The Ebb and Flow of Resistance: Analysis of the Squatters’ Movement and Squatted Social Centres in Brighton by E.T.C. Dee
Abstract: This article analyses a database of 55 squatted social centres in Brighton. By virtue of their public nature, these projects provide a lens through which to examine the local political squatters’ movement, which was often underground, private and hidden (residential squatting in contrast is not profiled). Several relevant non-squatted spaces are also included since they were used as organisational hubs by squatters. The data was gathered from a mixture of participant observation, reference to archive materials, conversations with squatters past and present, academic sources and activist websites. The projects are assessed in turn by time period, duration, type of building occupied and location (by ward). Significant individual projects are described and two boom periods identified, namely the late 1990s and recent years. Reasons for the two peaks in activity are suggested and criticised. It is argued that social centres bloomed in the 1990s as part of the larger anti-globalisation movement and more recently as a tool of resistance against the criminalisation of squatting. Tentative conclusions are reached concerning the cycles, contexts and institutionalisation of the squatters’ movement. It is suggested that the movement exists in ebbs and flows, influenced by factors both internal (such as the small, transitory nature of the milieu) and external (such as frequent evictions). This research feeds into a larger research project (MOVOKEUR) analysing the various squatters’ movement in cities across Western Europe.
Read online at http://www.socresonline.org.uk/19/4/6.html
Spaces of Autonomy in Copenhagen and Madrid – Masters thesis by Tina Steiger
Taking a critical perspective, and based on the writings of Henri Lefebvre, Manuel Castells, David Harvey and George Katsiaficas we explore the claim to autonomous spaces in the urban realm. From this departure point, case studies of recently claimed, autonomous social centers in Copenhagen and Madrid are examined.
Our aim is to demonstrate the alternative forms of production and exchange that these self-managed spaces are experimenting with. By fostering projects based on participative decision-making, social economics and cultural production, spaces of autonomy are experimenting with local and participative alternatives outside of the state and market.
Armin Kuhn – Vom Häuserkampf zur neoliberalen Stadt: Besetzungsbewegungen in Berlin und Barcelona
Hausbesetzungen, noch heute Symbole radikaler städtischer Bewegungen, haben ihren Ursprung im Widerstand gegen die fordistische Stadt. Armin Kuhn beschreibt die Hausbesetzungen als Bewegungen, die gegen die zerstörerischen und disziplinierenden Auswirkungen fordistischer Stadtpolitik entstanden und deren Erfolge davon abhingen, zu welchem Zeitpunkt sie auftraten: Am Übergang von der Krise zu einer neuen, noch offenen und umkämpften Form städtischen Regierens. Oder zu einer Zeit, als das politische Terrain bereits neoliberal abgesteckt war. Er untersucht systematisch die Berührungspunkte mit neoliberalen Politikansätzen, die anfangs eine Durchsetzung bestimmter Ziele ermöglicht und später zur Einhegung und Eingliederung der Besetzungen geführt haben.
Heute, angesichts einer tiefen Krise der neoliberalen Stadt, wird die Frage nach dem Recht auf Stadt wieder mit Nachdruck gestellt. Besetzungen spielen dort eine entscheidende Rolle, wo es gelungen ist, die ambivalent gewordenen Strategien und Identitätsentwürfe abzuschütteln und sich den neuen, aus städtischen Alltagsbeziehungen entstandenen Formen des Gemeinsamen zu öffnen.
Morawski, Tobias – Reclaim Your City
Steigende Mieten, Privatisierung öffentlicher Flächen, Gentrifizierung und Verdrängung aus der Innenstadt sind die Folgen einer neoliberalen Stadtentwicklung, die zunehmend in den Fokus der Kritik gerückt ist.
»Reclaim Your City« gibt den urbanen Protestbewegungen eine Stimme, die sich demgegenüber mit unterschiedlichen Methoden den öffentlichen Raum aneignen und ein Recht auf Stadt reklamieren. Mittel der Gegenwehr sind physische Aneignungen wie Haus- und Platzbesetzungen, Blockaden von Bauvorhaben oder Zwangsräumungen, aber auch Demonstrationen und Verfremdung von Werbung, kritische Kartierung und Erstellung von Leerstandsmeldern. Das Buch erklärt die Strategien der Raumaneignung dieser Bewegungen und fragt danach, wie sich KünstlerInnen und GestalterInnen in der Stadtpolitik positionieren.
Anhand des konkreten Beispiels Berlin liefert das Buch einen repräsentativen Querschnitt durch die emanzipatorischen städtischen Bewegungen der aktuellen Zeit. Es beschreibt den Wandel der Städte im Neoliberalismus und stellt die Auseinandersetzungen um Macht und Teilhabe am städtischen Raum dar.
Trotz des Fokus auf Berlin bietet das Buch einen allgemein übertragbaren Überblick auf städtische Proteste weltweit. »Reclaim Your City« schlägt die bildliche und inhaltliche Brücke zwischen Mietprotesten, Nachbarschaftsgärten, Graffiti-Kultur und den Aufständen illegalisierter MigrantInnen.
Lesereisen / Veranstaltungen
Morawski, Tobias: Reclaim Your City
Base de datos de okupas, sitios de caravanas y terrenos/espacios libres en Berlin-Oeste, Berlin-Este y Berlin (desde octubre 3 de 1990) de los años 1970 hasta la presente
Esta base de datos comprende de okupaciones desde hace del ano 1970 y contiene un moton de categorias distintas como duracion de la okupacion, legalizacion o desalojo, propietario, grupos y colectivos oraganizados, actividades del okupa, represion, tipo de contrato, fuentes, paginas web, comentarios, fotos etc.)
Esta base de datos trilingüe (aleman, ingles, castellano) se entiende y considerarse como un producto inacabado, como un trabajo en crearse. Es incompleta y lleno de huecos y por eso mismo queremos pedirles vuestra colaboracion y ayuda y para mejorar, afinar y para hacer mas informativo.
Entonces, si tendras informaciones que faltan o si quereis corrigir algo, porfa contactarnos a vuestra email:
Luego acogeremos vuestras informaciones en la base de datos. Desde ahi los datos se actualizan continuamente y admiten en la pagina web de Berlin Besetzt, el mapa illustrado de ocupaciones en Berlin (http://www.berlin-besetzt.de/).
Esto base de datos trambien se puede ver en la pagina web del colectivo SqEK (http://sqek.squat.net/), una red internacional de activistas y investigador@s que trabaja en el tema de okupaciones asi como en la pagina red del ex-okupa, desde 2009 legalizada New Yorck in Bethanien (www.newyorck.net)
Database of squatted houses, wagon-places and free spaces
in West-Berlin, East-Berlin and Berlin (since october 3rd 1990) from 1970 to the present
This data base captures occupations since 1970 and and is containing various diffrent categories (duration of occupation, legalization or eviction, ownership, organized groups and collectives, activities, repression, type of contracts, sources, media, webpage, comments, fotos etc.)
The trilingual (german, english, spanish) Datebase can be seen and understood as a unfinished product, as a work in progress.
The database isincomplete and fragmentary and therefore we ask you for your colaboration and support to refine and to arrange it more informative.
So if you got more information, which atre missing or if you wanna correct something, please do not hesitate and contact us at this email:
kollektivbibliothek [at] so36 [dot] net
We will include this information in our Database and then consequently transfered/applied and constantly actualized on the webpage Berlin Besetzt, the illustrated map of squatting in Berlin (http://www.berlin-besetzt.de/).
This Database can also been seen and examined at the webpage of the internatiopnal network SqEK, a network of activists and researchers on the issue of squatting (http://sqek.squat.net/) as well as at the page of the former squat (since 2009 legalized) New Yorck im Bethanien (www.newyorck.net)
Berlin-Kreuzberg, october 2014
Datenbank besetzter Häuser, Wagenplätze und Freiflächen in West-Berlin, Ost-Berlin und Berlin (seit 03.10.1990) von 1970 bis zur Gegegenwart
Diese Datenbank erfasst Besetzungen seit dem Jahr 1970 und enthält eine Menge unterschiedlicher Kategorien (Dauer der Besetzung, Legalisierung oder Räumung, Besitzverhältnisse, Organisierte Gruppen und Kollektive, Aktivitäten, Repression, Art der Verträge, Quellen. Medien, Webseite, Anmerkungen, Fotos usw.)
Die dreisprachige (deutsch, englisch, spanisch) Datenbank ist als unfertiges Erzeugniss, als eine Arbeit im Entstehen zu sehen und zu begreifen.
Sie ist unvollständig und lückenhaft – und deshalb bitten wir um Eure Mitarbeit und Unterstützung, um diese Datenbank zu verfeinern und informativer zu gestalten.
Also wenn Ihr noch Informationen habt, die fehlen oder ihr etwas korrigieren möchtet, bitte kontaktet uns unter folgender email:
Wir werden dann eure Informationen in die Datenbank mit aufnehmen.
Von dort werden die Daten dann in die Webseite Berlin Besetzt, der Illustrierten Karte zu Hausbesetzungen in Berlin (http://www.berlin-besetzt.de/) übertragen und laufend aktualisiert.
Diese Datenbank ist ebenfalls einsehbar auf der Webseite des international agierenden Netzwerkes SqEK von Aktivist*innen und Forscher*innen zu dem Themenkomplex Besetzungen (http://sqek.squat.net/) sowie der Seite der ehemals besetzten, seit 2009 legalisierten New Yorck im Bethanien (www.newyorck.net)
A chapter from Squatting in Europe: Radical Spaces, Urban Struggles
Moving Towards Criminalisation and Then What? Examining dominant discourses on squatting in England
On March 31, 2011, an Early Day Motion was proposed in the
House of Commons by Mike Weatherley, Conservative Member of
Parliament for Hove. The motion read ‘This house believes that squat-
ting should be criminalised’. This was the latest step in a series of events instigated by Conservative Party outrage at gypsy and New Age trav-
eler land occupations in the run up to the 2009 General Election. It
is expected to result in a revision of the trespass laws which will make
squatting illegal. In this article, I will document and analyse the recent
discourses around squatting which have been both been created and
exploited by politicians and journalists.
I outline and explain several dominant discourses, concentrating
on media stories from national and local newspapers in Brighton and
London. These discourses exist in the media but (as will be seen)
both shape and are shaped by the attitudes of the general public, in a
reflexive loop. The stories fluctuate in emphasis and effect, although
recently most stories have tended more to the negative perception of
squatting and its protagonists. With the onset of proposals to crimi-
nalise squatting there seems to have been a noticeable shift in tone,
which is due to a multiplicity of factors and cannot be said to be ac-
Before moving forward, I would like to make two quick procedural
Firstly, a comment on the use of the word ‘England’. It might be
thought simpler to speak of squatting in the United Kingdom, but
the UK consists of England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and
some islands. In Northern Ireland and Scotland, the law is different and
there is no legal basis for squatting (and it seldom happens). It also seems
unfair to include Wales when discussing only English newspapers and
therefore I speak only of England, in particular Brighton and London.
There are squats throughout the UK both in the countryside and the urban
environment, but these two cities are often mentioned in the media, so
I concentrated upon them.
Secondly, regarding sources, I have been tracking squatting stories
in the media for the last two years. For this piece I refer to the most
pertinent articles, and tend to focus on four newspapers (all dailies).
These are the Daily Mail (a right-wing tabloid), the Guardian (a left-
wing broadsheet), the Daily Telegraph (a right-wing broadsheet) and the
Brighton Argus (a right-wing local newspaper).
Critical Discourse Analysis
Following the work of Norman Fairclough, I will take an approach
to discourse analysis grounded in linguistics and applied to social theo-
ry. Discourse is taken to be spoken or written language use, which can
be examined as a form of social practice (1993: 138). Discourse analysis
explores the frequently opaque relations between discursive practices
and wider social and cultural structures. Such practices “arise out of and
are ideologically shaped by relations of power and struggles over power”
(1993: 135). The relations can be described as opaque since they may
not necessarily be comprehensible to those participants producing the
Drawing a demarcation between ‘critical’ and ‘descriptive’ analysis,
Fairclough investigates the ‘ideological-discursive formations’ which
exist within an institution (1985: 739). He claims that it is usually a
simple matter to identify one ideological-discursive formation which is
clearly dominant and others which are dominated. When one ideologi-
cal-discursive formation becomes dominant and remains unchallenged,
then the norms which represent the background knowledge will slowly
become naturalized and therefore become the norms of the institution
itself. They will also become completely opaque to the language users
The institution is taken to be a “pivot” between the higher level so-
cial formation and the lower level social event, “an apparatus of verbal
interaction” (1985: 749). I will argue later that the views represented by
mainstream media discourses on squatting can be broken quite simply
into several ideological-discursive formations, with one clearly domi-
The important point to recognise here is that Fairclough has identi-
fied a manner in which language use (itself shaped by prior knowledge
and experience) comes to reinforce the ideological-discursive forma-
tion. In this way, “discourse makes people, as well as people make dis-
course” (1985: 750). Fairclough’s analysis is theoretically supported by
the work of Foucault, who suggests that “power is everywhere; not be-
cause it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere”
(1979: 93). An important corollary is that there is space for change,
in that ideological-discursive formations can be altered. However, the
domination of a particular framework can of course be dangerous, since
then the background knowledge becomes fixed to a certain ideological
perspective which can be difficult to change.
Language is recursive. It both forms and reflects opinions. With dis-
courses on squatting, it is possible to observe how the media stories
both form attitudes and manipulate them, by drawing on stereotypes.
As Fairclough comments, “it is vital that critical discourse analysis ex-
plore the tension between these two sides of language use, the socially
shaped and the socially constitutive” (1993:134).
To give an example of such an analysis, Fairclough examines the
script of a television series which involves the questioning of a woman
(who is the victim of rape) by two policemen and discovers implicit
propositions suggesting that the policemen hold sexist attitudes as part
of their background knowledge, which then shapes their behaviour in
the context of the dominant ideological-discursive formation (1985:
In another example, Fairclough studies extracts from Lancaster
University’s undergraduate prospectuses for the years 1967-8, 1986-7
and 1993. In the light of the increasing marketization of higher educa-
tion structures generally in the UK, he discovers how the discursive
practices themselves have become marketized through textual analysis
and also in terms of social practice. As he comments, “the 1967-8 entry
gives information about what is provided on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.
In the 1993 prospectus, by contrast, the promotional function is pri-
mary; it is designed to sell the university and its courses to the potential
applicant” (1993: 156).
In both cases then, by close attention to the text Fairclough can
extrapolate conclusions. The suppositions here are that communication
through language is a type of social interaction, which is structured, and
further that this inherent structure can be affected by language itself.
These seem perfectly reasonable assumptions to make since language
clearly does affect the domains of discourse which are constructed. As
Giddens observes, “there can be no theoretical defence for supposing
that the personal encounters of day-to-day life can be conceptually
separated from the long-term institutional development of society”
How an ideological-discursive formation is
constituted regarding squatting
There is an interesting discrepancy between public views of squatters
in the Netherlands and England. The modern wave of squatting began
at the same time (the late 1960s and early 1970s) in both countries,
spurred by the need to provide housing in a time when many buildings
stood empty. Even though as Paul Chatterton observes there is a “long
history of the dispossessed building their own housing and infrastruc-
ture through the emergence of self-managed squatter settlements”, re-
cent discourses around squatting have diverged considerably in the two
countries (2010: 240).
In the Netherlands, the squatter is known as a ‘kraker’, after the
verb ‘kraken’ (‘to crack’) which came to be used colloquially as meaning
‘to squat’. Krakers are known as responsible, trustworthy people who
occupy buildings to protest at speculation, provide housing for those in
need, set up social projects, preserve monuments and take advantage of
emptiness to sidestep queues for housing, on Pruijt’s fivefold typology
(2004a). Drug-users and thieves who may use squatting as a pretext for
stealing copper pipes from a building are lumped together under the
term ‘junkie’ rather than ‘kraker’. The dominant ideological-discursive
formation is clearly one that is favourable to squatters and one in which
squatters (particularly those in Amsterdam) have been recognised
as actors participating in city planning (Pruijt, 2004b). However, as
Owens notes, this recognition was only won through hard work since
“squatting’s political nature is not given. Activists had to battle over
the meaning and purpose of squatting in order to make it their own”
(2008:47). Dutch squatters are expected to have researched the history
of the building (for example finding out who the owner is and whether
there are any planning permissions granted), behave non-violently un-
less provoked and to have cordial relations with the police.
All of this is very different in England, where the stereotypical view
of squatters is more along the lines of drug-addicted criminals who shit
in buckets, trash buildings and generally cause disturbance, as repre-
sented fictionally in Doris Lessing’s novel ‘The Good Terrorist’ (1985)
and various media stories. In illustration, I can point to reports in the
One entitled ‘Websites give guidance for how to squat in Brighton’
reports upon the existence of squatter advice networks. Regarding a re-
cently evicted squat, it accuses the squatters of causing £20,000 of dam-
age and leaving faeces in every room of the building (May 10, 2009).
That year, May 1 had just seen a successful anti-arms trade protest by
a group called SmashEDO and the article features a photograph of a
mournful owner looking through a broken window with SmashEDO
scrawled on a wall. Leaving aside the question of how damage amount-
ing to £20,000 can be done to an empty property without a wrecking
crew, it seems there is a political subtext to this story.
Another article has clear political overtones, which mask the fact of
an illegal eviction. ‘Inside the home of amateur anarchists’ reports on
a police raid on a squat as part of the security drive (termed Operation
Otter) in the run up to the Labour Party Conference which took place
in Brighton in 2004 (September 24, 2004). Three people were arrested
on suspicion of burglary before being released the next day, by which
time the house had no doubt been re-secured by the owner. There ap-
pears to have been no real security threat, with rooms being described
as “typical of those occupied by many students, littered with books,
videos and clothes” (ibid).
In both these stories, squatting appears to be the superficial topic
through which other political points can be made.
Steve Platt tracked media perceptions of squatting from the 1960s
to the 1990s and notes that whilst squatters often had media coverage
to thank for successes, the relationship was a stormy one. During the
Coverage could at times be almost unrelievedly hostile. It
was one thing when squatting involved ‘respectable’, self-evi-
dently ‘deserving’ cases of homeless families occupying empty
council properties, often as part of a well-disciplined campaign
led by people who were not themselves homeless. It was quite
another when the squatters were perceived to be less respect-
able and deserving – single people, ‘outsiders’, ‘hippies’, ‘dos-
sers’ or drug-takers, people without the same steady eye for
how their image might play in the media – particularly if they
turned their attentions towards empty privately-owned prop-
erties or were seen to have some sort of wider political agenda
I shall return to the discussion of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ squatters later on,
here I would simply note that Platt’s analysis is still valid today. I shall
now examine reports about squatting in the English mainstream media,
primarily newspaper articles written at the national and local level and
websites from various groups. I will first analyse media stories about
squatters characterised as ‘millionaire’ squatters (since they are occupy-
ing properties worth £1 million or more). Next, I will analyse the divi-
sion between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ squatters. This is followed by a discussion
of how such discourses were affected by the proposed criminalisation
Beginning in the late 2000s and continuing up to the present day,
the mainstream media (by which I mean the daily national newspapers
and their internet news sites, local newspapers in London and Brighton
and in addition the BBC news website), have regularly featured news
stories concerning large, expensive houses which have been squatted.
These stories tend to relate who the mansion belongs to and what the
squatters think about their new, temporary utopia. A couple of times
a month, the discourse of the ‘millionaire’ squatters reliably reappears.
Until quite recently, when other factors appear to disrupt the tone,
there tends to be some sympathy for the squatters which could be ex-
plained by the framing of the squatters as slightly mythologised ‘Robin
Hood’ figures, taking back for the people what has been stolen from
them by the ultrarich. Whilst private property is sacrosanct under capi-
talism, it appears that there is a boundary beyond which there is a cer-
tain public sympathy for those who squat houses worth millions which
are standing derelict. The need to protect private property is coming
into conflict with a basic belief which frames emptiness as itself crimi-
nal when people have a need for housing.
This tension is also apparent in France. According to Thomas
Aguilera, writing in this volume about Parisian squats, “private prop-
erty is fundamental and constitutionally protected. It means that the
juridical institutions cannot allow an illegal occupation if an owner
complains. On the other hand, the right to housing is also fundamen-
tal (even if it is less than the right to property in the hierarchy of the
French constitution)” (page 210).
For example, in Brighton, a £1.75 million property called Fife House
(once owned by Edward VIII) was occupied in December 2008. In the
Daily Mail, a journalist surmises that neighbours “fear it is only a mat-
ter of time before the invaders start throwing wild parties” but allows
the squatters to retort that they are caring for the property (December
Groups squatting large expensive properties in London have includ-
ed the Really Free School, the VHS Video Basement, the Da! Collective
and the Oubliette. The Really Free School occupied properties at 5
Bloomsbury Square, 34-35 Fitzroy Square, 6 Rathbone Place and 48
Whitcomb Street, and I shall examine them in more detail later on.
The VHS Basement take the stance of non-cooperation with main-
stream media, with a public message on their blog entitled ‘Dear
Guardian Wankers’ in answer to an enquiry from a journalist:
We are not interested in any sort of coverage from the main-
stream media. Aside from the fact that they are usually fac-
tually incorrect, and make everyone come across as complete
wankers, we see any news articles or similar as detrimental to
the squatting movement. It is articles like this that have, and
will lead to the laws being changed, making it much harder for
squatting to exist at all (December 21, 2009).
Such a response suggests that these squatters are aware of the negative
discourses around squatting and have decided to follow a policy of non-
cooperation with the media. Presumably the thinking is to not make
matters any worse by aiding the creation of such narratives. However,
the question must be asked how possible it is to step outside of the nar-
rative. For all its attractions, non-cooperation leaves no room to create
alternative narratives (hard as that may itself seem to be).
The Oubliette (‘dungeon’ in French) is an arts collective which
has squatted properties such as an old language school in Waterloo, a
Mayfair mansion left empty for twelve years and two former embas-
sies near Green Park. Their spokesperson, Dan Simon, claims that the
group is not squatting but rather using each temporary space to run an
arts project which needs no funding from either the public or private
sectors. He states that in each place the group has attempted to make
contact with the owner, proposing that they run the arts project until
whatever time the owner requires the use of the building again and
offering to maintain the building, with the twin benefits being that
neighbourhood property values do not fall as a result of dereliction
and the need for paid private security is removed (Guardian, December
21, 2009). In this sense, it seems that the collective are attempting to
import the notion of a brokered anti-squat deal from the Netherlands,
where it has often worked successfully. They are also working to change
the ideological-discursive formation around squatting at root, with a
redefinition of their actions.
So it seems that squatters might battle the dominant ideological-dis-
cursive formation, which is negative towards them, by either refusing
to participate (VHS Basement) or by redefining what is meant by the
term ‘squatter’ (Oubliette). Both reactions are in some way challenging
the legitimacy of the current dominant framework.
It is not surprising that the Oubliette squatters would want to pres-
ent themselves as something different to the standard definition of the
term. This is an attempt to codify a new subjectivity. Foucault suggests
this tactic as a form of resistance to the state, perhaps the most effective
tool at our disposal. He states this most clearly in his ‘Afterword – The
Subject and Power’ in Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics (edited by
Dreyfus and Rabinow):
The conclusion would be that the political, ethical, social
philosophical problem of our days is not to try to liberate the
individual from the state, and from the state’s institutions,
but to liberate us both from the state, and from the type of
individualization which is linked to the state. We have to pro-
mote new forms of subjectivity through the refusal of this kind
of individuality which has been imposed on us for several cen-
turies (1982: 216).
An action that also attempted to engage with the ideological-dis-
cursive framework around squatting, in this case aided by a broadly
sympathetic media, was the occupation of the London home of Saif al-
Islam Gaddafi, the son of the Libyan dictator Colonel Gaddafi. A group
called Topple the Tyrants took possession of the house in Hampstead
Garden Suburb in March 2011. It is estimated to be worth £10 mil-
lion. Within the context of the popular Libyan uprising, this action was
almost universally praised. In one article, the squatters were referred
to as “protesters” throughout and provided with ample space to make
their political point in their own words (namely that the occupation
had taken place “in solidarity with the people of Libya”) (Guardian,
March 9, 2011). Note also the use of the word ‘occupation’, rather than
‘squatting’. By talking about a squatting action without using the term
‘squat’ itself, the usual connotations attached to the term are avoided
and the action can be judged on different grounds, namely that the
son of a tyrant’s empty property has been seized in solidarity with the
people who are being oppressed by Gaddafi. The only dissenting voice
was that of Mike Freer, the local Conservative Member of Parliament,
who condemned the action and advised the squatters that “they need to
let the UK Government deal with the situation” (Hendon and Finchley
Times, March 16, 2011).
The case of Mark Guard is instructive. Described by the Daily Mail
as a “serial squatter” and also “crusader for the homeless and the under-
dog”, Guard was spokesperson for a group which squatted a string of
properties in 2009, many of which belonged to high profile celebrity
figures (December 10, 2009). Thus, there are news stories documenting
the occupation of homes belonging to former Home Secretary David
Blunkett, the ex-wife of billionaire Roman Abramovich and TV cook
Nigella Lawson. These residences cost their owners £4 million, £15
million and £33 million, respectively (Daily Mail, December 10, 2009;
October 19, 2009; November 24, 2009).
Squatting predominantly in Belgravia in West London, the group
also occupied the 80 room former Sudanese embassy and a £12 mil-
lion house on the same street as the residence of former Prime Minister
Margaret Thatcher (Daily Mail, October 19, 2009).
In all the articles mentioned in the above paragraph, the occupiers
are consistently described as ‘squatters’, with the only descriptive modi-
fier being ‘serial’. This highlights the neutral tone of the reports, for
which the focus is not the act of squatting or even the related politics,
but rather the shocking emptiness of these properties.
In an interview with Guard which concentrates on “the scandal of
London’s empty mansions”, he claims that the Belgravia group is com-
posed of “good squatters” as opposed to “bad, anti-capitalist squatters”
(Evening Standard, October 26, 2009). Whether he is presenting this
view as a tactic or it is actually a belief he holds is unclear and perhaps
this fuzziness is useful for him.
Guard certainly comes across as a modern Robin Hood. Indeed,
this impression is helped by the fact that he was unsuccessfully pros-
ecuted for stealing electricity. He was apparently filming a group of
people squatting an abandoned building in Camden, north London,
on August 1, 2009 when they entered through an open window and set
off the burglar alarm. The squatters fled, but Guard, a qualified electri-
cian, stayed behind in order to turn off the alarm.
He stated he was acting in the public interest by putting on the
electricity momentarily to give himself enough light to reset the alarm.
However, the police who arrived in response to the alarm arrested him
and later charged him with stealing electricity. Despite Guard’s offer to
pay the electricity company 1p, he had to appear in court to face the
charge of stealing 0.003p of electricity. Unsurprisingly, when Guard
requested trial by jury the judge threw out the case and the Crown
Prosecution Service (funded by the taxpayer) ended up paying costs of
£4,200 (Daily Mail, August 19, 2009). In the reporting of this story,
Guard is certainly not portrayed as a criminal but rather participates in
a separate discourse, namely that of the ordinary man caught up in a
Kafkaesque nightmare of bureaucracy.
So it certainly is possible for squatting and squatters to be depicted
in a favourable tone, but only perhaps when another discourse is in-
volved, so that the negative discourse concerning squatting is over-
ridden by a larger ideological-discursive framework such as the dis-
course concerning the scandal of the rich owning houses which they
leave empty, or, as just seen, the discourse of state bureaucracy gone
mad (a favourite theme for the Daily Mail).
The division of the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’
Paul Danler writes “Polarization between good and evil, between
friend and foe, or to put it less linguistically, black-and-white painting
is an important strategy in political discourse”. He goes on to conclude
that ambiguity is not permitted since this “might allow for critical and
independent reflection on the listener’s part” (52: 2005).
In the media, squatters tend to be described in one of two ways.
There is a certain shorthand at work which enables ‘good’ squatters who
are protesters, occupiers or an art group to be distinguished from ‘bad’
squatters who are aggressive, lifestylists, serial, unlawful and unwanted
(Florence Bouillon’s chapter in this volume examines the classification
in the French context).
Steve Platt records that from the 1970s onwards, squatting has had
a “viciously antagonistic” relationship with the media (1999). In terms
of critical discourse analysis, it seems clear that the current dominant
ideological-discursive framework surrounding squatting is that squat-
ters are ‘bad’. If nothing else, the fact that squatters repeatedly have to
emphasise that they are ‘good’ not ‘bad’ demonstrates the power of this
stereotype. If squatting is considered as direct action against capitalism,
both because it attacks the very notion of private property and because
it allows participants the opportunity to indulge in activities of their
own choosing rather than being compelled to work so as to pay their
rent, it is of course clear why those in positions of power would want to
characterise squatters as ‘bad’. And as is seen below when articles relat-
ing to criminalisation are examined, the media can certainly function
as an organ of power.
To give some examples of the good/bad divide, I refer first to an arti-
cle entitled ‘Squatters occupy £3 million house on “millionaire’s row”’.
This group of three squatters were careful to self-identify themselves as
‘good’ squatters, with one being quoted as saying “I don’t mind being
called a squatter, but I am a good one. We are normal people, we go to
work”. He clearly wants to avoid being stereotyped by the background
knowledge which forms the dominant ideological-discursive forma-
tion. (Daily Telegraph, July 15, 2009).
In the previously mentioned Daily Mail article about Fife House
in Brighton, one neighbour is quoted as saying “They look like scruffy
students with combat trousers and baggy jumpers with holes in. But
they’re very polite and well-spoken. They seem like your typical middle-
class dropouts” (December 11, 2008).
In a chapter of his book Black Bloc, White Riot entitled ‘Semiotic
Street Fights’ A.K. Thompson discusses the good/bad distinction with
regard to anti-capitalist activism in the United States.
He argues that by defining the term ‘activist’ within criminal law, the
state has “managed to limit the scope of the possible within the realm
of dissent” (2010:34). He then proceeds to observe that in fact the di-
vision of ‘good’/’bad’ permits those making the distinction to enforce
their power “since the goal of designation is not so much to recognise
as to regulate the designated object, and since state officials reasoned
that ‘terrorists’ might embed themselves within the law-abiding crowds
[...] it followed that the vigilance of law enforcement officers needed
to extend to ‘good’ protesters as well” (2010: 35). In other words (and
returning to the domain of squatting) all squatters are still ‘bad’ at the
end of the day under the dominant ideological-discursive framework.
There is ultimately no escape for the ‘good’ squatter.
To take an explicit example of the discourse of the ‘bad’ squatter, I
refer to the case of John Hamilton-Brown, whose newly bought home
in Archway, London, was squatted in early 2011. In an article entitled
‘My £1 million house is ruined’ a journalist records how “cigarette
butts, fruit and discarded wine bottles were strewn across every room
in the house which was awaiting renovation after they spent six weeks
inside”. The ‘they’ refers to squatters, who are described as “cowardly”,
a “gang” and “mostly in their early 20s and European” (Daily Mail,
March 7, 2011). There is a subtle hint here towards a racist discourse
familiar from many other debates, when ‘the other’ is blamed for
every problem under discussion. This can be seen more clearly in a
Daily Telegraph report entitled ‘Eastern Europeans praise Britain’s ‘lax’
squatting law’ which details how “twenty foreign nationals, mainly
eastern Europeans” had taken possession of a council-owned build-
ing and spends much more time emphasising the possible disruption
to its conversion into two new classrooms for a school than assess-
ing the reality of the situation (March 13, 2011). Despite quoting
both a squatter known as Tom who said “We are good squatters. We
treat the places we live in with respect. We keep the place clean and
tidy – we ask visitors to take their shoes off when they enter” and
Peter Walker, Merton’s cabinet member for education, who remarked
“teachers from the school have told us that the only sound they have
heard coming from the squat is the sound of a hoover,” the aim of the
article is clearly to fit the story to the campaign to criminalise squat-
ting (on which more below). To emphasise this point, Mike Freer (the
Conservative MP for Finchley and Golders Green who was concerned
by the squatting of the Gaddafi mansion) is quoted as saying “what
they are doing should be illegal”.
Steve Platt observes that the media prefers to tell an “individual
story rather than providing meaningful social analysis” and thus resorts
to describing “straightforward heroes and villains” (1999). This is cer-
tainly true, but further we can identify the underlying forces affecting
the stereotyping itself, as we shall see below.
I will now move to a brief consideration of recent media articles con-
cerning the proposal to criminalise squatting. Certainly, there are a
multiplicity of factors at work here, but nevertheless there does appear
to be a concerted attempt to manipulate public opinion and police
opposition. As Thompson states with regard to activism in the United
States, “representing activists as criminals and security threats (a cat-
egory that takes on its full significance under the society of control)
allowed state actors to initiate legal courses of action designed to more
effectively regulate dissent” (2010:32).
Regarding the proposed criminalisation of squatting, a rash of sto-
ries appeared in the Daily Telegraph, which began a campaign support-
ing Mike Weatherley’s call to change the laws concerning squatting.
Since time and space do not permit me to list all the examples, I shall
reference some of stories below, examining some implicit propositions
and drawing out some general themes. Any emphasis is mine.
In ‘The middle class serial squatters exploiting the law’ (March 6,
2011), the Telegraph focuses on the Really Free School group, which it
terms “a ragtag bunch of up to 40 activists and undergraduates”, who
are “dressed in scavenged clothes and ripped vintage tweed jackets”. The
owner of one Bloomsbury property which was squatted remarks: “It
was all very middle class. They were intelligent students, certainly not
impoverished. I suppose if I was going to have squatters I couldn’t have
asked for better ones.” The squatters are ‘good’ as opposed to ‘bad’ in
terms of the easily formed stereotype, but the language of ‘serial’ and
‘exploiting’ (both used in the title) suggests that they are not to be
praised. There appears to be a threat to the middle classes from within,
from their very children rebelling against them. Describing the dress
code of such actors is codifying them as a threatening rabble rather than
equal participants in a debate over urban planning.
In “Squatting to be made illegal, vows Clarke” (March 18, 2011), the
language used is clear. “Police will be able to force entry” and “the days
of ‘squatters’ rights’ will be over”.
Kenneth Clarke, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice
is reported by a conveniently anonymous source to be “sick of see-
ing cases of law-abiding people fighting to regain possession of their
properties”, with the result that “officials are now drawing up plans to
make such property invasions illegal”. As you will have noticed, there
is nothing conditional about the Daily Telegraph’s campaign to ‘stop
the squatters’ (a campaign for which it has in fact already claimed vic-
tory), with ‘will’ being repeatedly used in its simple future sense. Other
articles are entitled “Squatting Laws Endorse Theft”, “Squatters: How
the law will change” and “Coalition to make squatting a criminal of-
fence” (February 27, 2011; March 18, 2011; March 19, 2011). It does
not seem to be a question of whether squatting will be made a criminal
offence, but when.
Indeed, another article written on the same March weekend in a
different newspaper states that “Police will get new powers to evict offend-
ers who seize unoccupied properties” (Independent, March 19, 2011). It
goes on to declare “the days of anarchist collectives living rent-free in
Georgian townhouses are numbered” and argues that the new law is
necessary following “a series of high-profile cases where squatters have
invaded properties worth millions in elegant streets in central London”.
Clearly, anarchist squatters have no right to be on elegant streets. A
certain order has been transgressed. Whilst there is a commonsensical
feeling that buildings should not be left empty, especially by those who
are rich enough to own many properties, it seems for some reason (per-
haps the sheer number of squatters, or the increased visibility of squats
or simply as an excuse for repression) there is also now a feeling that
squatting is menace which must be stopped.
Most controversially, the Housing Minister announced in April that
home-owners were able to use sledgehammers to break back into prop-
erties which had been occupied (legally) by squatters, saying “it’s their
home and they are perfectly entitled to” (Independent, April 3, 2011).
The Minister, Grant Schapps, justified this stance with the comment
that “it’s physical violence against property, not the person”. For Schapps,
the moral right appears to lie with the home-owner who can regain
possession using any means possible. Whilst this may seem acceptable,
it is easy to imagine borderline cases (a single mother gets one week
overdue on rent payments, a jealous husband breaks into his former
house), which could lead to difficulties. Also, the power of the ideo-
logical-discursive formation is sharply laid out here, since even though
so-called anarchists were widely condemned in the media for targeted
property destruction against symbols of inequality (the Ritz restaurant,
banks, etc) during the TUC ‘March for an alternative to the cuts’ on
March 26, 2011, Schapps is able to utilise the same distinction for very
different ends. Only an ideological-discursive formation which is domi-
nant in the extreme would be able to perform this sort of manipulative
It seems the discourse on squatting changes over time, to suit vari-
ous political goals. In the early 1970s there was a prior campaign to
criminalise squatting and Steve Platt observes it was “as hysterical as it
was inaccurate” (1999). He records the opinions of various newspapers:
• Daily Telegraph: “Innumerable houses up and down the country
are now in illegal occupation by organised gangs of thugs, lay-
abouts and revolutionary fanatics”.
• The Times: “It has become increasingly clear that the act of
squatting is no longer carried out by, or on behalf of, deprived
and homeless people”.
• Daily Mail: “Many thousands – in all probability the majority
– of squatters are freeloaders and layabouts … Strong laws are
needed to prevent the forces which are undermining the demo-
cratic processes of our country”.
Thus we can see similar language being used to generate a demand
for criminalisation which on that occasion (and subsequently in the
early 1990s) was unsuccessful. More recently, there appears to be a dis-
tinct progression in the general discourse from the amused and de-
tached tolerance of the ‘millionaire’ squat stories described earlier to
a new, more aggressive stance. A ‘new’ (or repeated) discourse centred
around generational and class elements is forming. The theme is one of
middle-class parents having to confront the exploits of their supposedly
wayward children who are ‘good’ squatters in that they are middle-class,
political and intelligent but who are also ‘bad’ squatters in that they are
manipulating the law to their own ends and challenging the very no-
tion of private property. The employment of the parent/child relation-
ship is in itself denigrating and of course not necessarily true. Squatters
are from all ages and backgrounds.
Writing about “activist milieus” in general anthropologist David
Graeber observes that it is impossible to stereotype such a broad group-
ing (2009: 245). However he does tentatively conclude that such mi-
lieus can be “a kind of meeting place, between downwardly mobile
elements of the professional classes and upwardly mobile children of
the working class” and this is probably also true of squatters in England
This new discourse can then be seen as an attempt to shear off some
of the values of the ‘good’ squatter and add them to the dominant ide-
ological-discursive framework of the ‘bad’ squatter. Previous attempts
to criminalise squatting were thwarted in the 1970s and 1990s but this
would suggest that the current attempt is more sophisticated and has
learnt from previous mistakes. Certainly, as the work of Steve Platt has
shown, this is a discourse which reoccurs periodically.
When I began writing this article it was to explore an interest in
the differences between the mainstream attitudes to squatting in the
Netherlands and England, two countries where I have squatted and
researched squatting. The best way to do this seemed to be to track me-
dia stories as they happened. Whilst writing, the Conservative Party’s
plans to criminalise squatting emerged and started to colour the media
discourse, so I was well placed to track the changes.
Using the terms of Critical Discourse Analysis, it seems clear that in
England the dominant ideological-discursive formation around squat-
ting is being shaped to facilitate this criminalisation. The mainstream
background knowledge around squatting is already negative overall,
despite frameworks around ‘good’ squatters still existing. Discourses
around ‘millionaire’ squatters, ‘bad’ squatters and ‘middle class’ squat-
ters are manipulated by those in power using the media. There are a
multiplicity of factors at work here, but as seen above some tactics used
are race, class, age and education. It must be noted that arguments
based on gender have not really featured, possibly because the term
squatter is itself gender-neutral.
Squatting appears to be a node where various values intersect regard-
ing morality and legality. Whilst those in power may wish to protect pri-
vate property at all costs, there is a persistent view held by the public at
large and reflected in the mainstream media that leaving properties empty
is inexcusable and occupation can be justified under certain conditions.
In terms of engaging with the prevalent media discourses, various
squatting groups attempt to shape the parameters of the discourses, with
the aim of creating a discourse more favourable to squatting by sidestep-
ping the usual associations of the term ‘squatter’ and redefining it. It is
debatable how successful this tactic has been, but this chiefly serves to
indicate the strength of the dominant ideological-discursive formation.
One way in which to encourage the process of redefinition would be
for squatter groups to engage with local communities on projects which
would serve to amplify the widely held feeling that squatting is legiti-
mated by housing need or lack of governmental provision of essential
services. This will no doubt happen in a time of economic downturn (and
has an inspiring precedent in the actions of Jeudi Noir in France).
What else does this mean for the future? It seems likely that there
will soon be an attempt to criminalise squatting, but precise details on
how exactly this will be done are for the moment scarce. Nevertheless,
a war for public support will be fought in the mainstream media and
whilst individual groups such as the VHS Basement may choose to
refuse engagement with the media, it seems important to battle the
dominant ideological-discursive formation and to work to change the
background knowledge concerning squatting since even if the law is
passed, contestations over the meanings of squatting will continue in
Further, the making of law is one thing and its enforcement is quite
another; in Spain the phenomenon of squatting actually increased fol-
lowing criminalisation (Martinez, 2011). There is of course no coher-
ent single voice of the English squatting community although various
groups such as North East London Squatters, Squatters Network of
Brighton and SQUASH (Squatters’ Action for Secure Homes) do exist.
But no one voice is required or necessary. If various different groups
and individuals all commit to local and national battles over the mean-
ing of the term ‘squatting’, then this may well eventually have a positive
impact in terms of preserving the value of squatting as anti-capitalist
One factor which must be recognised is the threat of deliberate
misrecognition, as identified by Thompson. Within his domain of dis-
course this refers to “the threat that takes as its premise the interchange-
ability of activist and terrorist – in order to tighten the screws of regula-
tion” but it is an easy stretch to imagine state actors first criminalising
squatters and then referring to them as terrorists (2010: 33). In fact,
the recent events which occurred in May 2011 in the Stokes Croft area
of Bristol show how easily squatters can be characterised as terrorists.
In the context of ongoing non-violent protests against the opening of a
supermarket, a police raid on a local squat in search of molotov cock-
tails was perceived as an illegal eviction and this led to two nights of
sustained rioting. It is of course worth mentioning that no molotovs
were recovered and the squat’s four inhabitants vehemently denied any
connection to the anti-supermarket campaign.
Examining the situation in Berlin, Holm and Kuhn assert in this
volume that “the dynamics of squatter movements are closely con-
nected to changing strategies associated with urban renewal, and that
in each case they emerge from the crisis of the previous urban-renewal
regime” (page 162).
According to the Empty Homes Agency, there are more than 80,000
empty homes in London and almost 740,000 across the country,* and
it is likely that in the current economic downturn more, not less, will
become empty. And therefore squattable.
This article was written 2010-11, before the criminalisation of
squatting in residential buildings in 2012. For more information and
updates, please see Squatters Action for Secure Homes (http://www.
squashcampaign.org/) or the Advisory Service of Squatters (http://
Newspapers and Websites
for internet links see https://brighton.squat.net/discourselinks.html
Addley, E. ‘Squatters take over Saif Gaddafi’s London home’ Guardian, March
Chiles, A. ‘Websites give guidance for how to squat in Brighton’ Argus, May
Curtis, N. ‘The millionaire, Chester Square and the scandal of London’s empty
mansions’ Evening Standard, October 26, 2009.
Gammell C., McAuley O. & Tyzack, A. ‘Squatters occupy £3 million house on
“millionaire’s row”’ Daily Telegraph, July 15, 2009.
Hayes, A. ‘MP Mike Freer urges squatters to leave Gaddafi house in Hampstead
Garden Suburb’ Hendon and Finchley Times, March 16, 2011.
Harris, P. ‘Crusading for the homeless and the underdog, meet the serial
squatter who’s taken over a £4million mansion in Belgravia’, Daily Mail,
December 10, 2009.
Hickman, M. ‘Clarke cracks down on wave of squatters’ Independent, March
Howie, M. ‘Coalition to make squatting a criminal offence’ Daily Telegraph
March 19, 2011.
Hutchison, P. ‘Squatters: How the law will change’ Daily Telegraph, March 18,
Jamieson A. & Leach, B. ‘The middle class serial squatters exploiting the law’
Daily Telegraph, March 6, 2011.
Leach, B. ‘Eastern Europeans praise Britain’s ‘lax’ squatting law’ Daily
Telegraph, March 13, 2011.
Malone, S. ‘Rise in squatters puts more Welsh homeowners at risk of huge
eviction bills’ Wales Online, September 5, 2010.
Martin, A. ‘Film maker dragged to court for “stealing” 0.003p worth of elec-
tricity… at a cost of over £5,000 to the taxpayer’ The Daily Mail, August
McCorkell, A. ‘Shapps: ”Landlords can legally use force on squatters”’
Independent, April 3, 2011.
Moore-Bridger, B. ‘Squatter family “wrecked my home and took my belong-
ings”’ Evening Standard, February 11, 2011.
Pidd, H. ‘”We’re not squatters” says art group occupying Mayfair mansion’,
Guardian, December 21, 2009.
Unrecorded author, ‘Inside the home of amateur anarchists’ Argus September
Unrecorded author, ‘The £1.75m freeloaders: Squatters take over King Edward
VII’s Brighton mansion’ Daily Mail, December 11, 2008.
Unrecorded author, ‘Dear Guardian Wankers’ VHS Basement Website,
266 | ETC Dee
December 21, 2009.
Unrecorded author ‘Serial squatters move into new £15m home… in the same
street as Mrs Abramovich’ Daily Mail, October 19, 2009
Unrecorded author, ‘Nigella Lawson gets new neighbours after serial squat-
ters take over abandoned £33 million Belgravia mansion’ Daily Mail,
November 24, 2009.
Unrecorded author, ‘My £1 million house is ruined’ Daily Mail, March 7,
Unrecorded author, ‘Squatting Laws Endorse Theft’ Daily Telegraph, February
Whitehead, T. ‘Squatting to be made illegal, vows Clarke’ Daily Telegraph
March 18, 2011.
Buchholz, T. ‘To Use or Not Use Urban Space’. A paper presented at the
4th International Conference of the International Forum on Urbanism
(IFoU) Amsterdam/Delft 2009.
Dee, E.T.C. ‘Dominant Discourses on Squatting in the United Kingdom’. A
paper presented at SQEK (Squatting Europe Kollective) Conference IV
Berlin, Germany March 29-31 2011.
Lopez, M.M. ‘Squatting in the Eye of the Storm – The Social and Legal
Framework in Spain’. A paper presented at SQEK (Squatting Europe
Kollective) Conference IV Berlin, Germany March 29-31 2011.
Books and Journals
Aguilera, T. (2011) ‘Squatting in Paris and the Ile-de-France Region: diversity
of configurations and relations with public authorities’, in this volume.
Chatterton, P. (2010) ‘The urban impossible: A eulogy for the unfinished city’
in City, 14:3, pp. 234-244
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Public Discourse: The Universities’ in Discourse Society 4:2 pp. 133-168.
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Pragmatics 9 pp.739-763.
Foucault, M. (1982) “Afterword – The Subject and Power” in Dreyfus, H.L. &
Rabinow, P. (eds) Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics
Chicago: University of Chicago pp. 208-226.
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Knorr-Cetina, K. & Cicourel, A.V. (eds) Advances in Social Theory and
Methodology: Towards an Integration of Micro- and Macro-Sociologies
Boston; London; Henley: Routledge and Kegan Paul pp. 161-174.
Graeber, D. (2009) Direct Action – An Ethnography. Oakland: AK Press.
Holm, A. & Kuhn, A. (2010) ‘Squatting and Urban Renewal: The Interaction
of Squatter Movements and Strategies of Urban Restructuring in Berlin’,
International Journal of Urban and Regional Research pp. 1-15.
Lessing, D. (1985) The Good Terrorist London: Jonathon Cape.
Owens, L. (2008) ‘From Tourists to Anti-Tourists to Tourist Attractions:
The Transformation of the Amsterdam Squatters’ Movement’, Social
Movement Studies, 7: 1, pp. 43-59.
Platt, S. (1999) ‘Home Truths: Media representations of Homelessness’, in (ed)
Franklin, B. Social Policy, the Media and Misrepresentation London: Routledge.
Pruijt, H. (2004a) ‘Okupar en Europa’ in (eds) Lopez, M.M. & Adell, R.
¿Donde Esta las Llaves? El Movimiento Okupa: Practicas y Contextos Socials
(Where are the keys? The squatters’ movement: practices and social contexts)
Madrid: La Catarata pp. 35–60. English version available at: http://www.
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Reeve, K. with Coward, S (2004) Life on the margins: the experiences of homeless
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Schulz P. Manipulation and Ideologies in the Twentieth century: Discourse,
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A chapter from Squatting in Europe: Radical Spaces, Urban Struggles
What is a “Good” Squatter?
Categorization processes of squats by government officials in France
* This article is a revised and updated version of an article published in the journal Déviance et Société in
2010 as “Le squatteur, le policier, le juge et le préfet: procédures en actes et classements ad hoc”.
A number of important laws favouring the right to housing
have been adopted in France in the last three decades. A respite from
expulsions during winter (15 November to 1 March), grace periods,
financial support, social accompaniment and re-housing of tenants in
case of expulsion (1998 law against eviction) are some significant mea-
sures characterizing these evolutions. Clearly, the right to housing has
progressed. Though the problem of bad housing is far from resolved
in the absence of an adequately ambitious social housing policy, these
laws testify to a consensus of society and politics on the importance that
must be given to the problematics of exclusion from “decent” housing
in France today.
Yet, it is remarkable that all these measures contain restrictive clauses
concerning squatters. If they confer rights on holders of lease agree-
ments, it is left to judges to decide when the occupants have “actually”
occupied the space. Evidently, the legislator concerned with respect-
ing private property did not wish to grant the occupant “without right
or title” the same security as a tenant. How does the magistrate then
decide whether or not to apply the laws for advantages in housing to
illegal occupants of empty houses?
A first glance at the decisions of French courts relating to squat-
ters shows that squats are evicted mechanically. Indeed, in 96.4% cases
(CERCRID [Centre de Recherches Critiques Sur Le Droit], 2003) judges
accept demands for the expulsion of squatters and travellers installed
on lands without amenities. This reading of the litigation of squats is
found to be partly contradicted by ethnographic investigations made
in Marseilles squats between 1998 and 2005. This inquiry consisted
of a long-term direct observation conducted within fifteen squat areas.
During these stays, several narratives of expulsion were assembled and
police interventions in the squats were directly observed. Furthermore,
18 interviews on eviction procedures were conducted with squatters, a
lawyer, a judge in chambers and several policemen. Finally, I had access
to some thirty judicial files relating to squats. I also assisted in the hear-
ings in seven cases.
All this evidence allowed me to complete and nuance the statistical
data (on the quasi-styematic expulsion of squatters) and update the
diverse modalities of intervention in squats. In fact, even before an evic-
tion procedure came to my notice, a significant part of the squats were
subject to expulsion by the police. Statistics cannot take them all into
account and moreover, they say nothing of the respite the judge can
award occupants. Finally the decision of expulsion does not imply that
it is always effective, the prefect must order of the police force to carry
out the eviction, which is not always the case.
It is clear from these few observations that where the technical and
mechanical application of the “spirit of the law” is presumed, we are
in fact confronted with a “game”. The question that then comes up is
twofold: what are the precise outlines of this margin of maneuver and
how do government officials use it?
In order to answer these questions, I posit that law is a social activ-
ity (Weber, 1986) and as such, it constructs itself (Latour, 2002). In
other words, it produces and transforms itself at each moment of its
elaboration and application. From this perspective, law is a shifting, un-
stable subject that leads to a systematic work of interpretation by those
who are in charge of writing as well as applying it. I will therefore see
with a sociologist’s gaze, with the intention of being empirical (ethno-
graphic) and focused on the practices of the production of normativity
(Dupret, Ferrié, 2004, 355), to advance the following hypothesis: the
squat is a place of normative tension, which in order to be resolved
requires a work of categorisation by different institutional actors in-
volved. The procedures of classification and categories of judgment mo-
bilized is henceforth the object of investigation.
The squat in the law’s eyes
Before considering government officials’ practices on squats,
the legal framework of their action must be specified. Two important
qualifications are laid down by the French legislature. The first strictly
separates people who enjoy rental lease even if it is no longer binding,
from those who never signed one. It must be mentioned straightaway
that only the holders of a lease explicitly enjoy the measures favour-
ing housing rights and especially those protecting occupants from ex-
pulsion. Others form the big category of “occupants without rights or
titles”, and the application of these measures depends on how govern-
ment officials judge the situation.
This first distinction having been established, a second one must
be made within ‘occupation without rights or title” between contrac-
tual situations (official housing, use on loan, precarious conventions
of occupation…) and non-contractual (squatters, occupants of uncon-
structed land, strikers and demonstrators who occupy a premises or a
public space). The existence of a contract, even if properly speaking
it is not a lease, gives rights, particularly the right to stay on in the
places. Squatters are, along with Roma [gypsies], amongst the least pro-
tected of all inhabitants. Be as it may, a squat does not constitute an
offence in France. As civil litigation, it falls under the jurisdiction of
the magistrate’s court. Apart from smash and grab or break-in, which
are difficult to establish, squatters therefore risk “only” eviction. So that
this eviction can take place, a juridical procedure is necessary a priori:
according to article 61 of the 9 July 1991 law, except in a special ar-
rangement, expulsion or eviction from a building cannot be pursued
except by a court decision or minutes of conciliation and after orders
to quit the premises. Yet, sometimes, for several reasons, squatters leave
before any procedure is undertaken: they ignore its existence, they do
not wish to have dealings with the law, they don’t intend to remain in
this building, they suffer from forms of intimidation from the landlord,
neighbours or police…indeed, as the cases described here will show, the
squat is the object of immediate eviction by police officers. Three actors
thus play a crucial role in the expulsion of squatters: the police officer
(by evicting forcibly or not), the judge (by allocating a grace period or
not) and the prefect (by lending the support of the police or not). On
what grounds do these government officials decide the destiny of habi-
tants and determine the different treatments observed?
Tensions of police judgements
According to former squatters who were questioned, evictions from
squats by “strongmen” commissioned by landlords are less frequent in
France today than some twenty years ago. With the institution of laws
favouring the right to housing, tolerance of such evictions has dimin-
ished. A visit of Internet sites on defence of landlords rights also indi-
cates that they are at present informed of the risks they run in case of
“violent” evictions. If today armed expulsions by landlords or even in
certain cases by exasperated neighbours, have not entirely disappeared,
expulsions taking place without procedure and by force are above all
carried out by police officers.
In which case can the police then evacuate a squat without waiting
for the judge’s decision? In other words, what does the “special arrange-
ment” mentioned in the 9 July 1991 law empirically cover? The most
frequent response to this question, from police officers as well as squat-
ters, refers to the “48 hour rule” of occupation. Over and above this
period, the procedure is not compulsory and the prosecutor or police
officer can decide to terminate the occupation. This rule, which is not
registered as such in the texts, corresponds to the somewhat vague no-
tion of being caught red-handed (flagrant délit). According to article
53 of the penal procedure code, ‘flagrant délit’ is defined as a misde-
meanour actually being committed or having just been committed. It
is therefore first of all correlated to a notion of time. But this time is
more flexible than the 48-hour rule would imply. Police officers must
in fact carry out an interpretive work that consists of defining the oc-
cupation. Are the inhabitants already living in the squatted place and
does the place or its occupants present some kind of danger? When
they are notified of the opening of a squat (the information comes in
most cases from the neighbours), police officers estimate the situation
both from a visual and discursive point of view: whilst police officers
try to penetrate inside a squat, something that is difficult to do if the in-
habitants are reluctant, they simultaneously proceed to investigate the
neighbourhood in order to identify the duration of the life of a squat
and characterize its occupants. The assessment of a squat is oriented by
the search for “traces” of habitation, which determine the possibility
and relevance of an immediate intervention.
More precisely, in addition to the elapsed occupation time, the evic-
tion depends upon a general interpretation of the situation. My obser-
vations considered four aspects: the presence of a violation (offence by
entering the place, illegal electric connection…), the social difficulties
apparently encountered by the occupants, the pressure exercised by the
neighbourhood and/or the landlord for expulsion and the supposedly
criminal character of activities conducted in the squat (consumption
of drugs, etc.). Finally, the nature of the occupation must be decided
in order to determine the correct attitude: if the question is of a settled
home and if the occupants have not been guilty of any other offence,
then the squat is transformed into a “residence” and the police forces
should not intervene. On the other hand, if the squat is not yet lived in,
or if it constitutes an acknowledged danger, then police intervention
must be instantaneous.
But the field inquiry revealed other possibilities within the scope of
police intervention, which more or less respect this legal framework.
Indeed, in the eyes of some police units, and in some cases, forcible
evictions take place on the borders of the law. As one of the policemen
interviewed explained, if the “families” benefit from the advantages of
eviction within a legal framework, people seen as “marginals” are likely
to be evicted at all costs: “more or less legal subterfuges to intervene”
are then found. In Marseilles, the field inquiry showed that squats oc-
cupied by “young strays”, mainly isolated adolescents without papers
from Maghreb, are evicted in this manner. Suspected of delinquency
and generating a strong feeling of insecurity amongst neighbours, these
adolescents do not have any means of opposing the police (no knowl-
edge of French or of legislation and lacking external support, etc.). The
squats they occupy have the shortest life expectancy, at best from a few
days to some weeks. Squats occupied by the Roma, currently victims
of ostracism in France, are sometimes also evicted without any legal
If police activity is, here as elsewhere, framed by the law, law enforce-
ment consequently falls on the borderline of legality. Police inquiry in
the squats aims at distinguishing a “residence” squat from a “public
order problem” squat. Thus, the squat is certainly typical of the police
mission’s dual nature as identified by Dominique Monjardet (1996). It
consists of both “applying the law” and “using force”. It remains to be
known how the judgment of police officers is constructed and the na-
ture of the evidence arousing their suspicion or their compassion. The
protective power of the “family” was mentioned, but it can be offset
by the great disqualification of groups like Romas. Besides, my inquiry
shows the strong indexing of police controls according to the physical
appearance of people (sex, age, clothing style, skin colour), which influ-
ence police controls in France (Jobard, Lévy, 2009). Thus, more than
facts, a set of “representations” related to the more or less assumed huge
deviancy of squat inhabitants operate as discriminatory factors in police
activity amongst occupants who have neither rights nor titles.
Judges face to face with squatters:
to be (or not to be) of “good faith”
Because some inhabitants of squats are spotted too early and/or be-
cause they are not perceived as legitimate inhabitants, they do not ben-
efit from the legal procedure before eviction. For various reasons, many
will leave on their own account without waiting for this procedure.
This could be due to ignorance (of legal protection offered by the pro-
cedure), intimidation (exercised by the landlord, neighbours, police)
or mobility (departure for another city, asylum in another accommo-
dation…). Only a section of the inhabitants of squats who cannot be
quantified precisely will therefore appear before a judge and the prefect.
Most often, in more than 75% of squat cases (CERCRID, 2003)
squatters are judged by a court hearing, “accelerated procedure” or
“emergency”. It has been noted that the judge nearly always pronounces
eviction from a squat: consequently, granting or refusing a respite is the
principal stake in a court hearing.
The construction and housing code authorizes the judge to grant
respites extending from 3 months to 3 years, whatever the status of
the occupant. Amongst the decisions examined by CERCRID, such a
respite is granted to squatters only in 6,5% of the cases (CERCRID,
2003: 80). Therefore, it goes without saying that most often, when
confronted with a squat situation, the judge evicts without any other
kind of consideration. From the judges’ perspective, who are the (rare)
My field inquiry and more specifically the motivations behind judg-
es’ decisions as revealed by the files examined, show that judges grant
respites to squatters on grounds that suit the two involved parties. As
far as the landlord is concerned, three elements are decisive: first, the
status and position of the landlord of the occupied building, because
the loss suffered by a physical body (small private landlord) is estimated
to be more important than the loss experienced in the same situation by
a legal entity (such as a society or public person such as a collectivity).
On the other hand, the length of time during which the building was
vacant before being occupied is evoked, because it reflects a more or
less advanced state of abandonment. Finally, as an extension of this sec-
ond element, the judge is attentive to the landlord’s real interest in his
property: the latter should be proved with material evidence (minutes
of public meetings, estimates of building firms, etc), that the building
is the object of current or future projects.
Thus, lively debates sometimes take place between the landlord of a
premises and its occupants, the former trying to demonstrate that the
building will be soon restored, accommodate tenants or sold, whereas
the latter will on the contrary attempt to prove that the projects ad-
vanced are fictional or circumstantial. Without generalizing all situ-
ations of squatting, it could be said that in Marseilles, from 1999 to
2005, out of twenty odd evictions from premises, about half underwent
repairs and were occupied. The rest remained in the same state, that is
to say empty and run down.
When the judge thinks in terms of content his decision cuts across
these considerations and those of squatters. The question is to find a
“right balance” between the landlord’s constitutional and inalienable
law to his property and the social and sanitary situation of squatters.
As far as the latter are concerned, the defence lawyer’s primary aim is
to convince the judge that squatters are in real material difficulty. He
must prove that even if they have no rights or titles, they are driven to
occupying the premises. They are not usurpers but “truly poor”. The
occupants’ modest incomes are then displayed along with the lack of
regular work and “the state of necessity” in which they find themselves.
It is also recommended that occupants be shown to have taken other
steps to find accommodation. The judge will be all the more indulgent
if the occupants have exhausted all legal solutions and in particular, pre-
sented files to HLM offices whose certificates and file numbers will be
produced. Above all, these arguments aim to testify the squatters’ good
faith, that is to say, their real desire to acquire legality.
Having proved that they are “genuine” poor, squatters and their law-
yers have to demonstrate that they are also “good” poor. Groups, par-
ticularly youngsters are very quickly designated as “bands” and arouse
strong suspicion. On the other hand, the squat is commonly considered
an anarchic, anomic place where immorality reigns. Consequently, the
squatters’ lawyer must show his clients’ inoffensive nature. He insists
on their moral feelings and their aspirations to normalcy. He specifies
that they are not “drug addicts”, they “don’t steal” and their marginali-
sation does not necessarily coincide with delinquency. He affirms the
occupants’ insertion in their neighbourhood and if possible, presents
letters and petitions of support signed by neighbours. The fact that a
recognized association supports the squatters particularly their daily life
style inside the squat can be factors of reassurance for the judge.
Thus, the associational framework (the famous DAL association, the
organization advocating for the right to housing that since the begin-
ning of the 1990s organized appropriation of empty buildings for peo-
ple without residence or those who were badly housed) is therefore an
advantage even if it is in no way a guarantee, for some squats supported
by organisations of this kind have suffered immediate evictions. But for
the lawyer, it can tilt the balance of power in favour of squatters more
than in the case of an isolated occupation. However, the presence of an
association in a court hearing of squatters occurs rarely.
In juridical processes, squatters are classified according to three ma-
jor criteria: the “genuine poverty”, “sincerity” and “harmlessness”. The
question is to prove that they suffer from marginality and do not rep-
resent a danger for the collectivity. Squats resulting from poverty in
which occupants justify their practice by the need to survive are most
likely to be effective on grounds of “good faith” so that the stigma of
delinquency can be successfully averted. Alternative squats (artistic, po-
litical collectivities) have more difficulty in appearing as squats from
necessity; but they are also less suspected of deviancy than the former.
A short description will illustrate the preceding statements. It lists
the arguments mobilized by lawyers in court hearings of a squat of art-
ists. Installed in the enclosure of a partially disused municipal building
in the neighbourhood of the Panier in Marseilles, the SLAAF (Sans
Local d’Activités Artistiques Fixes) was opened in 2000 and evicted in
There were fifteen of us, mostly inhabitants or SLAAF
sympathizers, present in the hearing of 7 January 2001. The
squatters’ lawyer opened the debate. He began by pleading the
inadmissibility of the complaint, arguing that the mayor of
Marseilles was incompetent to act in the arenas of culture such
as housing that fall under the district Council’s jurisdiction.
The mayor’s lawyer then spoke. He quickly rejected the formal
arguments and asserted the legal nature of the right of action.
He then came down to the facts by developing five successive
points. First, he recalled the illicit nature of the occupation
and contested that the occupants penetrated into the build-
ing without breaking-in. He then insisted on the antiquated
and dangerous aspect of the premises. Indeed, the premises
were unfit for habitation. He evoked the illegal electrical con-
nections set up by the squatters, which constitute a source of
danger. His defence dealt essentially with the illegitimacy of
the dwelling. He first questioned their need: One of them was
even the son of the judge, Your Honour! The lawyer then dis-
tinguished these illegal artists from those who rented work-
shops and lodgings on the floor of the same building by pay-
ing a rent as was required to the municipality. Or, it was not
enough to carry a portfolio of designs under the arm to be an
artist. Not only were the so-called squatters hardly artists, but
above all, they were a source of danger: the lawyer quoted a
letter sent to the mayor by these legal artists saying the place
was now open to all and they lived in fear of robberies. The oc-
cupation was therefore not as peaceful as they claimed! Besides,
the legal artists had a real project for the building (space for ex-
hibition, pedagogical space and cultural restaurant) supported
by the city council. Like his adversary, the city council’s lawyer
claimed he did not wish to argue about who were true artists.
But his entire plea attempted to redefine the fake bourgeois/
young authentic artist couple, which he knew to be at the heart
of the defence, as true serious and constructive artists/rebel-
lious and immature youngsters. The squatters’ lawyer then
took the floor and pleaded on fundamental grounds. He began
by asserting entry into the premises without break-in. Then
he very clearly opposed SLAAF occupants to the “false artists”
mentioned above, whom he tried to discredit: Do you see Van
Gogh writing a letter denouncing poor artists? He castigated
the rich artists, whose main activity consists of hand kissing
and eating starters in social receptions at the town hall. These
were the real artists! He clamoured, pointing to us, seated on
the benches in the courtroom. Armed with the thin file pre-
pared by the squatters, the lawyer then intended to give proof
of the works realized and the additional value added to the
place. He insisted on the cleanliness. The city council would
therefore not be cheated. Quite the contrary. He then talked of
the activities organized by the inhabitants, from the opening of
SLAAF in the neighbourhood and the letters of support from
artisans and neighbouring shopkeepers. This occupation was
peaceful and even appreciated. They were not drug addicts, nor
delinquents! He then mentioned the electricity bills that had
been duly paid. They were not parasites! Above all, the lawyer
wanted to prove the occupants’ good faith. He insisted on the
real needs of housing by providing copies of demands for social
housing. He evoked letters sent to the city council in order
to open a dialogue after the proposal of mediation had been
refused. Finally, the lawyer attacked what he termed the phony
associative project of the resident artists. In no case would this
project materialize before June. He asked for the grant of re-
spite until September.
At the court’s exit, SLAAF occupants were happy. They had appre-
ciated their lawyer’s plea and his frankness. On my part, I note three
schemes of legitimacy identified earlier (genuine need, sincerity, harm-
lessness). However, I will never know if the judge in charge of the file
was sensitive to them. After the hearing and certainly with the medi-
atisation of the affair by the regional press, the mayor withdrew his
complaint and went to the extent of promising the inhabitants the sig-
nature of a convention of precarious occupation. But some weeks later,
he changed positions and summoned them to appear once again before
the court where their eviction would finally be announced.
The perfect ultimate resort:
the question of “troubling public order”
Once the judge decrees eviction, it is up to the prefecture to final-
ly decide if a squat should or shouldn’t be evicted by authorizing the
use of force. Besides, basically, re-accommodation (or more often no
re-accommodation) of squatters also depends on the prefect.
When does the prefect postpone eviction? From my observations,
the government official generally takes such a decision in case of a risk
of serious public disorder. This is adopted when the squatters are sup-
ported and threaten to mediatise their situation and/or when they ap-
pear to suffer from particularly dramatic living conditions. Young chil-
dren clearly inspire more compassion than adults, in particular single
men who are perfect figureheads of the “bad” poor.
Adjournment of eviction normally opens the way to negotiation be-
tween the government official and the landlord, who, since the 1998
law (which, in this sense, is also a protector of property rights), re-
ceives compensation for the sum of unpaid rents. Thus, the inhabit-
ants of some squats benefit from a form of juridical status quo, while
awaiting re-accommodation and/or seizure of the occupied building
by public powers. They settle their occupation dues on a monthly ba-
sis and the state pays the remaining amount. Another question, which
the prefect must decide is whether or not to grant accommodation to
the evicted squatters. As opposed to occupants with titles, there is no
legal compulsion to re-accommodate squatters after an eviction. Re-
accommodation again falls within the discretionary power of the ad-
ministration. Fieldwork revealed that in most cases, no re-accommo-
dation is granted. Persons identified as without fixed domicile (Sans
Domicile Fixe [SDF]), alternative groups (who however do not all ask
for access to ordinary housing), “isolated” immigrant workers, foreign-
ers without papers… are those who practically never benefit from re-
accommodation. The presence of young children and the institution
of a balance of power by mobilisation of inhabitants and their support
(associations, militants, neighbours) could nonetheless positively influ-
ence the decision to re-accommodate.
Moreover, it must be noted that when housing is assigned, most of
the time it is simply temporary accommodation: some nights in a hotel
or a place in a household. It is not rare that inhabitants refuse these
proposals, even if it means putting up encampments in the same street,
so as to draw the attention of the media and public authorities to their
situation. Some only see this as “manipulation” by associations more
anxious to ensure their own publicity than help the evicted. However,
one can easily imagine people tired of being shunted from one tempo-
rary accommodation to another hoping to find some stability at last.
Moreover, as I frequently observed, the reluctance to accept accom-
modations miles away from the neighbourhoods where families have
been living, where children are going to school or parents working and
where links of sociability and solidarity have been constructed, makes
perfect sense and renders suspicions of “manipulation” or allegations of
so-called demands of “special treatment” redundant.
Thus, in most cases, the prefect does not postpone eviction of squat-
ters nor does he apply the step of re-accommodation. When he grants
the assistance of law enforcement agencies, the last stage of eviction
begins. A letter from the prefecture is addressed to the police agree-
ing upon a date with the bailiff. An eviction calls for some organiza-
tion: on the fixed date, the bailiff, the police officers, the locksmith and
the removal men are all present. Most evictions take place early in the
morning. Physical resistance is rare and occurs essentially in political
squats. Once the eviction is carried out, a locksmith is responsible for
immediately shutting the premises. Next, the squat is walled up and
“anti-squat” armoured doors are installed. Sometimes too, the insides
of the place are destroyed (police forces speak of rendering an apart-
ment “lifeless” so as to discourage new squats).
Eviction is not only a traumatizing moment, it further undermines
the inhabitants. Thus, Claire Lévy-Vroelant and Jérôme Segal make the
following observations on the eviction of 150 Romas from a building
in Montreuil in 2003: “this eviction adds to the misery of precarious-
ness. Efforts at integration are shattered. Children were enrolled in pri-
mary or secondary school, in special classes, access to health care was
instituted by constituting medical files, the demand for literacy classes
was going to be heard, etc” (2003, 224). Evictions consequently lead
to heightened impoverishment of populations already victims of ostra-
cism and great social vulnerability. In no sense do they resolve the squat
“question”, because in the absence of an alternative, it is highly prob-
able that the persons concerned will sooner or later occupy a new build-
ing. Eviction thus contributes to producing the very situation it was
supposed to end: occupation without right or title to vacant housing.
As far as a squat is concerned, the “spirit of the law” is finally not so
easy to identify: the legislator as we saw, does not oblige the judge to
protect the inhabitant who has neither right nor title, whilst leaving
him the opportunity to do so. It is in this zone of uncertainty that a
judge, a police officer or a prefect can exercise his power of discretion.
The tension is then between two perceptible poles: ultimately it must
be determined if the squatter is a “voluntary marginal” or a “victim” of
The ethnography of litigation of a squat confirms the importance
of a “delinquential” reading of a squat by government officials. Social,
economic and residential fragility of the large majority of inhabit-
ants is hidden by the stigma of deviance. By offending the “absolute
and sacred” right of private property, squatters don the clothes of the
“wicked”, even seditious poor from whom society must above all be
protected. In this general repressive frame, some differentiations are
nonetheless applied. The figure of the child, because it is linked to in-
nocence and equally part of a legal compulsion to protect it, appears
most effective in changing the stigma. But it does not form an un-
shaken bastion. Besides, it is always open to “reversal” since bad living
conditions in a squat could be a motive to place children with foster
parents. Parents then find themselves obliged to take up the responsi-
bility and emotional cost of a situation they suffer. Other parameters
more often work against the inhabitants: the fact of being young, male
and especially foreign. At the moral level these modalities of classifica-
tion are objects of a juridical translation through channels of categories
like “good faith” and “troubling public order”. These ad hoc grading of
squatters on which the forms of procedural acts will depend, update the
dialectic between “true” and “false” poverty, which has lain behind the
reversibility of a policy of assistance quickly veering to repression when
confronting target populations (Geremek, 1997).
However, it would be wrong to affirm that laws in favour of hous-
ing rights have no effect on government officials’ decisions on squats.
Indeed, several examples testify that some judges and prefects base
themselves on laws favouring housing of “disadvantaged people” to
grant respites to occupants without rights or titles. But on the sub-
ject of the squat, nothing is won. Firstly, because as mentioned in the
introduction, of the persistence of initiatives to criminalize the practice
or limit squatters’ rights. On the other hand, some “favourable judge-
ments” for squatters have not become a precedent, as Joane Benhayoun’s
thesis of law affirms (2005): jurisprudence on the subject has shown
itself to be undeniably protective of property rights during the last
few years, although measures upholding the right to housing have not
ceased to multiply. Therefore, if the question of law remains decisive as
far as future living conditions of squatters are concerned, that of social
“norms” is equally so. Today, it is also around collective representations
of the realities of a squat that struggles must be conducted.
Benhayoun, J., 2005, “La conciliation du droit de propriété et du droit au
logement à l’épreuve de l’émergence des nouveaux droits-créances: le cas
limite du squat”, Thèse de doctorat de droit, Aix, Université Aix- Marseille
Bouillon, F., 2009, Les mondes du squat. Anthropologie d’un habitat précaire,
Paris, PUF/Le Monde, coll. Partage du savoir.
Bouillon, F., 2010, “Le squatteur, le policier, le juge et le préfet : procédures en
actes et classements ad hoc”, Déviance et Société vol. 34, n°2, p. 175-188.
CERCRID, 2003, “Les décisions d’expulsion d’occupants sans droit ni titre.
Connaissance empirique d’un contentieux hétérogène”, Paris, Report to
the Ministry of Justice.
Dupret, B. and J.-N Ferrié, 2004, “Autour de la fabrique du droit”, Droit et
Société, 56/57, 353-357.
Geremek, B., 1997 (1987), La potence ou la pitié. L’Europe et les pauvres du
Moyen Âge à nos jours, Paris, Gallimard.
Jobard, F. and R. Lévy (dir.), 2009, “Police et minorités visibles : les contrôles
d’identité à Paris”, New York, rapport à l’Open Society Institute.
Lascoumes, P. and É. Severin, 1995, “Le droit comme activité sociale : pour
une approche weberienne de l’activité juridique”, in Lascoumes P. (dir.),
Actualité de Max Weber pour la sociologie du droit, Paris, Librairie générale
de droit et de jurisprudence, coll. Droit et Société, 155-177.
Latour, B., 2002, La fabrique du droit. Une ethnographie du conseil d’État, Paris,
La Découverte, coll. Armillaire.
Levy-Vroelant, C. and J. Segal, 2003, “Les Roms de Montreuil et d’ailleurs.
Des immigrés européens particuliers”, Les Temps Modernes, 624, 223-230.
Monjardet, D., 1996, Ce que fait la police : sociologie de la force publique, Paris,
La Découverte, coll. Textes à l’appui.
A chapter from Squatting in Europe: Radical Spaces, Urban Struggles
Configurations of Squats in Paris and the Ile-de-France Region: diversity of goals and resources
* This chapter comes from a paper presented at the SqEK meeting which
took place in Berlin, 29-31 March 2011, in “New Yorck” Squat and from
a paper presented at the 7th Conference of Social Sciences, CEU, Budapest,
May 2011 (also published in http://blogs.sciences-po.fr/recherche-villes/
files/2011/05/WP_Aguilera_2011-03.pdf). I thank the researchers and ac-
tivists for their remarks and comments.
The latest national survey on housing (Annual Report of
Fondation Abbé Pierre, 2011) shows that in France more than 3.6 mil-
lion people live in precarious housing conditions. Among them, more
than 600,000 people do not have a roof. Paris is one of the densest
European capitals and space is a rare resource. However, paradoxical-
ly, we estimate that 9% of the housing in Paris is vacant (more than
120,000 vacant houses). Many housing associations and organiza-
tions, and above all squatters, denounce this situation. Likewise, there
is also a huge problem of a lack of cultural spaces in Paris. Some surveys
show that an artist has to wait more than 30 years to get a workshop
and that the city council only assigns 6 workshops per year (Langlois-
Mallet, 2008; Lextrait, 2001). In this context, squatting could be seen
as a solution to these problems. It lets inhabitants acquire a house or
a workshop. In fact, there were more than 2,000 squatters in Paris in
June 2010 (Aguilera, 2010). They live in an illegal place. Sometimes,
social centers propose an alternative way of occupying urban space:
they develop cultural and social activities beyond the traditional and
institutional policies. They can also be an open place where people can
talk about politics. Nevertheless, the squat is also a problem for public
actors and urban planners. On the one hand, in France, private prop-
erty is fundamental and constitutionally protected. It means that the
juridical institutions cannot allow an illegal occupation if an owner
complains. On the other hand, the right to housing is also fundamen-
tal (even if it is lower than the right to property in the hierarchy of
the French Constitution). The squat becomes a public problem built
within the tension between these two rights.
How can we explain the persistence of squatting? During the spring
of 2010, more than 21 squats existed in Paris and we can have all the
reason to believe that they just represent the visible part of a shadowy
phenomenon. Understanding the role of disorder enables us to under-
stand how the national and city governments try to build and preserve
public order. The policy makers have to bargain with squatters because
they are part of multilevel urban governance including the federal gov-
ernment, the police, the municipality, the real estate investors, the pub-
lic housing developers, and the owners. Although the squat is an illegal
settlement, it is recognized by authorities to contribute to the life and
the development of the city. A squat could be generally defined as an
unsanctioned, collective or individual, occupation of a building in or-
der to live or develop activities in it without the consent of the owner.
Different types of squats exist and each scholar working on squats gives
his own typology: Cécile Péchu (Péchu, 2010), Florence Bouillon
(Bouillon, 2009) and Hans Pruijt (Pruijt, 2004) all deploy their own.
In this paper, we address all kind of squats precisely in order to under-
stand the different configurations of settlements. We present in this
chapter the different configurations of squats in Paris and the surround-
ing region, and the relationships between squatters and local officials.
In the first section, we present the data and the methodological ap-
proach (I). In the second section, we present squatting as a challenge to
urban policies: the squat is at the same time a roof, a tool for advocating
the strengthening of the right to housing and a critique against housing
and cultural policies (II). Finally we present the different configurations
of squats in Paris (III).
I. Data and locations of squats in Paris and
the Ile-de-France Region
We chose to take into account all types of squats based on the juridi-
cal definition. We built up a database containing 60 squats since 2001,
the year of the election of the new socialist mayor Bertrand Delanoë,
of which 21 remained open in 2010. In Paris, we classified 17 “artistic”
squats, two “political and activist” squats, two “emergency and precari-
ous” squats. First, we adopted an ethnographic approach (observation,
participant observation and interviews) in order to document the world
of squatting in Paris and to understand the functioning of the collec-
tives and above all the relationships between squatters, humanitarian,
nongovernmental organizations and associations defending the hous-
ing right, officials, lawyers, housing developers, and neighbors. Then,
we conducted interviews with officials, local representatives from the
city council, urban developers, and lawyers. We spent more than 130
hours of directly observing and conducted 39 interviews over 65 hours
with: 15 squatters; one homeless person; three merchants; one neigh-
bor of a squat; the housing department director of the city council of
Paris (twice) ; the culture department director of Paris; one local deputy
mayor ; one local urban planning deputy mayor ; four police command-
ers ; one lawyer ; one local social worker ; one journalist ; the director of
the mission “Squat et Rave” of Médecins du Monde ; the director of the
Fondation Abbé Pierre ; two association leaders ; one director of security
for a social housing developer ; two directors of the GPIS (Groupement
Parisien Interbailleurs de Surveillance / Security Organization for the
Housing Developers of Paris). We also did a daily review of national
(Le Monde, Libération) and local (Le Parisien) newspapers and websites
(squat.net, Rue 89, Mediapart) in order to update my database.
1.1. The geography of squats in Paris: the poorest part of the
At the very beginning of the research, we strove to update our view of
squatting in Paris. Indeed, during the interviews we realized that no one
was able to present current data: where are the squats? How many
squatters live in Paris? Each actor had a part of the answer because they
Configurations of Squats in Paris and the Ile-de-France Region | 213
had to deal with a particular matter. We thus tried to pool all the infor-
mation needed together in order to give an updated landscape of squats
in Paris. A quantitative work enabled us to confront and confirm some
of our hypothesis. The second objective of this qualitative and quantita-
tive work was to develop a geographical analysis of the squatting phe-
nomena in Paris. We built maps in order to understand the different
logic both of the squatters and the officials in charge of creating and
executing housing and cultural policies.
This map lets us understand some of the logics at work. Most of the
squats are in the north and east of Paris on the right side of the Seine.
The 18th district is the poorest of Paris. The median annual wage per
family is 16,766 Euros while in Paris as a whole it is 23,293 Euros
(INSEE, 2007). The buildings are old and much more damaged com-
pared to the other districts of Paris. Indeed, 72,7% of the houses are
in buildings which were built before 1949 (63% for Paris) (INSEE,
2006). Many important renovation and building programs have been
implemented in the 2000s in order to provide affordable public hous-
ing. Nevertheless, during the renovation programs many buildings stay
vacant and provide good opportunity for squatters. Thus, the social
composition and the housing context in the 18th district have allowed
squatters (precarious families, drug addicts, immigrants but also artists)
to use these spaces to live. This district is also the drug market of Paris
and attracts many drug addicts. The renovation programs implemented
by social developers caused the eviction of squatters and their transfer
in the north of Paris (Porte de la Chapelle). Nevertheless, in March 2010
the eviction of the last squat in the north pushed squatters to return
to the 18th. We find many squats in the 19th district where there are
many vacant spaces and Brownfield sites that squatters have easily oc-
cupied. Many artists live in this district and there is a large and active
cultural life (and the local city councils sometimes support them). The
13th district hosted many squats during the 2000s (les Frigos, l’Atoll 13,
la Glacière, le Barbizon) but the renovation programs and the intense
surveillance built around social housings has successfully prevented
1.2. Squats of public housing at the regional scale
The squats in Paris are mainly what we call “activity” squats which are
predominantly composed of social centers and artists. They represent
up to 80% of the “visible” squats in Paris City. The rest of the occupa-
tions are made up of “emergency and precarious” (10%) and of “politi-
cal” squats (10%). However, in order to broaden the perspective at the
regional scale, we found an official data base from the association in
charge of coordinating all social housing developers (AORIF, 2006).
This database only concerns squats of social housings (owners are pub-
lic housing developers) and we estimate that there are 1800 squats in
the whole region (1,200 squats are in private buildings) if we follow this
two unique surveys on squats in Ile-de-France (Quercy, 2002 and
At the regional scale, the squats are spread out according to the in-
come distribution and the quality of the buildings. Some observations
and interviews with housing developers allow us to assume that they
have a stronger capacity to protect themselves from squatters in the
richest departments (in the south and west). The department of Seine-
Saint-Denis is deeply impacted because of the co-presence of a precari-
ous population, illegal immigrants who cannot legally afford a house
and a very vulnerable precarious, housing stock.
II. Squats as challenges to urban policies
More than simple occupations, an illegal occupation is a mode of
action to resist to the political order, to contest public authorities
and to assert a right to housing while being a first response to this
claim and a survival strategy. If we follow Cécile Péchu, we are deal-
ing with “sectorial illegalisms” (Péchu, 2010: 10): “an illegal spot for
the immediate realization of the claim. The squat is at the same time
a negotiation tool and a response to the request that it supports”.
This definition enables us to understand that the squatters build their
own place while asserting (more) spaces to live or survive. Three main
features appear here.
The first is that squatters short-circuit and “hack” the urban hous-
ing and cultural policies (Aguilera, 2010). Indeed, they are out of the
legal and traditional frame for resource allocation of spaces provided by
the city council and public and private developers. For example, they
usually do not subscribe for a social housing or a workshop, and this
maybe for numerous reasons: sometimes by choice because they refuse
to wait for institutional allocations but more usually because they don’t
have access to the “official channels”. They do not sign up for social as-
sistance (Warin, 2008, 2009, and 2010). They do not either have the
social resources nor the “administrative and legal knowledge”. Thus,
they find the ways to obtain these resources: “the urban poor often have
to step outside the law in order to gain access to housing” (Azuela et
Duhau, 1998:157). Legality is too expensive, so people self-organize in
order to find the means to survive.
The second remark is that these spaces of illegality are, in general,
spaces of precariousness. Moreover, this financial fragility assures the
transition to a legal fragility: “The very fact that a city is divided into ‘le-
gal’ and ‘illegal’ areas has profound implications for society as a whole,
since a truly public order, in the sense of social norms to which all
members of society must adhere, does not exist. As long as a substantial
part of the population gains access to land by a different set of process
from the rest of society, it is clear that not all individuals are subject to
the same rules, regardless of whether or not those rules can be formally
classified as “law”(Azuela et Dubau, 1998:157).
The third feature is that squats appear at the same time as a critique
of the urban policies, a tool to ask for a roof and a strategy to survive
without public support. The squat as a mode of action (Péchu, 2010)
combines a strong political discourse against housing policies (DAL,
Jeudi Noir) or the political order in general (for example for the anar-
chist squats of Montreuil, East-Paris), with demands for welfare, hous-
ings (from the federal government or the municipalities) and shelter for
homeless people. The most striking example seems to be in 2009 in the
Parisian squat of “Rue Baudelique” (18th district of Paris), which hosted
during one year more than 2000 undocumented immigrants coming
from 25 different nationalities while petitioning for legal regularization
and documents. They illegally inhabited a place to enter into the legal-
ity. Furthermore, we can interpret this mode of action as anti-free rider
(Olson, 1987), in the sense that to get the benefits of the squat (a roof
and relocation to legal housing) people have to be squatters (Péchu,
2010). Thus, we understand that we come back to an old debate con-
cerning squats. Is it used as a tool or as an end? Even if we can show that
illegal occupations combine both dimensions (Merklen, 2009), we try
here to distinguish them in order to understand the differences between
various configurations. We propose a factorial analysis with two axes:
one concerning the means/ends cleavage, the other one representing
the level of resources of the dwellers. We call “resources” the social (net-
works), economic (financial resources) and political (links with offi-
cials, representatives, lawyers, media and police) capital held by the
Hans Puijt examines the phenomena of the institutionalization of
squatting wondering if the “institutionalization of an urban movement
is inevitable”? (Pruijt, 2003). He defines three configurations. The first
one is the terminal institutionalization. It “implies that, in the repertoire
of action, convention replaces disruption. The second is flexible institu-
tionalization, when conventional tactics complement disruptive ones”
(Pruijt, 2003:136). The third is the cooptation whereby one part of the
squatters, usually the less radical or the leaders, is absorbed into leader-
ship of the city. This analysis is linked to the resources and goals. For
Hans Pruijt, the squat as an aim is more vulnerable to repression from
public actors and is less likely to persist while the squat as a means, as
a tactic to get other resources (mainly a house), allows some positive
results. Thus, he distinguishes the squatting movement and the hous-
ing movement. In Paris, we have both kinds and we present in the next
section the different cases.
III. The configurations of squats and the
conditions of mobilization
On the top of the resources axis, we observe one kind of squat particu-
larly used by the “Jeudi Noir” (Black Thursday) collective, who are dedi-
cated to media logic, and the association “DAL” (Droit Au Logement
– Housing Right Association). These two collectives use squatting as a
tool and a mode of action for activists. But the squat is also a goal itself
for artists, anarchist activists and precarious families who are looking
for a roof to survive.
3.1. Jeudi Noir: media logic, building agendas and coopta-
This collective was founded in 2006 to denounce the high price of
housing in France. Its first actions were to invite journalists to visit
flats to show the extremely high prices of housing for students and pre-
carious families. Then, it added another mode of collective action with
squatting in 2007. The activists have since opened 13 squats. They seek
and find vacant buildings to squat and draw the attention on the inef-
ficient housing policy of the municipality and of the State. Two main
claims are highlighted by the collective: the application of the DALO
and of the requisition law of 1945. One of the specificities of the ac-
tion group compared to the other Parisian squatters is their massive use
of Media: “we don’t want more activists but more Media” (Collectif
Jeudi Noir, 2009). The media logic is the central dimension of their
action. The squat is only a tool to draw the attention of the media and
thus of national and local representatives. We call them “agenda build-
ers” because they are able to create two kinds of “cycles of attention”
(Baumgartner and Jones, 2005). The first agenda concerns squats. Each
occupation of Jeudi Noir increases the number of articles about squats
in newspapers and television. The second agenda is Housing policies.
Each occupation represents the opportunity to challenge politics.
A brief sociology of the members of the group shows that they are
students, artists but also activists (ecologists, socialists, and extreme-
left activists) who do not necessarily need to squat. During the juridi-
cal procedure in 2010, one of the leaders selected the more precarious
people to put their name on the official list of the squatters in order
to prevent the risk of a bigger fine because of the solvency of some of
them. Indeed, in France, the judge analyzes the personal situation of
the squatters to know if they are “truly” poor and need a roof to survive
or if they do not necessarily need to squat (Bouillon, 2010). The result
of the juridical procedure often depends on the solvency of the squat-
ters. We analyze here a “professionalization of precariousness”: the aim
is to build a “precarious” movement with no precarious people. As we
explained above, the squatters from Jeudi Noir are often students, archi-
tects, and artists. Compared to other kind of squatters, they have more
economic resources. But poverty becomes a resource to gain legitimacy
in a social conflict where the judge could be more lenient with the poor.
What is very interesting in this squatting movement is the relation-
ship between the leaders, who do not live in the squat, and the local
officials. Indeed, the leaders are now officials themselves (one is a repre-
sentative of the regional assembly, another is a member of the Socialist
Party, and another is a representative of a local municipality of Paris).
They have a strong political capital and thus, strong social resources.
They build quasi-friendly relationships with the representatives of the
municipality of Paris, with the head of the housing department and
with the policemen in charge of controlling them. Thus, they accept
the rules of the political game, of representative democracy, while other
squatters denounce it. Moreover, although they squat, they respect the
rules of the public order. Their presence is not disruptive at all. Usually,
city officials come to support them in their action, and take advantage
of this public tribunal to criticize the national government. For exam-
ple, the mayor Bertrand Delanoë came to the squat “The Marquise” at
Place des Vosges. The President of the Region, Jean-Paul Huchon always
assists them during juridical procedures. Just before the night of the
eviction of the last squat “avenue de Matignon”, a communist member
of the National Assembly slept in the street in front of the squat to
3.2. Droit au Logement (DAL): a housing movement using
squat as a means
The DAL movement was born in 1990 from a division with the
“CML” (Comités des Mal-Logés / “Committee of people in bad housing
conditions”). The CML used the squat in a “classist” way if we follow
the typology of Cécile Péchu (Péchu, 2006, 2010). They squatted social
housings to denounce the way the State allocates housing. The occupa-
tions were carried out during the electoral campaigns to draw the atten-
tion of the candidates and the media. However, the creation of the DAL
represents a change in the repertoire of action. At the very beginning
the DAL refused to use squatting as a mode of action: they wanted to
avoid action that was too disruptive and not to be consider as “an ille-
gitimate” actor in order to be able to negotiate with public authorities.
But in 1993, they squatted again in Avenue René Coty and in the “rue
du Dragon” in 1994. This last occupation made the DAL enter into the
public sphere thanks to a massive use of the media and had three main
results. First, each squatter was relocated by the State and the squat was
evicted. Second, the State accepted to use the Requisition Law of 1945.
Third, the Right to Housing was declared “constitutional”. By disturb-
ing public order and using an illegal tool of activism, DAL achieved
their goals. For Cécile Péchu “this is a cover of the squat that lies be-
tween the spectacular action intended to put pressure on authorities
and real action to resolve the housing problem of squatters” (Péchu,
2006). Squatting by DAL is “efficient”: Each occupation is followed
by the relocation of 90% of the squatting families (mainly precarious
African families). In the 18th, 19th and 20th districts of Paris (the most
heavily squatted districts), they rehoused almost 700 families with 15
squats. In the Seine-Saint-Denis department, almost 100 squats have
accommodated 1000 families. In the 19th district of Paris, 6 squats or-
ganized by the DAL were evicted since June 2002. After each eviction,
the activists succeeded in getting relocation of all the families from the
State, the City Council or the SIEMP (“Société Immobilière d’économie
Mixte de Paris”/ Public-Private Housing Developer of Paris). This is the
result of many negotiations between leaders, officials and families. It
shows us that the DAL has a considerable political and social capital
which is used by the activists during these conflictual negotiations.
Nevertheless, the squat is only one mode of action among others for
this housing movement. The DAL combines different kinds of action
which are, sometimes led in the same place: demonstrations, sit-ins,
real squats, symbolic squats, hunger strike, office occupation, illegal ac-
commodation, and concerts. This combination enables the activists to
target different actors: the national government, municipalities, private
owners, housing developers. The “efficiency” of the movement is partly
due to this strategy. The proportion of squats in their total number of
actions increased even while only representing 8% of the actions of
the DAL, and 20% of the actions of the CML (Péchu, 2006:462). But
the DAL has a stronger use of the media to bring the housing problem
into the public sphere. Cécile Péchu distinguishes two types of squats:
the “real” squat and the “symbolic” one. The real one is used both as
a house and as a mode of asserting the right to housing. The symbolic
one is only used to publicize a message. The temporality is the similar to
the one of the Jeudi Noir: the squats emerge during electoral campaigns
and “non-expulsion period”. However, nowadays, since the creation
of Jeudi Noir, the DAL has received less attention in the media than
the former. This is due to the fact that the DAL has less social and po-
litical networks than Jeudi Noir and is therefore a less institutionalized
movement. Indeed, as we showed the activists of Jeudi Noir are closer
to the political class while those from DAL prefer to build an open con-
flict with officials and representative in order to put them under pres-
sure to obtain the relocation of the families. DAL is closer to the “squat
of deprivation” of Hans Pruijt and the “classist” type of Cécile Péchu.
The leaders nevertheless maintain relations with officials but they use
them in a very different way. They call them to request more houses
rather than to require help against eviction. The number permanent
activists in the association are no more than 20. The decisions are very
centralized and the DAL movement corresponds to a Pruijt’s notional
of flexible institutionalization.
3.3. Artists and social centers
The squat appears as a mode of action. The two cases above show that it
can be used as a means to obtain more than a roof over one’s head. It is
the “housing side” of issue squats. Nevertheless, the squat can also be an
individual and collective occupation aiming at living alternatively in the
city beyond the official public policies and the rules of the ownership:
counter-culture, alternative art against commercial and mainstream art,
concerts, and innovative social services provided to the inhabitants of
the district or homeless people. People can chose to organize themselves
to demonstrate that self-organization of society is possible and to strug-
gle against an individualist society based on private property rights. In
France, the word “squat” includes all the meanings we present in this
paper, but in other countries the specific configuration we are evok-
ing in this section is the “social center”. People wishing to create new
human relations as well as social and cultural activities, enter illegally
in a building and appropriate the place. Of course the squatters also
use the building as a house but the main goal is to turn into a place of
meetings, festivals, concerts, theater plays, art classes, kindergarten, or
bicycle workshops. All these activities are linked to the daily life of the
neighborhood which usually accepts the presence of the squatters and
defends them against when the owner wants to evict them (Aguilera,
2010). Most of the Parisian social centers are animated by artists (17
of 21 in 2010). We observed that all of these social centers and artistic
squats are more or less tolerated by the City Council.
There is a profound problem concerning cultural spaces in Paris.
Some surveys show that an artist has to wait more than 30 years to get
a workshop. As we presented before, squatting can be both a problem
for public actors but at the same time, a solution. In fact, for artists
it is a solution in the sense that illegally occupying a building enables
them to create and exhibit inside Paris: “we need more space to live and
create. In Paris, some spaces are unoccupied so we enter and use the place”
(Mathilde, squatter). Since the election of the socialist mayor in 2001,
Bertrand Delanoë, local public actors are rather tolerant towards these
kinds of squats because officials became aware that Parisian voters like
these cultural places and that they develop interesting projects.
Indeed, sometimes squatters provide local and social services in the
face of the inefficiencies of the public and legal system. Squats reveal
problems in the city, compensate for a lack of local activities and in-
spires the city council. Many squats in Paris (the “Jardin d’Alice”, the
“59 Rivoli”, “La Générale”, “TDV”, the “Petite Rockette”, …) provide
art classes and exhibitions in places where the municipality is unable to.
Sometimes, officials prefer to build strong relationships of trust with
the squatters rather than to repress them. This is the case of a specific
association: MACAQ (Mouvement d’Animation Culturelle et Artistique
de Quartier / Local Cultural and Artistic Association). This association
which was born in the 17th district of Paris and has a very special re-
lation with the left wing of the city council. MACAQ organizes the
carnival of Paris, many cultural events, and bric-a-brac sales. The mu-
nicipality externalizes the management of these social and cultural ac-
tivities. The logic is the same concerning vacant housing. The housing
department director told me that he gives “concessions” to MACAQ
to squat building if they are empty and too expensive to renovate. He
calls them “professional squatters”. Thus, nowadays they squat the 123
rue Tocqueville in the 17th district where they host many associations:
“It’s a good deal for all of us. The municipality doesn’t
have to pay repairs and surveillance. For the squatters, it is
an opportunity to get a building legally for some time. When
we have a building where we don’t have any project we call
them and they squat” (Housing Department director of the
Municipality of Paris).
Furthermore, some squats provide social services. Since 2005, the
artists who squat in the “Petite Rockette” host 14 homeless people with
the help of the NGO “Médecins du Monde”. Thus, social centers chal-
lenge and “serve” the municipality at the same time.
Thus, the City Council adopted two political instruments which
allow it to control and govern the squats in Paris (Aguilera, 2011). The
first is the project and the call for project proposals. When the City
Council wants to retrieve the management of a building for a specific
project, the Housing or the Cultural department launches a call for
project proposals and sometimes squatters are welcomed to participate
in imagining the future of this building. Squatters have to enter the
legal sphere and accept the status of urban planners or experts. They
have to present an application like the squatters of the “Petite Rockette”
did with the help of the NGO “Médecins du Monde”, or the artists of
the “Forge de Belleville” in 2009. This process forces squatters to respect
administrative norms: budgets, security norms, public order. They have
to determine the allocation of the place (artistic place with workshops,
living place with bed rooms, etc). They have to accept the ground rules
of the urban planning.
The second instrument is a juridical contract between squatters and
the owner, the precarious lease, which allows the squatters to stay in
the building for a determined and limited period (18 months gener-
ally) and for a small rent (around 1000 Euros per month). It is an
instrument of normalization of the relationship between squatters and
owners. Thus, it is a first step to reduce the tension between property
rights and housing rights. Moreover, it is a means for the municipality
to control illegal spaces. The squatters and the owners are both winners
in this process and both parties usually accept it. The squatters can
stay and the owner avoids a juridical procedure of eviction which is
quite a burden. From illegal to contractual, squatters change their sta-
tus but they stay in the same location and keep, more or less, the same
activities. On the one hand, squatters have to accept some ground rules
to stay. On the other hand, as squatters are innovators in terms of so-
cial and cultural practices, they urge public actors to innovate. Parisian
representatives, who have adopted these two instruments as vectors of
public policy innovation, were inspired by squatters for the last two
years: they created new festive and cultural places: the “104”, the “100
rue de Charenton”, the “Petit Bain” etc.
However, although this is not the mainstream opinion, some squat-
ters (mainly anarchists) refuse to deal with the municipality and criti-
cize squatters who accept it denouncing it as “institutionalization”.
Some of them told me that the squat loses its identity and its own value
if it is legalized:
“We are legal now. We lost the freedom of illegality…When
we were illegal we were not allowed to do anything so we were
able to do everything! Nowadays we cannot do anything with-
in the [boundaries of the] law” (Pablo, squatter).
In Paris, the extreme-left wing and non-institutionalized squats are
absent. We can find some in the periphery like in Montreuil with some
anarchist groups who refuse to deal with state actors. The consequence
is that the squats are more ephemeral. A larger European compara-
tive work should show that Parisian squats are less politicized than in
Madrid, Barcelona, Berlin, Geneva, and Amsterdam. A last group of
squats are the invisible squats.
3.4. “Invisible squats”
As we have already mentioned, we estimate that there are 2,000 squats
in the Ile-de-France Region. The problem is that most of them are in-
visible: we can observe them when the owner becomes aware of the
situation and wants to evict them. Some interviews let us think that
the Prefecture (deconcentrated local state, the representation in region
of the federal State) would have built up a database but at the moment
we are not able to have access to the files. The only exhaustive database
we can use is the one presented in the first section of this paper. It only
concerns squats in buildings owned by social housing developers. We
observed 661 squats at the regional scale in 2006.
The Housing Developers are frequently victims of squatting for three
reasons and during three particular moments. First, when developers
renovate buildings the flats are empty and vulnerable; second, during
relocation of renters and “turn over”; third, during the construction. 51%
of the squats presented here are small squats of flats. Homeless people
or precarious people enter in a flat when they know that it is empty. In
41% of the cases, some networks of people have a good knowledge of the
situation of relocations and renovations. During interviews, some actors
told us that they can paid-off the doormen and some security officers of
developers to get the addresses of empty flats. They enter a flat, change
the lock, write a fake lease and sell it to precarious and immigrant families
unable to check the veracity of the situation. Besides, the region hosts also
some cases of squats whole or mainly composed of drug addicts. The last
one in the north of Paris hosted hundreds of drug users. It was evicted
in March 2010. The inhabitants of these squats consider the occupation
as the primary goal because they want a roof and nothing else. The aim
of squatting is to live in worthy conditions and to avoid sleeping in the
street. There is not any process of institutionalization and the inhabitants
benefit from staying invisible. They don’t have many resources but have
the skills to open a squat.
In this section, we have analyzed the different configurations of
squatting in Paris, specifically according to two main cleavages: re-
sources of squatters and their goals. The process of institutionalization
takes two mains forms: cooptation as with Jeudi Noir, flexible as with
DAL and artists. For some scholars (Castells, 1983; Piven and Cloward,
1974) as well as for the political radical squatters, the process of in-
stitutionalization means the decline and loss of identity of the urban
movement. However, squatters in Paris usually accept a flexible insti-
tutionalization. They create their own identity which is a combination
of interests. They develop strong rational strategies radicalizing some
positions on the one hand (the main tool of their activism is illegal) and
accepting the rules on the other (the rules of the negotiation). Squatters
have many resources. They are able to mobilize their own resources to
create a “disturbing” situation (McAdam, 1982). They have built many
networks, of which some are informal: squatters move a lot between
different squats and they know each other. Besides, they have estab-
lished formal networks of sociability in order to exchange experiences,
information and to organize events. In Paris, 70% of the squats belong
to the Intersquat Network which is a Parisian initiative, although it is
connected to many European squats in Rome, Barcelona, Berlin, and
Geneva. The members of Intersquat meet once a month to exchange
their experiences. They talk about new techniques for squatting, avoid
eviction, and organizing a legal defense. They also circulate the address-
es of newly vacant buildings. Finally, they organize several European
events and meetings between squatters elsewhere in Europe (held in a
different capital every year). This network gives the squatters some re-
sources they can use to address officials. They know how to speak, how
to organize an official meeting, how to defend themselves legally, they
also know the Parisian territory (their databases of vacant buildings are
more complete than the official ones) and how to mobilize the media
to be visible.
As in every country in Europe, we find very different types of squats
in Paris and its region. We can distinguish different configurations de-
pending on the resources of the squatters and on their goals. The squats
and social centers in Paris are the most visible. But they are only the
small part of the iceberg. Most of the squats are invisible and hidden
and we have to integrate them in the analysis when we are talking about
squats even if their inhabitants are not activists. Indeed, we presented
the squatting group “Jeudi Noir” which uses the media in order to at-
tract attention to the housing problem in France and the DAL which
is able to organize big events to relocate poor families. Many artists
squat in Paris and have quite good relationships with the local officials,
which allow them to stay and participate to the development of the
city. However, we have shown that many squats are invisible. They host
precarious people who need shelter in order to survive. In that last case,
squatting is not a choice and the mobilization to defend themselves is
These different configurations imply different responses from state
actors. In fact, as we have shown, artists and social centers are usually
tolerated by the Paris city council which needs them to build a European
cultural capital. Indeed, officials know that the city can attract tourists
if it is a “creative” and innovative city. The political squats are also often
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to critique the national right wing government. However, this side of
public policies does not have to prevent us from observing the “dark
side” of these relationships. Squatters without any resources (media,
social and/or cultural capital) are usually evicted and the municipality
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