Interview with Ian Brossat, Deputy Mayor of Paris in Charge of Housing

«We want to continue our efforts to keep Paris affordable for the poorest Parisians and the middle classes»

Mar 6th, 2020
Ethan Earle
Social housing units in Paris

Ian Brossat, aged 39, is a professor of modern literature who formerly taught in the Paris suburb of Sarcelles. In 2014 he was elected as deputy mayor of Paris, in charge of housing and emergency accommodation. He is also a national spokesperson for the French Communist Party (PCF).

 

In this mid-February interview, he sat down with Ethan Earle to discuss the French municipal elections taking place in March, the state of the broader French left, social housing, Airbnb and the 2024 Olympics.

 

*** French version available below. *** En français ci-dessous. ***

 

Ethan Earle: You’re standing for re-election in the March municipal elections and your party, the PCF, is allied with incumbent mayor Anne Hidalgo. Can you tell us why Hidalgo’s ticket is the best option for the people of Paris?

Ian Brossat: Paris is a city with a lot of specific features, one of which is that it is very attractive and thus extremely vulnerable to liberal globalisation. In view of all this, we need a left-wing team in city hall: a team that stands up for public services and defends the idea that our city is not just for the privileged. Anne Hidalgo is the candidate who’s best placed to deliver these policies. The left’s track record proves it: just look at what was achieved under Bertrand Delanoë (the previous mayor), then during Anne Hidalgo’s term as mayor. When the people of Paris go to the polls on 15 March, the question they’ll be answering is this: do they want to keep fighting for a Paris that’s affordable for everyone, or do they want to see Paris turn into a financial centre and a playground for the rich?

EE: What specific steps have you and the rest of the team in city hall taken to make Paris affordable for everyone?

IB: First of all, we went all-out to address the issue of housing. Housing is Parisians’ number-one concern: it’s their single biggest expense. If Paris is to remain a city of middle-class people and working families, then something must be done about housing. We’ve created and funded 42,000 social housing units since 2014, and a total of 110,000 since 2001. As a result, 550,000 Parisians – that’s one Parisian in four – currently live in social housing and are thus immune to the effects of real estate speculation. So people from all walks of life – ordinary workers, teachers, cashiers, childcare workers, and so on – are still able to live in Paris. If there were no social housing, people from many social groups would be priced out of the city.

We’ve also taken action in a number of other areas: for instance, we’ve bolstered early-childhood services by creating 5,000 new places in publicly funded daycare facilities. Paris is the French department with the largest number of childcare places, so families can have their children looked after from an early age without paying through the nose. We’ve also implemented a raft of social pricing measures. Children from the least well-off families pay an affordable €0.13 for a meal in a school cafeteria, and public transport is free for senior citizens and children aged 4 to 11.

EE: I’d like to hear a bit more about what you and your allies would do if you won a second term, but before that, let’s talk about the opposition: La République en Marche (The Republic on the Move) with Griveaux and now Buzyn, and the Republican Party with Rachida Dati.

IB: There are currently two different forms of right-wing politics opposing us. There’s the crude, grotesque, vulgar and, in some respects, extremist right represented by Rachida Dati – a right that is the spiritual successor of the right in the days of Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency. And then there’s the right represented by Benjamin Griveaux and now Agnès Buzyn, which, for all its efforts to make itself look more respectable, still champions liberal ideology. Capital has two candidates fighting its corner.

Dati and Buzyn’s opinions are largely identical. For instance, they’re both against social housing. The proportion of social housing in Paris has increased from 13% to almost 24% of the city’s housing stock. Dati and Buzyn don’t just want to stop developing social housing, they actually want to sell it off!  We built these homes to enable poorer and middle-class families to live in Paris, and the right wants to turn them over to the private sector. In Dati and Buzyn’s view, the families who live in social housing need to either buy their homes or move out. It’s a kind of segregationist mindset: they think that people shouldn’t live in Paris unless they can afford it.

If either of them won, we’d see a return to the dark days of Jacques Chirac and Dominique Tiberi’s terms in city hall: the working classes would be mercilessly driven out of Paris. The city authorities did build social housing in the 1970s and 1980s, but it was all outside the city proper. Paris was only for the wealthy. The right ‘settled’ the city’s employees – street sweepers, refuse collectors, childcare workers, and so on – in the communist towns of Seine-Saint-Denis, which welcomed everyone. That isn’t the Paris we want. We believe that intermingling and social diversity make Paris what it is.

EE: Anne Hidalgo’s ‘15-minute city’ is an entirely different concept for Paris’s future. What can you tell us about what she wants to do? Tell us about your own plans too: what would you try to do if you were re-elected?

IB: Anne Hidalgo’s vision for the city is structured around two pillars. Firstly, there’s the social dimension I was talking about earlier: we want to continue our efforts to keep Paris affordable for the poorest Parisians and the middle classes. We plan to create even more social housing: ultimately, we want social housing to make up 30% of the city’s housing stock by 2030. We also want to keep implementing rent-control measures in the private sector. We plan to extend free public transport to everyone aged under 18 and continue creating new daycare places until there are enough to meet demand: in other words, before the end of our mandate we plan to have enough publicly-funded daycare places for any family that wants one.

The second key factor in Anne Hidalgo’s vision is the environment. Pollution is a very serious problem in Paris, so the city needs to lead the way in the ecological transition. We want to reduce car use even further. Over Anne Hidalgo’s term as mayor, car traffic decreased by 17% and pollution by 15% – the correlation between the two is clear. We want to take things to the next level with a substantial increase in bicycle use, which we plan to achieve by ensuring that every street in Paris is cycle-friendly. Our aim is to continue Paris’s social and ecological transformation.

EE: More generally, what do you think of the French left’s prospects in these municipal elections? We know that the situation with the Greens is a bit complicated. Could you tell us a bit more about that, and about La France Insoumise (Unbowed France)? Do you think there’s any chance of the left coming together in these elections?

IB: The situation is highly contradictory. Firstly, there’s been a great deal of social protest over the last two years: last year there was the yellow vest movement, and this year there’s been the mass movement against the unjust pension reform, which has had people demonstrating since 5 December and is opposed by the majority of the population.

Secondly, the left is still in recovery. I’d say it was in a bad way last year, and although it’s doing a bit better now, it’s still got some way to go. Why is that? It’s because the left is still divided. It hasn’t fully recovered from its defeat in 2017 [in the last presidential election] and is still not entirely immune to the hegemonic mindset that has caused us so much damage: first the left was dominated by the Socialist Party, then La France Insoumise in the wake of the 2017 elections, and now there’s Europe Écologie Les Verts (Europe Ecology – The Greens), which has grown in confidence since the last European elections. Sometimes you can’t help but feel that the French left keeps making the same mistakes over and over.

However, it’s clear from a serious look at the left’s current situation that no one force can claim dominance and that no single party acting alone can hope to secure power nationally. The left therefore needs to unite and work together, while fully respecting all the groups that make it up. I’d say that the left is perhaps a bit better placed now than it was last year because the anti-pension-reform movement has enabled left-wing forces to find some common ground. For the first time since François Hollande’s presidency, the left has shown itself capable of implementing joint initiatives, resisting the reform and devising alternative proposals. So things are heading in the right direction. I think that we need to keep this momentum going if the left is to find its feet again and be in the best possible position to prepare for the 2022 presidential elections.

EE: You’ve already told us about the housing situation in Paris, but what’s the picture like in France as a whole?

IB: First of all, it’s important to remember that the housing situation in France is extremely diverse. It goes without saying that things aren’t the same in major cities as they are in ‘lower-pressure’ areas, such as in the countryside or in the most neglected parts of France. The employment situation is another influencing factor.

France’s housing problem is most acute in major cities because they are extremely attractive: there is a limited supply of housing and significant demand for it, and this mismatch between supply and demand inevitably impacts prices. There is one aspect that is specific to France, though, and it’s a difference that strikes me whenever I talk to mayors or colleagues from other cities: in France, mayors are free to expand social housing in their municipalities – which certainly isn’t to be sniffed at – but we have absolutely no power when it comes to regulating the private sector. We’re entirely dependent on central government to do it for us. Mayors can ask for rents to be controlled, but it’s central government that decides whether or not to grant the request, and the prefect who sets the maximum rents. The same goes for the regulation of Airbnb: central government makes the rules. The municipal authorities can’t requisition empty buildings either. In Paris, there are 100,000 housing units standing empty. That’s 7% of the city’s housing stock. When we asked the prefect to requisition the empty buildings, we were told that a requisition can only go ahead if the building’s owner agrees! So no buildings are ever requisitioned. 

EE: You’ve led a political crusade against Airbnb in Paris and you also wrote a book about the subject, so you know better than me that Airbnb is a multinational behemoth: what can be done to halt its advance, starting locally while also confronting its global nature?

IB: It’s a bit of a David-and-Goliath situation. That said, it’s a battle we have to fight because if we stand by and do nothing, our cities will be taken over by short-term tourist rentals and by this predatory platform. We’ve introduced rules in Paris; we’ve secured new regulatory tools from central government. We’re weeding out illegal tourist rentals. Now, Airbnb is no longer expanding in Paris: municipal action has stopped it in its tracks. The challenge facing us in the next term is that of recovering the housing that was lost, the homes that were converted into illegal hotels. One city, no matter how powerful, can’t take on Airbnb alone. For some years now, we’ve been engaged in efforts to form a partnership of cities with Barcelona, Madrid, Berlin and Amsterdam to ensure that Airbnb is better regulated. We firmly believe that these cities need to work together, in a truly coordinated manner, if we’re to get Airbnb to back down. We’ll be stronger if we can present a more united front.

EE: What would you say to those families who depend on Airbnb to earn a little extra income? And what about the tourists who want to visit Paris and France, and for whom the app is the cheapest, most practical and most attractive solution?

IB: It’s important to be able to draw a distinction between the ‘sharing economy’ and predatory economic practices. We have no issue with homeowners who let out their homes for a few weeks a year. It helps them to earn a little more money on the side and enables tourists to visit without spending as much as they would on a hotel. However, what isn’t acceptable is the commercialisation of the short-term rental sector, namely when landlords buy three or four apartments, and sometimes entire apartment buildings, and turn them into short-term rentals that are available all year round on these platforms. For us, there’s a clear difference between the two. We want to allow ‘sharing economy’ practices while also outlawing predatory economic practices.

EE: One last question: Paris is hosting the Olympics in 2024. In recent years, the Olympics have caused gentrification and not all citizens have been able to benefit from the wealth they created. Airbnb is already a partner of the Paris Games. What’s your take on that? And how can you secure an outcome that will different this time?

IB: The Olympics must not be allowed to spur gentrification in Paris and the greater urban area. We’ve sought to implement safeguards, most notably a guarantee that a significant share of the accommodation built for the Olympics will subsequently be turned into social housing. Take the Olympic Village, for instance.

It’s something we’re greatly concerned about – both the Communist councillors and the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo. The Olympic Games should be an opportunity to gain additional public facilities, especially in Seine-Saint-Denis. They should promote development, but not encourage gentrification. We always come up against this same challenge whenever we build new public facilities. Whenever we open a new park or a new swimming pool in a neighbourhood, its very presence inevitably drives up prices in that neighbourhood unless we also take steps to expand social housing and implement price-regulating policies. So we have to fight on two fronts at the same time.

EE: So this will basically be an extension of your ongoing struggle around the city of Paris.

IB: Yes, exactly.