‘Is it true?’ asked Jean-Jerome. ‘In Scotland you have the right to claim a roof over your head?’
‘Yes!’ I cried exasperated, unaware of the debate that was being created in my old neighbourhood, the Canal Saint-Martin. ‘I told you this in Syria. Let go of your Anglo-Saxon stereotypes. Scottish society is fundamentally social. We don’t let people sleep on the streets, no matter who they are, what they have done. We…’
‘Yes, yes,’ said Jean-Jerome who had heard it all before. ‘But it’s really true that you have a legal right to force the government to house you?’
‘Yes,’ I cried. ‘Why does this surprise you?’
‘It’s not a question of being surprised. It is just everyone is talking about Scotland at the moment.’
And so they were. Camera crews were being dispatched to Scotland to film former street-sleepers wolfing down pot noodles that they made with water from their own kettle, in their own sitting room. France was looking for inspiration not to Scandinavian countries, who in French mentality have found a heavenly blend between social harmony and international competitiveness, but from – shock horror – an Anglo-Saxon nation. Spookily enough, in the news reports Scotland suddenly appeared to have developed an identity of its own. Viewers were treated to a short de-brief on the power-sharing arrangements of the United Kingdom, no longer referred to as England, and the words Anglo-Saxon and liberal were missing from all reports. The 2003 Homeless Scotland Act. An inspiration for France.
Augustin Legrand left his day job as an actor, locked the door of his cosy Parisien apartment and pitched his tent on the banks of the canal to show his solidarity with the homeless people living there. Their presence had been felt over the last year ever since Medicins Sans Frontier started distributing grey tents to protect against some of the winter cold. The people whose mattresses I’d jogged past in the summer had taken up permanent residence and the following summer were hosting barbeques and petanque sessions in the heart of Paris’ bo-bo district. Of course, life on the streets is a lot less fun in wintertime and Legrand and his charity Les Enfants de Don Quiote pulled at the appropriate heart-strings. The message seeped quickly into mainstream French society via the internet and soon rows of middle-class sympathisers were camping out in red tents to the extent that they became a tourist attraction.
Belatedly the government took note, and hurriedly adopted a Gallic version of Scotland’s new law, with an emphasis on the right to demand housing from local authorities rather than their ability to supply shelter. In France, creating a law is a way of silencing criticism without actually dealing with the problem or its sources. Homeless charities continued to bemoan the lack of accommodation and the party along Canal Saint Martin continued. Predictably squabbling broke out amongst the leaders who accused Lagrand of being a traitor when he left to shoot a film in South Africa. Having created a media circus he abandoned ship and left his enfants, and the charities who have been looking after the homeless for decades.