The deaths of two homeless men in the Paris area have reignited controversy over the number of people sleeping rough in France this winter. A man, believed to be in his sixties, was found dead on a wooden pallet in the Place de la Concorde in the heart of Paris. Another man, 62, was found dead in his car in Vanves, just west of the capital.
With temperatures falling below zero every night this week, the deaths have provoked new quarrels over the alleged failure of successive governments to provide lodgings for France's alleged 200,000 homeless people.
One pressure group, Les Morts de la Rue (the dead on the street), claimed that at least 200 people, between 18 and 80, had died prematurely while sleeping rough in France in the past 12 months.
Government embarrassment over the issue has been deepened by the revelation that one of the most senior officials dealing with the homeless problem had been renting a large, subsidised apartment owned by the city of Paris. Jean-Paul Bolufer, the head of the private office of the Housing minister, Christine Boutin, was ordered to resign after a newspaper revealed that he was paying ¿1,200 (£870) a month rent – a quarter of the market price – for a 190 square metre apartment in an upmarket area of the Left Bank.
M. Bolufer said last month that it was "scandalous" that some relatively wealthy people lived in subsidised, publicly owned housing while others lived on the streets. After his rent was revealed by the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchainé, he said that he was the victim of a "witch-hunt". There were at "least 200,000" other well-off people living in subsidised flats in Paris, he said.
Mme Boutin, whose handling of the homeless problem has been criticised by pressure groups, tried to protect M. Bolufer at first. The Prime Minister, François Fillon, ordered her to demand his resignation.
Last weekend, police swept a Christmas encampment of red tents for the homeless from the quays of the Seine, opposite Notre Dame cathedral. A protest group, Les Enfants de Don Quichotte (the children of Don Quixote), said that the government had failed to honour the promises made to resolve a similar tent protest last Christmas. Of 27,000 new lodgings promised, only 13,000 had been provided, the group said. The government has since agreed to try to find more lodgings for SDF's (sans domicile fixe, or homeless).
The issue has become entangled not only in national politics but the municipal elections in Paris next March. Pierre Lellouche, a member of President Nicolas Sarkozy's centre-right party, the Union Pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), accused the city's Socialist Mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, of being "outrageously absent" on the issue. He was talking after the body of an unidentified man who had been sleeping rough, without even blankets, on the Place de la Concorde. Gisèle Stievenard, one of M. Delanoë's assistant mayors, accused M. Lellouche of "playing politics" with an issue in which he had never previously shown any interest.
The 62-year-old found dead in Vanves had been living in his car in a concrete garage for several months after splitting with his wife. He was said to have refused all attempts to rehouse him.
The Morts dans la Rue group said street deaths were almost a daily occurrence in France.