FRANCE: Interview with a comrade from CREA, Toulouse
CREA is a collective and Autonomous Social Centre based in Toulouse, south of France. It has been at the forefront of the struggle for housing through the occupation of empty buildings in the city and establishment of collective self-managed spaces, particularly working with immigrants. In November CREA extended an open invitation to ‘NOTHING TO LOSE’ an event organized to share experiences and knowledge around the struggles for affordable and adequate housing and to reclaim the city, which we joined. Comrades attended from all over France as well as from as far a field as Chile. During the days of action more than 200 people marched through Toulouse to say no to evictions and also squatted a house owned by the City Council to provide a home for evicted families. Workshops were held in their new Social Centre, an occupied building which was the former Moroccan Consulate, on different topics to share information and experience of struggle. What follows is an interview with a comrade from CREA.
Could you give a short description of CREA and your field of activity?
The Acronym CREA (in French) stands for campaign for requisition, mutual aid and self-management. It is a movement which began in April 2011, in Toulouse, south-western France. The idea is to occupy empty buildings which have been abandoned or subject to real estate speculation. It aims to create self-managed collective spaces based on anti-sexist, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, anti-racist and anti-homophobic principles. We work with all those who want to participate, the poorly housed, families left homeless by the State and capitalism, people who cannot afford to pay their rent, people who are fed up with the system, marginalized people, the elderly, children, students, artists, the unemployed, the workers and the poor, and detainees/convicts.
What is the origin of CREA?
CREA was born when squatters joined a group of workers. The workers were angry because of the little resources given by the State to make affordable housing available for people living on the street. So they decided to squat an empty building and turned it into a self-managed social center (CSA). We believe that the state is not the solution to our problems, but is part of the problem and no one can take better care of us than ourselves. At the beginning, the squat was taken by five families with children, about thirty people. But the movement has grown and changed. Activities are organized such as dance, language classes, sport, films, a canteen, concerts. Decisions are made collectively at open general meetings. Several other houses were also part of the campaign and were opened in the same neighborhood. One by one they have all been evicted. In total the CSA lasted a year and a half. On 28 August 2012, the Autonomous Social Centre on 70 allée des demoiselles [name of street] was evicted. Many people mobalized during the eviction and on subsequent days there were many actions such as protests at the town hall, blocking roads and state services.
We quickly opened a new, huge place, the URSSF, new Autonomous Social Center. The building is 5400 square meters, and nearly 100 people lived there and activities were launched. But a month later the URSSF was expelled using a helicopter and 100 people were left homeless.
We then decided to settle in Bonnefoy area behind the station which is one of the last remaining popular areas in the city centre and the Toulouse Council has plans to redevelop this area and build a high speed railway through this district. Fifteen houses were requisitioned in the area and two large buildings in Bonnegory which will be the new Autonomous Social Centre. In late July 2013, there remained only 2-3 houses and two large areas were expelled, just days apart. Some houses were requisitioned but never for longer than 2-3 months. Beginning in August 2013, we re-occupied the allée des demoiselles, the former Autonomous Social Centre. But the state has put us under procedure (September 2013) and we could be evicted at any time.
What is your ideal in creating alternative forms of communal life?
There is no ideal to create an alternative collective life. It is the baseline of what we do – collective self-management. At CREA we try to overcome this pyramidal society based on money, power, racism and sexism. We all look for ways to destroy these forms of oppression, through our own actions. So we try to replace it, here and now, through solidarity, equality and autonomy. For the rest, everything is built day by day amongst the people who live together, with the constant desire of achieving the greatest level of equality amongst all.
What is the situation of the immigrants in Toulouse?
The prefecture of Haute Garonne (cf. Toulouse region) has a strict procedure for those who apply for a residence permit and it is very arbitrary. The laws in France in general discriminate against certain categories of people and will never allow them to remain on the territory legally. Without this regulation, they cannot access housing or find a job, and between the costs for transport and police controls, they cannot move easily in the city. In short, they just have the right to die in a corner in silence. Therefore, it is very easy for the law to expel undocumented migrants or lock them up in the ARC (Administrative Detention Center) which is close to the airport to facilitate expulsions. Their goal is to keep people in isolation and prevent solidarity between people and they continue to apply these arbitrary and discriminatory practices with impunity. Added to this, in all of France and even Europe, there is a climate of racism which is against non-white, non-Francophone people (such as black people, Arabs, Roma etc.). This legitimizes the racist policies of the state.
How is your cooperation with immigrants? Is it difficult to gain their trust?
In fact, people meet us without really having the choice to trust us. They are homeless and are offered the power of hope through squatting, enabling them to live well and access shelter. Through spending time together people are presented with the choice to open houses themselves without needing the help of Francophones with papers. We are really happy about that. It is actually self-management.
What kind of repression do you face by the municipality/police and how do you counteract this?
Initially squats lasted a relatively long time. It could take at least 6-8 months on average living in our homes before being evicted. There was a sizeable strength in our favor. But as the movement grew the police and authorities launched their offensive. People were expelled more quickly, people who opened buildings were placed in custody. As for counter actions, they were also more important before, when we were more numerous. Gatherings, wild demonstrations, occupations took place immediately after evictions/deportations in order to put pressure on the state, and also push it to recognize its own contradictions. Now the intensity of the repression has become commonplace and it is not as easy to react. The court hearings are linked and every week houses are tried systematically and deportations are immediately given, often in situations where even judges do not respect their own laws. People find themselves on the street without any choice and forced to open new homes as soon as possible. This permanent emergency takes the largest share of energy in the country and the balance of power with the state is now materialized in our ability to bounce back and react as quickly as possible after an eviction. When we open more homes than the state is able to evict, it is estimated that the balance of power is in our favor.
How do you see the future of CREA?
For those involved in CREA it is very difficult to project into the future. The movement is constantly changing, in the space of two years it has changed completely. This work is totally collective, it feeds on those who constantly enrich the country, temporarily or more permanent. There are always moments of doubt, of uncertainty, during peak waves of repression and expulsion, where fear of the collapse of CREA resurfaces. But so far it is clear that each attack by the state has strengthened our resolve and made the group stronger. The campaign has also widened. More and more people support us because they see themselves the contradictions of the system. They see the state spending so much physical and financial means to destroy the movement simply because of self-organization without outside help, as response to the misery created by capitalism. It is a thing that many people in Toulouse have reacted too and also elsewhere. Strong links have been established in many cities of France and Europe to discuss this policy and experience, share it, spread it. This particular form of organization, and type of occupation, with all its complexity, difficulty and sometimes the contradictions that accompany it, is fast spreading amongst many libertarian groups.
For a video of CREA activities in Autumn 2013: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ufC2zmWipg#t=302
For more information about CREA (in English): https://tahriricn.wordpress.com/2013/05/07/france-autonomous-social-center-crea-toulouse/
Website for CREA (in French): creatoulouse.squat.net
Contact: creatoulouse [at] squat.net