As France goes white this week, the thoughts of many are turning to the homeless and their particularly intimate difficulties with the sudden drop in temperature. All over the country, newspapers, radio, television and internet are all strongly featuring the story of organised response to the danger faced by those with no shelter.
It is almost tempting to stop writing after that first sentence. Because that is the story. That is my comment. You guys have noticed this. You guys are continuing to notice this (you guys in this context means French people). I freely admit that not everyone cares or is pressingly aware of the increase in homelessness in France. I am conscious that the only way to offend a French person more than when you criticise their country is when you actually praise it.
But the prominence given to the public discourse on homelessness is truly exotic to me. And I don’t mean in the concerned or left wing press. It is not a question of people preaching to the choir. It’s the bimbo stuff. It’s the freesheets and the People sections. Articles entitled le jour le plus froid or L’Hexagone en blanc are dealing almost exclusively with the plight of people sleeping rough. La Meteo is practically giving updates. And in the middle of France’s most rightwing convulsion in living memory, the government (national and regional) is reacting like this stuff actually matters. Housing ministers are speaking of it, local authority response parties are doing stuff about it.
Margaret Thatcher caused an explosion in the levels of homelessness in Britain in the late 1980s and early 1990s, almost on purpose, almost because she wanted to. She certainly didn’t care very much about the problem once she had created it. The soi-disant traditional or historic ranks of homeless people in Britain (the addicted, the mentally-ill, the runaways from insolubly dysfunctional families) were joined by the economically displaced victims of the Iron Lady herself, the unemployed, the evicted, those whose benefits were cut and even eventually low-paid and the temporary workers. It came to the point were a significant portion of London’s homeless had actual jobs (and yes, I know you are beginning to see that here and yes, I know that it shocks you, and yes you are right to be shocked and it is truly a sign of your great sense).
There was in the UK at that time none of the reaction that I am seeing in France now. I wrote about this stuff. I often felt quite alone in doing it – and it is truly a dreadful sign of trouble when the intellectual culture leaves the important stuff to the novelists. It was an untold story and an ignored and inconvenient reality. I told it so endlessly perhaps only because of a kind of outraged narcissism, because I had been homeless myself. And nobody really listened.
Don’t get upset. I’m not being naïve or egregiously foreign. And I am not over-praising your country or culture. I know that it is not perfect here. The fact that homelessness exists and is increasing is proof of that imperfection. But you guys are thinking about it, reporting about it and doing something about it. It annoys everyone I know when I respond to some concern about France’s problems or mistakes with my ever-ready ‘C’est pire ailleurs’ (practically the only thing I know in French and somehow gloriously Irish of me). I understand this. It is no comfort to know that things are worse elsewhere.
But the top story in your reaction to this polar dip is what is happening to the sans-abris. This is something. Perhaps it solves nothing and it should be better but it’s not a bad fucking start. Because, this seems more than civic to me, this seems incredibly civilised.
Incidentally, since I was homeless in Great Britain, I have some experience of sleeping rough when it snows. I admit I survived it without much trouble but it brought me an almost unique experience. How many seventeen year olds actually say to themselves thank God I’m seventeen? Not many. And that’s what I kept saying to myself. Thank God I’m seventeen.
So my tip for sleeping out when it’s snowing is either be seventeen . . . or just don’t do it. Really, just don’t.