By the time I returned to Paris in mid-January I had decided I wouldn’t begin a new series of bulletins in 2018. But then this weekend we held a meeting of our association, Quartiers Solidaires and suddenly there was something worth sharing again.
We had served breakfasts to about 30 men, most of them familiar faces, one or two new. We’d been back and forth to the squat where we are storing our supplies at present, looking in the boxes for size 40/41/43 shoes, two or three pairs of jeans and gloves. By 10.30 the men had drifted off to spend the rest of the day as best they could. Snow was forecast and the wind was cold.
We - a group of about 15 associés - could have headed off to the café to carry on our discussions. Bob’s Bake Shop is always a welcoming space and not too busy early on a Sunday. But it seemed kind of right to hold the meeting outside, standing around under a grey sky with a few flakes of snow wafting down every now and then.
We were meeting in response first of all to the latest murmurings from the Mairie du 18ième. They allege they are hearing complaints about our breakfasts from local residents and commerçants. Giving a few men a hot drink and a sandwich on the esplanade ‘fixes’ them, to use the French verb. ‘They hang about and make a mess.’ I didn’t have a camera with me, which was a pity. It would have been good to take a picture of the empty sweep of the esplanade : not a migrant to be seen, no plastic cups or discarded bags, not even a solitary pigeon pecking about.
We needed this meeting to give us new energy after a long, hard winter when our trolley and our little store of food and clothes have been made homeless more than once. The cold air spurred us on. In less than an hour we agreed a number of new and revived initiatives to engage with the people who live and work in this small area. We know that there are far more who are solidaires than not and we need to give that silent majority opportunities to reaffirm and demonstrate their support.
Below is the French text of the manifesto we are putting out in response to the threats from the Mairie. I have followed it with an English text which says roughly the same. This is just one of our planned ripostes.
« Faire Vivre la Rue
La rue est à tous ; à nous d’en faire bon usage.
Quartiers Solidaires s’oppose à toute réduction des possibles : nous sommes présents quotidiennement depuis plus d’un an dans les rues de notre quartier pour faire en sorte que tout le monde se sente accueilli et écouté chez nous. Avec une simple table de camping, un caddie de supermarché et le soutien de riverains commerçants et habitants, nous proposons boissons chaudes, renseignements, orientations, vêtements et produits hygiènes en cas de grand besoin. Pendant à peine une heure, et sur un emplacement loin des immeubles, un petit rassemblement de gens de tous horizons se retrouvent pour échanger et se soutenir. C’est modeste, et essentiel : essentiel pour ceux dans la plus grande vulnérabilité, essentiel pour ceux qui souhaitent vivre dans un quartier d’accueil, essentiel pour aborder l’avenir avec optimisme. Nous ne sommes pas près d’y renoncer. »
« Bringing the street to life and life to the street
The street belongs to us all. As citizens we must make good use of it. The association of Quartiers Solidaires is against any attempts to limit the use of public spaces as a places for community and social interaction.
Every day for more than a year the members and friends of Quartiers Solidaires have been reaching out in solidarity to refugees and migrants. We have been able to do this because we have had the active support of local shopkeepers and residents. At times the generosity of strangers has been humbling.
With nothing more than a supermarket trolley, a picnic table and a thermos we have made hundreds of cups of hot coffee and tea and a similar number of sandwiches. We have given out leaflets with addresses and maps of the city, useful phone numbers and metro tickets. Gifts of soap, shampoo, paper hankies, razors, toothbrushes, shoes, coats, hats and gloves have been passed on to those most in need.
Our picnic table is the opposite of a threat to the wellbeing of the local community. On the contrary, it is a place of exchange and conviviality. We accept that what we do is very modest but we also recognise its importance, which is why we will not stop what we do. Quartiers Solidaires in all its diversity asserts that there are better ways to deal with the arrival of strangers in our midst, than by shutting out, cordoning off, incarcerating. »
For more in a similar vein you could look at work of The Good Chance Theatre which was active in the Calais Jungle and for the past six weeks has been working in the Bulle, the reception camp at Porte de la Chapelle less than a mile from where we serve the breakfasts. www.goodchance.org.uk
Good Chance Theatre in the Calais Jungle
N.B. from 16 June this year the National Theatre/Young Vic co-production of the play The Jungle will be on at the Playhouse Theatre, London. More information and tickets at www.thejungleplay.co.uk