The Bubble in Paris

Paris, on s’aime?

For Ian Brossat, Deputy Mayor of Paris, it was seeing people trying to escape the cold by sleeping in large groups at La Chapelle metro station that did it: “This moment was a trigger for many of us. We couldn’t continue to have hundreds of people living in such appalling conditions.” The city was in a tough spot because it is the national government, not the local one, that is empowered to act on reception of migrants. It was on the streets of Paris that these unfortunate people were gathered, but the city was forced to wait for the state to act.

Tent encampments in Paris

Swapping lenses

The solution came not in changing the law, but in changing the lens through which the city looked at the issue. Technically, Paris is not just a municipality but also what the French call a ‘department’ – something between a city and region. As a department, it is empowered to work on issues like social inclusion and child welfare. By changing the question from ‘what can be done about better reception and integration of migrants?’ to ‘how can we better include these vulnerable groups in our society?’ the city was able to start providing answers.

Some people lent their houses or apartments, welcomed refugees into their homes.
— Ian Brossat, Deputy Mayor of Paris

The situation for asylum seekers was particularly stark: Over half of all asylum seekers in the city did not have proper housing and lived an existence teetering on the edge of desperation. For Brossat, the essential thing was “to welcome refugees into our city with dignity.” By assuming this new stance, the city was able to turn agitators into allies – NGOs and civil society had been putting pressure on the city to act – now the city teamed up with these organisations to put pressure on national politicians, and to facilitate local action. “Civil society, inhabitants and associations lent a helping hand to complement municipal initiatives,” Brossat remembers, “some people lent their houses or apartments, welcomed refugees into their homes.”

In this together

This led to a transversal multi-partner approach to dealing with integration, helped along by a strong commitment from Mayor Anne Hidalgo who, rather than simply passing the responsibility to Brossat, the deputy mayor for housing, emergency accommodation and refugee protection, instead decided to involve all 13 of the city’s deputy mayors to ensure that integration could be managed in cooperation from all angles. But the breadth of engagement did not stop there: The next phase was to bring together local people, NGOs, businesses, academics and other interested parties to work together on formulating what became the ‘Mobilisation Plan of the Community of Paris for Refugee Reception.’

All of the in-depth measures in this plan are based on three foundational principles: First, that there is no hierarchy among the homeless – whether asylum seeker, refugee, undocumented or local, all deserve the same treatment and care; second, the city and its people must mobilise together to advance integration; and finally, emergency measures cannot be sustainable in isolation, they must always go hand in hand with a long-term approach.

€5 million for local project

Working with a range of partners isn’t always easy, but the city helps to coordinate and maintain engagement through its ‘Refugee Platform’ where representatives of different sectors get together twice per year to present new projects, and hear the testimonies of refugees and the volunteers that work with them to get a picture of the real situation on the ground.

Building solidarity in Paris © Mairie de Paris

To ensure that the people of Paris, not just its organisations and institutions, remain engaged, the city uses a €5 million fund that is part of its participatory budget to allow locals to vote for their favourite projects under the banner ‘city of refuge’. In one year, a project to turn a derelict building into a centre for refugees and migrants received more votes than any other idea, demonstrating that this issue remains close to locals’ hearts.

One of the projects that came out of consultation via the Refugee Platform was the House of Refugees. This centre, entirely funded by the city, is designed to bring locals and newcomers together, whether through culture, sport or business. Even during the pandemic it’s still going strong, with the usual football practice swapped out for Zoom yoga and mask-sewing sessions.

It is living together, and redefining the conditions for a better world to be built together through a perpetual struggle for justice, equality and peace.
— Parisian volunteer

One young Parisian volunteer at the centre sates his pride in what goes on there: “Being a volunteer is a political choice, taking part in solidarity in the face of injustice, inequalities and discrimination. It is living together, and redefining the conditions for a better world to be built together through a perpetual struggle for justice, equality and peace.”

A new approach

When refugee numbers increased dramatically in 2015, the city had to come to grips with this new population. One of the first things they discovered were that those populating the tents in the makeshift camps that were popping up all over the city were “not like the homeless people we were used to,” explains Charlotte Schneider, head of the refugees and migrant project at Paris’ Centre for Social Action. “These people did not have a long history of homelessness or exclusion, physical or mental health issues, addictions etcetera. They are actually healthy and willing to work and to integrate socially as soon as possible.”

But they do face their own set of barriers, Schneider notes, including difficulties with the local language and social codes, as well as access to a clear administrative status. For the city of Paris, the priority is to clear initial obstacles at the moment of reception, because relatively small hurdles at this point can create major obstacles to integration down the line.

Building and bursting the bubble

One place in which this happened was La Bulle, so called “because it looks like a bubble,” explains Deputy Mayor Brossat. This existence of this distinctive looking primary reception centre was a great boon for the city because it meant that people arriving learned very quickly where they had to go. “We created this centre at the initiative of the city,” says Brossat, “It was then supported by the state.”

But unfortunately the bubble burst: “After a political shift at the state level, the government decided to put an end to this experiment. Today there is no primary reception centre any more, which I deeply regret, because the camps are back. The city can do some things, but it cannot do as much as it would like if the state does not take its share of the responsibility.”

While the bubble may have been burst, a similar approach remains in place in the Paris-Ivry reception centre for migrant families, which you can see in action in the video below.

Another key organisation for integration action are the Permanent Social Offices (PSA). These city institutions are dedicated to people’s rights, whether migrants or locals, specifically women and families, young people and single males above 25. However, they must have a residence permit or recognition of their status in order to use the service.

Understanding each other

Marie-Laure Allary, the social and family economics advisor at the PSA in Bastille, describes the difficulties that migrants face when confronting a bureaucratic system that many are unused to, and the attendant challenges for the administration to serve their needs. “For foreign people who do not have this bureaucratic culture, and do not understand the language, it can really be an obstacle course simply to get refugee status.”

It can really be an obstacle course simply to get refugee status.
— Marie-Laure Allary

Allary explains that the first step was translating information leaflets into languages spoken by their clients, but even this was far from enough. Some people have difficulty reading even in their own language, so conversation with interpretation is a necessary service. To deal with this, the PSA has begun hosting information sessions where they explain the basic rights and responsibilities of the French system to groups in a variety of languages.

It was not just the migrants who needed a better understanding – the PSA staff themselves also required training to understand the situation of the migrants. Thanks to work with the Order of Malta, the staff were made familiar with the intricacies, twists and turns of the migrants’ journey to becoming part of Parisian society. For Allary, a priority should be developing the city’s accommodation centres, “so that at least during the asylum procedures migrants can stay safe, rather than wondering the streets waiting for the end of the procedure.”

Your city, your voice

Paris is working hard to empower migrants to take part in the social, cultural and economic life of the city. In order to manage this, one aspect that the administration is looking to strengthen is migrant participation in designing local policy. At the moment, migrants participate informally in these processes, but the city is looking to put a more coherent structure in place.

A first go at this was the creation of a municipal council for migrants in 2018, but because the link between migrants’ contributions and the final policy was not always evident, participation in the council waned. Through the EU-funded project CONNECTION, led by Eurocities and supported by MigrationWork, Paris is gaining inspiration from Leipzig, where such a council has long been active.

Cities team up

In Leipzig’s model, the process of feedback has been crucial for success. When the migrant council make recommendations from which the city diverges, it remains incumbent on the city to explain its reasoning to the council – how the recommendations were taken into account and for what reasons the final decision was made.

Without political commitments, programmes will not get going, or will not last.
— Alexandra Weerts

Through the CONNECTION project, Paris has been cooperating with Thessaloniki, Turin and Zagreb, among other cities, so that all of them can work on developing integration strategies. “We learned a lot in a recent CONNECTION visit to Paris about how to get a good integration strategy going,” says Alexandra Weerts, Eurocities migration expert and coordinator of CONNECTION. “The main message is that if politicians aren’t on side from the beginning, managing integration will be very tough. Without political commitments, programmes will not get going, or will not last – it won’t sustain the funding it needs or survive changes in the political landscape. These days we never know what’s coming, so you have to anchor your strategy as best you can.” She points to the strong commitment of the mayor of Paris in this regard. From the lessons gathered through these exchanges, a guide will be produced for other cities to develop their strategies too.

Paris is a city famous for the participation of locals in its policy. As 20% of the 2.19 million Parisian population is foreign born, with 14% not holding French citizenship, upholding this excellent reputation for inclusion requires that migrant voices are properly heard. Paris sees being able to speak up and control your own destiny as essential for the human dignity that, for Deputy Mayor Brossat, must be at the heart of all measures the city takes for migrant integration.

Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer