Cities, a driving force for social action

25 January 2022

For the third time, Nantes has committed to a principle of the European Pillars of Social Rights.

The city has previously agreed to the Pillars’ principle 19 on housing and assistance for the homeless and principle 2 on gender equality and now pledges to implement principle 20 on access to essential services. 

Eurocities talked to Abbassia Hakem, Deputy Mayor of Nantes, about the city’s social pledge and the initiatives to implement it.   

“Today, big and medium-sized cities can be a social driving force,” Hakem says. “Social matters are also related to other issues such as ecology and sustainable development. These are substantial challenges that we must tackle at different levels if we want to preserve our planet in the years to come.”

What projects do you have in store? 

We already implemented two projects in the field of housing. With Igloo, people who need a home take part in the construction of their own housing.

The second one is Citad’elles, the famous 24-hour 365-day reception centre for women victims of violence, and beyond that, for women in general. It is an innovative structure since we bring together services that can help women control their destiny in cases of extreme vulnerability.

The last pledge we committed to is about essential needs and it reminds us that meeting basic requirements is vital in this crisis. We are aware that there are still people who do not have enough to eat. We must remember those who are homeless. These are basic but essential things to creating a society for everyone.

Why do you think these pledges are essential, particularly for Nantes? 

There are two ways to answer. I think it’s important for Nantes because the city has a long-standing tradition of solidarity, both at the city level and in the metropolitan area, to meet the needs of those who are marginalised or vulnerable.

By leading by example, we can show that cities are a driving force of action and can carry projects in the social field and achieve goals. 

The second reason is to encourage European authorities to seriously consider social matters which can otherwise take second place compared to economic or technical issues. If we want citizens to become European citizens, we must show that one of Europe’s missions is to tackle these issues.

Rings in Nantes. Photo by Nantes council

It took a long time for Europe to take matters into its hands. It ended up doing it thanks to cities’ impetus and strength. Today, if we look closely, each state and city has put measures to protect their citizens from this virus: areas of reception, distribution of food aid, and vaccination places. 

It’s necessary to give visibility to the actions that we take in the social sector and, at the same time, make sure people who need these services don’t feel ashamed. It isn’t easy to step through the door of a shelter or a group housing when you’re homeless or to look for the help of a doctor when you’re an addict.

It also helps to show that everyone can be affected by these social issues at some point in their life.

You mentioned some examples. Could you say a few words about them? 

There is a collaborative mechanism with the state and the cities called Housing First. 70% of the metropolitan population has the right to social housing —access to quality housing at a moderate rent. That means cities must be proactive in building housing and meeting needs. 

Simultaneously we work on another approach through the Igloo project. We connect a landlord, someone who can support housing construction, and people who access common law housing. They have often been homeless for a long time, but I am also thinking of political refugees or migrants. The participants build and develop their accommodation with companies that are part of the system, often in the technical and sustainable development fields.

The only difficulty is the time. We want to accelerate the time between assigning the project and the entry into the finished home. It’s often two-three years. It was a pilot, and we learnt from it. We want to improve the duration since it also allows people to get trained for a new job in construction and get back to work.

There are inspiring initiatives in other European cities. In Utrecht, for example, I had seen modular housing creating a mix of both social statuses and age generations. 

We are not unscathed from this health crisis. Today, we cannot wait between decision-making and implementation because people might need the service in the meantime.

We made political choices when we decided to have the Agnès Varda space in the heart of the city, in a district undergoing complete urban renewal. We wanted to mix the people. Of course, cohabitation between vulnerable people and residents can be challenging. It requires patience, exchange and listening. But above all, it allows for real social cohesion in the end.

A person receives some food in the Agnes Varda centre
A person receives food in the Agnes Varda centre during the pandemic. Photo by Jean-Félix Fayolle

We are working to establish a steering committee for a social housing complex. The city has bought equipment, accommodation and association spaces and the refectory hall of the old CREF organisation (Counsel and Research on Employment and Training). And we are working on developing a project to offer emergency and intermediate accommodation, and associative and cultural support around that. 

How do you think that solidarity is encouraged by the municipality?  

I have two or three examples that prove solidarity is well engraved in our territory. The city of Nantes has always chosen to stand up to these matters. The public service seems essential to us since everyone has equal access, but simultaneously considering and supporting all the initiatives of intermediary bodies, associations or unions involved. 

The health crisis has triggered the emergence of many associative and individual initiatives to support people on the street. This increase of initiatives also questioned our ways of acting. There is a before and an after the health crisis, and today we cannot do as we did five years ago. Today, the needs and paths of people have become more complex.

The migratory crisis has influenced the cities’ response to the people on the street. That obliges us to rework with all the partners and public actors on how we conceive solidarity. And that’s why at the end of our last social commitment we talked about the foundations of solidarities. 

We are launching on 26 January a citizen debate at the city level on what we have called ‘New forms of solidarity today’. How can we reach out to the different actors but also all inhabitants? Those who are housed and those on the street, those who call on the food distribution, care, etc. Also, those who cannot benefit from solidarity in the way we conceive it today. 

Some people wait to be assited in the Agnes Varda centre
People in the Agnès Varda centre. Photo by Jean-Félix Fayolle

What concrete projects does Nantes have to encourage solidarity in the city? 

The city’s various departments will work on a book of recommendations during the summer until October to rework our roadmap in the field of solidarity. We will rethink our social leg with the people of Nantes. We will check which new initiatives could be born or consolidate those that exist to meet the needs of people through a call for projects with a budget of up to €500,000. 

Then there is the example of the Bellevue alternative market. Bellevue is a district of Nantes with a collective of associations that initially started simply with distributing food parcels. Today, it is working on quality food for all —how, in working-class neighbourhoods, people who do not have high incomes can access organic food or eat better. We set up what we called ‘nourishing’ gardens, where gardening batches are available to plant and harvest vegetables and collectively create social ties.

We will rebuild a day reception centre, the Mage, to welcome people on the street with social support and guidance. It will be ready in 2024. 

In solidarity, we include health. We are opening a nursing home in a working-class neighbourhood. Prevention and support for people to access care are addressed there since we realised 52% of the population does not claim their rights to care, for example, because of lack of insurance. Another health centre will open in Nantes Nord next year. 

It’s stimulating because I take, if not a lot of pleasure, a lot of involvement. We are in a city where the mayors we have had -Jean-Marc Ayrault, Patrick Rimbert, the mayor Johanna Rolland today- commit to solidarity issues. We consider this as the leaver of social cohesion and better living in Nantes. 

Are there any additional thoughts to share? 

It’s important to show that big European cities are driving cities. I am thinking of Porto or Lisbon. Barcelona has been exemplary on a lot of subjects. Or in Malmo, for example. European cities are inclusive cities genuinely united in their policy, that can lead and have an essential role to play.

Water mirror castle of the Dukes of Brittany © Franck Tomps

Without a doubt, a body like Eurocities is essential since we are creating interest around these questions. Here we are talking about solidarity, but we can talk about education, which is also a significant issue today, or about sustainability. 

We talk a lot, but we will have to reflect on the new policies for welcoming migrants today, who are at our doorstep. We may rethink our ways of receiving and integrating to consider them an opportunity rather than an issue.  

Eurocities continues to live and tackle these issues and really is a locomotive accompanying us. Eurocities is an essential structure for democratising and making Europe known in all aspects. 


Cities are working together with the European Commission to push the European Pillar of Social Rights forward. Eurocities has already proven its commitment through actions on the ground, such as ‘Inclusive Cities 4 All’ – a campaign to encourage mayors and deputy mayors to implement the Pillar of Social Rights by taking tangible measures, backed by specific budget allocations. So far, the effort led to 70 pledges from cities representing over 55 million citizens and a total investment of over €15.8 billion.

Eurocities is more determined than ever to build more inclusive cities with a strong focus on a fair, inclusive and sustainable recovery from the global pandemic crisis. The organisation is committed to stepping up its efforts to deliver social rights for all people, with support from the EU and national levels. 


Wilma Dragonetti Eurocities Writer
Marta Buces Eurocities Writer