“Real change needs massive support. Art affects only a minority”

An interview with the French activists group Jeudi Noir about absurd high rents, squatting’s and how artistic strategies can help to draw attention. 

Paris, December 2011, updated via email in January 

When and with why did you create Jeudi Noir?

Jeudi Noir was founded a few years ago by a group of young students with the aim to change the way how people considered politics and protests. It was also a response to the high rents and the low income of a lot of French people. Their difficulty to find a decent house or flat was the main reason for our first gatherings.

 

What is the difference between your collective and more “classical” activist groups ?

The difference is probably the very precise subject Jeudi Noir is studying: We focus exclusively on questions of housing and lodging. And there is a difference in the way we protest: We prefer humour and happiness to rage – that we of course feel as well. But we decided not to show it too much in order to make our protests and actions more appealing to young activists.

How many members do you have?

There are many members. But there is a difference between active members and supporters. There are almost 1000 supporters but only around 100 people attend our gatherings more or less regularly. And there are about 40 active people that organise the events and actions.

How is Jeudi Noir structured?

Jeudi Noir is an association (“loi 1901” as we say in French), non hierarchical and very open – too much at times –, not related to any political party or to any other groups, although as individuals some of us are close or part of some groups.

So what are the actions in the public space you organize?

Gatherings, dances, flat visits, squats, debates and other stupid but joyous things.

Could you talk a bit more about the “Visites d’appartement”?

The “Visits” are an important part of Jeudi Noir. Each Thursday there is a newspaper coming out (PAP) which offers ads for flats in Paris, often with prohibitive prices – for example a 20 square meter flat in the centre of Paris for more than 900 euro rent per month. In such a case one of us calls the landlord and asks for an appointment to visit the apartment supposedly in order to rent it. At the time of the meeting he first goes there alone, while we others prepare: Put on wigs, get champagne and music. At one moment he tells the landlord that his/her dad is waiting downstairs, and that he/she would to go to open the door for him. And then… we all come in and the party starts. With a lot of fun but also with cameras and journalists. We try to interview the landlord about the rent he demands.

What happens then? The owners call the police?

Usually in the beginning the owners firstly don’t really understand what’s going on: They are completely confused about the paradox of the massive occupation of their property and the at the same time friendly party atmosphere we bring in. That is why they first try themselves to get us out of the building: But since we do not leave, they finally call the police which – surprisingly enough – arrives  very quickly.

And your other strand of actions, the “Réquisitions”?

The «Réquisitions» are flats or more often even complete buildings that we occupy and then keep at disposal for students or other people looking for accommodation. It starts with some of us discretely entering the building (“the submarine phase”) and then trying for some days or weeks to stay without nobody noticing, but at the same time furnishing  the place and establishing ourselves a bit – as a proof of a longer occupation. Then we open the squat and ask some activists friends or collectives to move in. We take the locations, we make them our own. (Squatting is already a negative term. Occupying might be okay but seems too temporary for our taste.) We consider this illegal action as legitimate in regard to the huge number of people waiting for a flat – while a huge number of private and public buildings are empty in Paris. They are kept this way by the landlords and owners in order to speculate on the rise of prices.

Your actions are obviously illegal. What consequences did you have to face? And what precautions do you take?

Yes, the actions are illegal. But they are legitimate. We work on the border between these both views. We explain that by French law wearing trousers as a woman is still illegal (yes, it is true: it is a law that has not been modified since the 19th century!) and that we consider it the same with our occupation. What should be legitimate about the vacancy of millions of square meters of vacancy in Paris while more and more people have problems to find a home?
But the law still punishes us sometimes. In our last huge squat we were kicked out by the police after one year of living in a space, having painted and refurnished it etc. And we were convicted to pay 80.000 euros which we still didn’t. We had emptied our bank accounts to prevent them being seized. So the precautions usually are: Discretion during the first phase, then trying to gather a mass and staying anonymous.

Which role do the media play in your actions?

Obviously they are quite important. They are catalysers. They spread the word. Since we are active for quite while by now, we know some of them . But mostly, they call us after our press releases in order to join to film the action. We don’t choose: The more, the better.

Do you have a “normal” audience at your events?

We do, fortunately and unfortunately at the same time. Fortunately because otherwise all of this would be just lame and helpless. Unfortunately because we hoped nobody would need us anymore five years after we started. But still, people are in big shit and have even more difficulties to find places to live. So they still are interested in what we say and offer.

Your sensitise the public for structural problems and at the same time you provide at least temporary solutions. But did any of your actions lead to a permanent change?

Well, sometimes later the city offers us a space in a HLM building (the public housing system), but we tend to turn down their offer. We rather stay lobbyists and try to have an effect on politics and laws than focus on singe concrete spaces. Sometimes, however, we kept a building for a year like La Marquise at Place des Vosges. Or we managed to change things on a legislative level – for example with a tax on small flats where the rent exceeds 40 euros per square meter.

Did this law come? Why do you think it is a direct result of your actions?

The law was passed just recently under Sarkozy’s government – obviously only due to media pressure and not because he suddenly embraced leftist ideology. Our actions aim for a new identity of activism. We want to gain as much media attention as possible on the housing problem and the solutions we propose. The media impulse gives us the possibility to do some very direct lobbying: So the government knows that we will continue our actions if nothing changes. We extend the fight and that is not good for their image.

Some of your strategies can be clearly associated with artistic practises: your carnevalesque dress code, the persona of the Disco King, a torso-like sculpture you, and the choreographies your actions employ. Is the choice of artistic strategies a conscious one?

No, they come without clear intention. They happen because we rather want to create something funny than something boring. Since it is easier to catch people’s attention when being dressed all read, white and blue, we wear gowns and wigs instead of our usual clothes. I guess, most of the attention of the media and common people is due to that. The Disco King is an active member of Jeudi Noir: He makes us dance and sing and helps us to enjoy our protests even when the police arrived. He is our star, our mascot.

So even though not having an artistic mission, Jeudi Noir does have specific aesthetics, a specific visual form to convey critical ideas ?

Yes, of course. We have our specific graphic design. We have our wigs, shirts, pins. Even our press releases have the recognisable design of our website, which is starting to become quite popular.

So do you think artistic strategies can improve activist actions ?

Well, this is a personal answer, I cannot speak for the whole group here. But for me the gap between art and activism is stupid. It exists only because artists here don’t feel the need to be activists anymore. In countries where they don’t have the right to express their voice, art and activism are immediately linked. I think artistic strategies can improve activist actions or at least make them more interesting.

Can a more engaged art change society?

Yes. In a way. But it is not enough. To make a real change you need massive support. Art affects only a minority.

So, would you be interested in participating in steirischer herbst even though it is an art institution?

Yes, definitely. But as it is very art oriented, I doubt many people from Jeudi Noir will come along.

Interview by Anne Faucheret

 

Short chronology of Jeudi Noir:

October 28th, 2006: First festive intervention. Two „flats visits“ are recorded on video posted on the web.
November 4th, 2006: The medial buzz about Jeudi Noir starts.
December 3rd, 2006: Jeudi Noir meets Jean-Louis Borloo, Minister of Housing. September 1st, 2007: Jeudi Noir discretely occupies an empty private building in the 16th district of Paris. Accommodation of 45 students.
September 6th, 2007: 12 CRS (French anti-riot force) busses cover the building as agents carry out occupants
April 9th – Mai 14th, 2008: Squat “Impasse” (dead-end) in the 3rd district, which if finally ended by the police
January 29th, 2009: Launching of the illegal “Student Campus Jeudi Noir” in the 5th district near Sorbonne
October 1st, 2009: Publication of the “Little Black Housing Book” (“Petit livre noir du lodgement”)
October 31st, 2009: Occupation of a building at Place des Vosges (a residential royal square from the 17th century) and beginning of the squat “La Marquise“
October 23rd, 2010: eviction from “La Marquise”
December 22nd, 2010: Beginning of the squat at 22nd Avenue de Matignon (near the house of the prime minister)
February 28th, 2011: Police evicts the Matignon occupation after having illegally blocked all entrances of the building in an attempt to starve the participants

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