French government accused of downplaying homelessness as Paris freezes

The freezing streets of Paris last week
The freezing streets of Paris last week REUTERS/John Schults

The city of Paris is to count the homeless for the first time ever on Thursday after ministers sparked uproar with claims that as few as 50 were sleeping on the streets this winter.


Paris is to follow the city of New York's example and send 1,500 voluntary workers out on Thursday night to establish how many rough sleepers there really are in the French capital.

Athens, London, Brussels and Barcelona have all staged similar exercises.

But city officials say the French government does not seem keen on the idea.

The state's local representative has pulled out of the exercise, claiming that it was rushed and that its employees were busy providing winter help for the needy.

But Louis Gallois, the former railway boss who now heads a coalition of charities, has accused officials of underestimating the figures so as not to embarrass President Emmanuel Macron, who last year promised there would be no-one sleeping in the streets by the end of 2017.

Junior minister Julien Denormandie caused a stir on 30 January when he told France Inter radio that there were about 50 people sleeping rough in Paris, an assertion that Gallois dismissed as "insufferable" in an interview published on Sunday.

"No Parisian can have any confidence in such statements," he said, adding that 2-3,000 people live on the city's streets.

As the winter chill worsened this week, Sylvain Maillard, an MP for Macron's Republic on the Move party, caused a further stir when he told RFI that some of them are homeless by choice.

Gallois did have praise for the rise in the number of places in shelters, however.

They have gone from 131,300 in January 2017 to 145,800 this winter, with 1,000 emergency places added during this week's snowfall, he said.

"That's a rise of 11 percent, significant even if it's still not enough," he commented.

Denormandie on Sunday denied the government was underestimating the scale of the problem.

His earlier statement was based on people who were refused accommodation on a given day, he said, adding that the figure was "obviously" not the total of people sleeping in the street.

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