School for homeless attracts top brains

January 27, 1995

Academics, homeless people and grassroots militants are holding the inaugural session of a "University against Exclusion" this weekend in premises taken over by a Parisian homeless action group last December.

The group chose to "liberate" these particular premises due for demolition, because they included an empty school.

The choice was an apt one. The school in the chic St Germain-des-Pr s area, was attended by Simone de Beauvoir and is just around the corner from the famous Flore cafe where she and Jean-Paul Sartre conducted their critique of society.

Now, a new generation of committed academics are signing up at the old Cours Desir school to give classes and hold seminars with the homeless and other people who suffer from exclusion.

Leading the initiative is long-time activist Albert Jacquard, a geneticist, who says it will be "a place where people can meet and exchange ideas, where academics will come, not just to give lectures but to seek other perspectives.

"You can raise questions they may not have thought of," he told the squatters at a preparatory meeting. It's a two-way process, to wake society up and change its rationale -- housing, education, health care are rights."

In order to ensure the process is truly two-way, students and other helpers are visiting squats in and around the capital to find out what subjects people want to see included.

So far the response from academics contacted has been extremely positive, say activists who have set up an organisation called Droits Devant (Rights Ahead) to run the project.

Some volunteers will give a one-off lecture, but others are willing to take on a whole course: the first to be set up is in basic economics.

Others are joining working parties on a series of themes ranging from urban problems to unemployment, immigration, health and the environment.

Each working party will lead on to wider seminars, weekend conferences and, it is hoped, new proposals and initiatives on the issue tackled. They hope to publish their findings in academic reviews.

"There are of course varying degrees of commitment, but in general the response has been astonishing," said organiser Maurice Najman. "Everyone we contacted has said 'yes'."

"This is bringing together a whole intelligentsia which was frustrated by the lack of a social role," he explained. "In a way, this is a return to the kind of thing Foucault started -- how an intellectual can work with a social movement. A number of the people involved come from that tradition -- Derrida, Bourdieu and others."

The expectations of some of the squatters involved is equally high. "This squall must turn into a full-blown storm and that is why we need the intellectual to shake France up thoroughly," said Jean-Yves Cottin, who joined the action group when he became homeless.

Another of the organisers, Annie Pour, who works for Air France, said she wanted the university to "come up with strong ideas, which challenge the answers we've been given for 20 years on questions like unemployment and the way society separates people into different compartments".

The project is steamrollering ahead in order to become well established before next spring's presidential election, because during the run-up to the poll there is little chance of eviction.

The occupation of empty buildings by the homeless has triggered such a wave of sympathy in France that even the Gaullist mayor of Paris and presidential contender Jacques Chirac is talking of bringing back requisitions.

Jack Lang, former education minister and possible Socialist Party candidate, has gone further and become a card-carrying member of the homeless persons' action group.

But after the elections, it may be harder to keep the building, which housed 800 pupils and occupies a prime site for redevelopment.

Droits Devant is now trying to get funding for the project and is turning to private donations, fund-raising events and has applied for a grant to the European Commission, although it admits that its entirely illegal status may pose problems there.

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