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HOST (ANDIE CROSSAN)

As the sun rises in Paris, 100 days before the Olympic Games are set to begin…

A dozen police vans pull up to an abandoned office building in Vitry-sur-Seine.

[Knocking sounds]

Officers break through locked doors and search the premises floor by floor.

Some of them wear masks and carry riot shields.

I said this building was abandoned. I didn’t say it was empty.

For three years this site has been home to hundreds of migrants.

Men, women, and children fleeing war and disaster.

Like Nada. She and her family fled civil war and made their way to France.

NADA [translated from French and Arabic]

Hello, my name is Nada. I’m 18 years old. I’m in high school, and when it’s possible I want to become a nurse later on…

…We had a home in Sudan, but because of the war, everything was destroyed.

HOST

Nada says her father was the first to arrive in Paris three years ago.

After securing a job in construction, he applied to bring his family, too.

Nada and her mother joined him last year and initially stayed with extended family.

She says she’s living with an uncle while she finishes high school.

But there wasn’t enough space there for her parents.

So they moved into the Vitry squat in January.

Offices at Vitry have been converted to rooms into rooms with bunk beds.

The building has only two showers for more than 400 people.

There’s electricity, but no hot water.

Vitry was the largest squat in Paris. Until now.

Outside, residents gather their belongings in the building’s courtyard…

On the street, a row of buses idle, at the ready.

Some of the residents will board the buses headed to temporary government-run shelters outside of Paris—hundreds of miles away from the city.

PAUL [translated from French]

They want to see what we are offering them and get on the buses. So this is not a demonstration, we are not here to offer resistance to the police. We’re here to make sure things go well and not let them do what they want.

This is Paul Alauzy, a program coordinator for Médecins Du Monde.

He’s here to help the people who are being evicted—so that they understand their rights—what’s happening and where the buses will take them.

…In the first four months of 2024, police evicted 20 sites across Paris.

That’s more than in all of 2022.

The number of people living on the streets has also increased.

SPEAKER 1 [translated from French]

The occupation of vacant buildings is a vital emergency when the housing crisis and the crisis of emergency accommodation leaves no other alternative to thousands of people… the reality is the squat or the street.

SPEAKER 2 [translated from French]

There is no license to build and no permit to demolish. So we know that there is no urgency for expulsion. It’s probably in the context of the Olympic games where there are a lot of squat expulsions that have taken place in recent weeks and months…

HOST

As the crowd slowly disperses, only a few people board those waiting buses. And none of them fill.

The buses are part of a national strategy launched a year before the Olympics, aiming to ease pressure on supportive housing and the asylum system in Paris.

Even though there are rooms available on the other side of the journey, most people—like Nada and her family—have a life here and don’t want to leave.

The Olympics are an opportunity for Paris to welcome the world.

But that welcome has limits.

This is State of Play, the podcast where we investigate how the Olympics are changing big cities.

We’ll meet the people pushed out and priced out in the name of televised sports.

I’m Andie Crossan.

Okay, to get started, I need you to use your imagination.

Let’s imagine that wherever you live right now—that your city is chosen as the next Olympic host city!

[Cheering]

Pretty exciting right?

Some of the world’s top athletes will be heading your way, and think about all those sweet tourist dollars that’ll be pouring into the city. And hey, your country might get some of those gold medals too.

Now it’s time to get real.

And here’s the part of the Olympic dream that we’re going to look closely at.

How your city is transformed by the games.

Maybe you’ll find out that your neighbourhood is going to be leveled to make way for the construction of an athlete’s village.

Or that your tax dollars are helping to pay for that fancy bobsled track.

And then you see what the cost is for the new road being built to get tourists to the stadium…

CHRISTOPHER

Always remember that these are elite sporting events for elite athletes and also designed for elite consumers…

HOST

We called up a top expert on mega-events, things like the Olympics and FIFA World Cup.

CHRISTOPHER

My name is Christopher Gaffney. I’m an associate professor at New York University. I’m a geographer who studies at the intersection of urbanization and mega events and global tourism dynamics.

HOST

And Christopher Gaffney does not mince words when he explains what he sees as some of the issues with hosting the Games.

CHRISTOPHER

Corruption, geopolitics, urbanisation, gentrification, displacement, militarization, surveillance, inequality, climate change… any of that stuff, all that’s wrapped in the Olympic Games.

HOST

And the Olympics have a history of creating a few winners… and a lot of losers.

CHRISTOPHER

I tend to call it a gush-up economics where we take all the money from the public coffers and push it to the top and then redistribute it among the top 5%.

This is just the way it works. The political economy of the event is…is… elitism.

HOST

So before we go any further, I need you to understand how the Olympics and Paralympics are funded.

When a city makes an Olympic bid, the host proposes a budget.

While the Olympic committee pitches in a fraction of the money, private investors cover the vast majority of the costs. Host cities will take on debt, or bring in new taxes to fill the gaps.

Some are left with multi-billion dollar shortfalls.

The Olympics often require new stadiums, transit projects, and other big-budget infrastructure.

And it all has to be built on a deadline.

In the push to secure investment, governments will often move mountains, and entire neighborhoods out of the way.

CHRISTOPHER

The mega events come in and demand extra-legal formulations for them to be realized.

HOST

What Christopher Gaffney means here is that events like the Olympics can often usher in a period of time when governments can suspend laws, create new ones, or push through unpopular policies… creating what experts refer to as a “state of exception.”

CHRISTOPHER

If we think about the Patriot Act and the renewal of the Patriot Act in the United States, this is an exceptional law. So we’ve been living in a state of exception since 2002 in the United States, and it’s continually renewed, where you can then invoke these legal exceptions to do whatever…

HOST

For the Olympics what that looks like is:

CHRISTOPHER

…expedited contracts for, uh, building a subway line, or you need to have exemptions for visas. You have to have exemptions for imports… You don’t have to have, but the IOC demands tax breaks for all its corporate sponsors, which are highly illegal in any other context. All these things. And then the closure of public spaces, the elimination of certain freedoms…

HOST

So maybe now you’re rethinking those gold medals.

But what can you do?

Some communities around the world have started pushing back.

A global anti-Olympic movement has been gaining traction for more than a decade.

Some cities like Boston and Calgary have pulled their hats out of the ring—withdrawing their bids after there just wasn’t enough public support.

It’s a narrative that the International Olympic Committee wants to change:

CHRISTOPHE DUBI

And of course, in any democracy, you will have voices against the organization of the Games.

HOST

Christophe Dubi is the IOC’s executive director.

CHRISTOPHE DUBI

It is such an event that of course you will have oppositions at some point in time. But we cannot … and that’s very important as well… we cannot criticize the Games for not embracing each and every one… This is an event that is open arms. This is an event that, that brings the world together. This is not an event that ostracize. On the contrary. Human rights is at the very core of our mission.

HOST

Paris organizers have promised a green, sustainable, inclusive games.

And activists like Paul Alauzy want to see those promises realized.

[Crowd chanting]

In December, a coalition of housing activists gather at Sacré Coeur—an historic church perched on a hill overlooking the city.

It’s on the Olympic torch bearer’s route through Paris.

Paul Alauzy leads the crowd, chanting solidarity with refugees.

[“Go! Go! Go! Go!”]

Protestors unfurl banners highlighting France’s social problems in bold letters.

Encampments. Slums. Homeless.

Using Olympic colours, they pour paint over them.

PAUL

The idea was to show this is what matters for us now. And then we put paint on it to show that this is what the Olympics is gonna do… They’re gonna be covered up with, the Olympics and, uh, with sports.

HOST

Another banner covered with paint reads “solidarity.”

PAUL

We really lack solidarity in France. And we have the feeling that all the states care about is, uh, organizing the Olympics while they should be working on helping the people in the streets, welcoming the refugees arriving here on the territory.

HOST

Instead of a welcome, Paul has repeatedly seen migrants offered bus rides.

Like on a soggy winter morning in December when police descended on a tent encampment under a highway north of Central Paris.

Nearly 100 migrants, many from Afghanistan, had been living there, relying on the overpass to shelter them from the rain.

PAUL

So the living conditions, they are worse than a humanitarian camp in Sahel, or in a desert. It’s only tents, like camping tents, and that’s all, there is no toilets, there is no running water, there is no electricity or heat, of course.

And so you’re the target of everything, you have the climate of the winter, of the what can happen on some of the streets, some violence, being mugged, being attacked.

HOST

And like clockwork—a row of buses pull up.

Police shout at the group to get in line.

[“The line please, the line! The line is here!”]

HOST

All Paul can do is help people navigate France’s relocation program.

He points out the city of Strasbourg on a map.

One of these buses is headed to a temporary shelter there. It’s a five hour drive east of Paris on the border with Switzerland.

These resettlement buildings are called SAS centres.

They’ve popped up in unused gyms and schools around the country, run by the French government.

ANDIE

Are you seeing it like a revolving door where people get collected here, they go to Strasbourg and other places, they get on these buses, and then a month later, two months later, they’re back?

PAUL

This is a never, never ending cycle. It has changed with the system of the SAS for the Olympics. But it’s the same and same system all over again.

They are not changing the way, uh, people can access to housing.

They’re just changing the way to, like organize the police operation and that’s it.

HOST

While the government denies SAS centres have anything to do with the Olympics… advocates like Paul say the Games play a significant role.

The program allows the government to push unhoused people to the outskirts, just in time to roll out the red carpet for arriving tourists and athletes.

ANDIE

How much of a choice do they have?

PAUL

That’s a good question. [Laughs]. That’s a good question. I think that because of the presence of association and the press, uh, if you want just leave the, the area you can, but you have to leave the area, so, and just find another place to go. 

So the vast majority of the people waiting here it’s not a solution for them. And that’s why the people don’t get on the bus.

HOST

People taken to the SAS Centres are allowed to stay for a few weeks.

They’re given a small stipend, a warm bed, and a shared kitchen… a contrast from living under a noisy highway.

I met Hassan Zaad Quadratullah outside of a SAS Centre in the southern city of Bordeaux.

He’d taken an overnight bus here from Paris a few weeks ago.

HASSAN

We are all from Afghanistan. We, same language, same nationality. Hazara people… 

I have fiance. She live in Afghanistan, but immigration don’t accept her family too.

ANDIE

Were you sleeping outside when you were living in Paris?

Yeah. Yeah. I, I sleeping outside. Well, not just me, it’s too much. People is sleeping outside yeah.

HOST

Hassan shares a room with other Afghans seeking asylum in France.

He receives 40 euros per week to buy food. That’s less than 50 US dollars.

ANDIE

What happens when your time is up? What happens after, after four weeks or five weeks and you have to leave?

HASSAN

I don’t know, they tell us, five weeks, after five weeks, they tell us to transfer. I don’t know, transfer… send me back Paris? I don’t know.

HOST

Around 40% of the people taken to SAS centres are offered permanent social housing.

That means more than half move on… likely back to the streets, where they will encounter more police, and more buses.

It raises questions about the program’s effectiveness… should Hassan or Nada uproot their lives for something temporary?

Will these smaller communities welcome them?

And what will happen to them after the Olympic games?

FARIS [translated from French]

There are no more buildings, there are no more solutions. The only solution is to go around Paris and help them in tents. And that, I can’t continue doing because it hurts my heart. I can’t bear it.

HOST

Faris Al Kali Youssouf is a support worker with United Migrants.

We met him at the Vitry squat in Paris last December.

It’s been just over a year since the French government adopted stricter squatting laws.

Squatters can now face up to three years in prison and a fine of 45,000 euros.

Faris spends a lot of time helping people with their asylum applications, distributing food and supplies, and helping them organize and find places to live.

He knows what it’s like to start on the street. Faris came to France as a refugee from Chad in 2015.

He’s witnessed the cycle of street sweeps and the squat evictions, but as the squats are emptied and the encampments cleared—he just doesn’t know what’s going to happen.

FARIS [translated from French]

There will be people that we don’t have the means to help. No. It makes me cry at night. I think with the law they’ve made, that there will be no more squats, no housing for these people. I think this law has put an end to all the help we can offer. The state is unable to manage these problems.

HOST

Most residents evicted from Vitry chose not to get on buses.

They chose to stay close to jobs, schools, and support networks in Paris.

Many, like Nada’s family, are waiting on long-term social housing.

The day the police moved in, Nada joined her parents at Vitry so they could all be together when they were transferred to a shelter called Porte de la Ville Terre.

NADA [translated from Arabic]

So they transported us to a big housing depot in which there are some beds. There were separate areas for families, for single women, and single men. There are white people in one, while the black people in another one, and the mixed-race people in a third one, and so on.

HOST

For now, they’ll stay here until their names get to the top of the social housing waitlist.

NADA [translated from Arabic]

In the housing request, we specified that we want accommodation or housing in the Île-de-France region.

HOST

That’s in Paris.

NADA [translated from Arabic]

Because we know well that my father works here. If we get housing outside, we cannot and will not commute around to work.

We have not been given any options.

MICHAEL

I hope you are doing well. Everything will be okay, one day, one time.

HOST

This is Michael.

He’s a young man in his 20s from South Sudan.

He made his way—on foot—to France for asylum.

After feeling unsafe in emergency housing, he moved to Vitry.

He, too, was evicted in April, and like many there, didn’t get on a bus to a SAS centre.

Once the Vitry squat was cleared by police…

Michael had to find somewhere else to sleep that night.

For a few days, we didn’t hear from Michael.

We didn’t know if we’d hear from him again.

Days later, he sent a voice memo, updating us on his housing search.

Michael was sheltering in a train station.

MICHAEL

I did not get the place inside, like the, like the room? I did not get it. I’m just living in a tent… but I hope you’re doing well, and everything will do fine.

HOST

He says he’s taking French classes hoping it will help his refugee claim.

In order to get social housing, he was told he needs to get a job first.

MICHAEL

Before I go to the camp, but people at the camp tell you if you don’t have a job… I do not give you the house here.

HOST

Ultimately, he wants to stay in Paris.

ETIENNE THOBOIS

…we are very sorry for some of those people and the situation they are in, and we believe that everybody should have a roof, uh, to live with.

HOST

That’s Etienne Thobois, the CEO of Paris 2024, the city’s Olympic organizing committee. The displacement of migrants taking place in Paris, he says…

ETIENNE THOBOIS

This is something that is orchestrated by the city of Paris, the public authorities, to find solutions for those people in need. But this has nothing to do with the games, per se.

HOST

The Olympic Committee has promised that part of the Athlete’s Village in Paris will become social housing after the Games.

That plan includes just over 300 social housing units.

It’s a small contribution when compared to the 12,000 people displaced in recent years.

We reached out to a number of city officials in Paris and the French government for comment on the system of moving people out of the city.

Officials either declined our request or we didn’t receive a response.

Next time on State of Play…

JULES

I think actually those who care about sports in some ways are best positioned to fight back against the injustices that are all too often bricked into sport…

HOST

We stay in Paris for a walk through the city and a walk down memory lane for a former athlete who is now one of the world’s leading experts on the anti-olympic movement.

JULES

…they can’t be accused of just being a spoil sport, a grump-a-delic academic with a knee jerk built-in penchant for dismissing sport, as some might like to say about me.

HOST

State of Play is brought to you by the Global Reporting Centre and PRX.

A Newfruit Media production.

Hosted by me, Andie Crossan.

Produced by Sharon Nadeem and Katarina Sabados.

Our reporters in Paris are Phineas Rueckert and Sophie Stuber.

Our senior producers are Sarah Berman and Jesse Winter.

Sound editing and mixing by Valentina Fonseca and Daniel Rinaldi.

Archive by Bea Lehmann.

Fact checking by Juliana Konrad.

Art by Will Brown.

Digital production by Andrew Munroe.

Our executive producer is Britney Dennison.

Special thanks to the Global Reporting Program at the University of British Columbia.

–END–

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