The current political novelty for viewing beggars as unacceptable social detritus is a phenomenon the UK shares with France. Sam Beale reports.
Squall 11, Autumn 1995, pg. 67.
At a time of record unemployment in France the numbers of French homeless are rising as is the trend (evident in this country) for young itinerants to beg in resort towns. Also increasing is the tendency of European governments and local authorities to legislate against, rather than for, the worst off.
In July Michel Crepeau, the Mayor of La Rochelle, an Atlantic port and French tourist resort, announced a move to fine anyone found begging or “lying on the pavement” in his town. At least five other towns in France have made similar rulings.
The move has been seen as a reaction to the perceived threat to tourism posed by the poor and homeless on the streets. Crepeau also seems to believe, allegedly, that implementing fascist policies is the best way to pacify that grimly growing number of voters tempted to support the National Front in France.
Housing action groups including DaL (Droite au Logement) have been staging protests against the bans in France. Nonetheless the fear of scaring away the tourists and perhaps ending up in the worn-out shoes of beggars next year has led to considerable support for such rulings from local tradespeople.
In Avignon the Mayor banned begging and alcohol on the streets until the end of September. This was apparently a response to the influx of people with no travellers cheques from other parts of France and the rest of Europe who move south for the summer. This attitude somehow suggests that there is an issue of preference here; that the people Crepeau & Co want off ‘their’ streets have a choice in this. Are the mayors of French seaside towns surprised by the presence of poor people where there are large numbers of rich people? Even in free market terms it makes perfect sense for someone with no money to go where there is most loose change jingling around pockets in a foreign currency that holidaymakers can’t quite get their maths round.
Following a lead which suggested that British cities are planning to implement similar bans, SQUALL rang a number of Town Halls. Manchester Council failed to respond to requests for information but the receptionist who put the call through seemed very clear about pending policy. When asked who might be the best person to help she said: “Beggars? In what way? Do you mean cleaning them off the streets?”
This phrase is reminiscent of Prime Minister Major’s stomach- churning comments about beggars last summer. The gist, if you’ve forgotten, was something like: ‘get ‘em out of our sights we don’t like looking at poor people on our way to the club. They don’t look nice’.
We beg to differ, John.
Perhaps Crepeau et al, French cafe owners and tourists in the south of France would be happier to think of Europe’s poorest dying quietly, somewhere out of view.
Where, we are forced to wonder, will the European homeless go if they’re not allowed on the streets? When they find themselves casualties of capitalist competition, systematically failed by every level of government, by every official organisation who, if not people on the streets of Europe, should those with nothing ask for help? Perhaps Crepeau et al, French cafe owners and tourists in the south of France would be happier to think of Europe’s poorest dying quietly somewhere out of view.
When you have very little and someone with less asks for some of it, anger and guilt merge. In most European towns and cities pleas for money now come at painfully regular intervals: tolerance and sympathy are running out. Beggar avoidance techniques are an art for some and it’s easy to get caught up in internal debates about how in need of your change this beggar actually is. Ultimately though pseudo-ethical dilemmas like the old ‘what-they-might-spend-it-on’ chestnut leads to a total evasion of the realities of 1990s urban poverty. What would M. Crepeau or Mr Major spend it on?
Shadow Home Secretary Jack Straw (echoing Major and New York’s right wing Mayor Rudolph Guiliani) recently launched an attack on beggars to show just how tough Labour plans to be on “crime”. Mr Straw is quite right about one thing: the presence of the homeless and desperately poor in doorways is a sign of the “brutalisation” of the streets. But he is surely not trying to tell us that beggars, or as this leading socialist chooses to put it, “winos, addicts and squeegee merchants”, are the cause of this brutalisation? Begging your pardon Jack, aren’t they rather a seriously in yer face reminder that the people we are asked to choose as our leaders are mainly in the business of ramming home the fact that life is brutal and competitive and only the rich and powerful have a chance of making it?
Forget the politicians for a moment, they either know or are in serious denial about their level of responsibility for unemployment, unaffordable housing and rising poverty. But what about the people: the shop-keepers, tourists, travellers and commuters? How much longer is it possible to buy into a kamikaze political philosophy hell-bent on the creation of yet more clumsily targeted categories of troublemakers, criminals and enemies of free enterprise when the truth is staring us in the face asking for some spare change?
It seems Mayor Crepeau is confident that we have no choice but to buy into it for a while longer. On his way to a Greek holiday a journalist asked him about the protests staged in La Rochelle in opposition to his begging ban. His icicle response was: “let them do what they want... for my part, I’ll be on an aeroplane”.