Squats have always provided a venue for alternative lifestyles and experiments in artistic creation, but in recent times, an increasing number of squatters in Paris have succeeded in transforming illegally occupied spaces into legal art galleries and respectable cultural centers. Could this benevolent trend herald the end of squatting as we know it?
At 59 Rue Rivoli, a street which is bang in the centre of Paris, a group of people have gathered in front of a freshly refurbished building. After three years of renovation work by Paris city hall, owner of the building since 2002, the highly decorated façade of the most famous Parisian squat has been given an insignificant Haussmannian facelift. But you can just about make out the word "Aftersquat" beneath the paint. At the opening ceremony Gaspard Delanoë, president of the artists collective 59 Rivoli, is reassuring those complaining that the place is now looking somewhat too conventional. "Come back in six months!" he says. "Things will have changed!"
But squatters - the term doesn’t quite fit. The Paris municipality is now renting the building to a group of artists for 130 euros a month as they do in several similar places. It’s a subtle difference that some feel needs clarification. "We aren’t squatters," insist the artists from Frigo, a squat which lies in the 13th arrondissement, in the south of Paris site of the old grain silos. "We pay rent to the city." Another artist from 59 Rivoli rolls a cigarette. "We have to evolve because times are changing. From being 'illegal' and 'underground' we have become 'alternative'," he explains. If these changes are constructive from an artistic point of view, the general public seems to be left out. There’s no question of just popping in for a coffee or a beer unless there’s an exhibition on, unlike other, more accessible and participative concepts, such as La Suite in the 13th district. Here, the "Grooms collective" welcome workshops and a variety of good initiatives.
Squats depend on each other in this city. When one is threatened, it’s the whole community that reacts. "We are still running thanks to the Stock Exchange (Bourse) site, which has since been closed down," continues the 59 Rivoli artist as he finishes his cigarette. "And if La Suite is still up and running, it’s due partly to our efforts." The battle continues to be waged. ‘We shall continue to squat and invest in unoccupied buildings to set up art hives wherever possible," promises Gaspard Delanoë. "The reopening of 59 Rivoli is a step in the right direction for artists."
Meanwhile in the Marais another type of squatters took over a vast, vacant 17th-century property, which once belonged to the Marquise de Sévigné, boasts listed rooms with period painted wooden beams and panelling and a spectacular view over the Place des Vosges.
Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the International Monetary Fund, lives directly opposite and Victor Hugo used to dwell next door.
The squatters claim to be a group of highly educated individuals who broke into the 1,400sq ft hôtel particulier to draw attention to the plight of low-paid workers unable to afford housing while countless properties are left vacant. The mansion in question has not been lived in for more than 40 years.
However, they had not banked on its 87-year-old owner storming out of her retirement home to demand they leave. Béatrice Cottin knocked on the arched wooded gate, walking stick in hand, and is demanding compensation of £103,000 a month for illegal occupation. Mrs Cottin owns a string of sumptuous properties, including an estate in Cap Ferrat on the Riviera, hunting grounds in Sologne, north-central France, and land in the Arcachon basin in the south. She also has another luxury town house behind the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
“She feared for her property. Squatters in her eyes were vandals and would degrade it,” said Stéphane Roques, 36, a literary translator living and working in the mansion, rent-free.
But the 33 squatters, including university students, a pianist, a lawyer and architects, were not what Mrs Cottin had expected.