illustrator who has a studio in the building. “I just came here for a citizen’s picnic one day and I’ve been here for three months.”
It exists in a strange, semi-legal space – and even Jardin Denfert’s residents could be forced out by December. Yet it has many similarities with the legalised spaces of Paris. Not far away Les Grand Voisins, set inside a former hospital, has its own cafe and chocolate maker. Les Frigos, a 43,000-square-foot frozen storage depot, has regular openings that welcome the whole family. Squatters groups argue that by legalising these spaces, the city wants to neutralise dissidence.
“Are they being co-opted by the state? Are they pioneers of a new wave of urban regeneration?” – Professor Vasudevan
Far out from the centre of Paris, in the banlieues on the edges of the city, the situation is more pronounced. The Laundy Sauvage squat, opened since May 2018 in a former stationary factory and storage facility for municipal bikes in Saint Denis, is home to 50 people, including many immigrants and three children that go to school on the same street.
At the end of this month, they are preparing to face an eviction attempt. “The city wants to legalise squats that are clean, tidy, and that are opened to privileged people, and at the same time criminalise those squatters who don't fit within that ideal,” says one female resident, who asked to remain anonymous.
Further legal wranglings are expected as Paris attempts to modernise certain districts ahead of the city’s Olympic Games in 2024. A new train station is being built 200 metres away from the Laundy Sauvage and nearby will be the future Olympic Village. Offices are already filling the neighbourhood. Although squatters always have done, the squatting scene in Paris itself is now living on borrowed time.