After a rash of fires struck immigrant housing buildings around Paris, killing at least 63 people, most of them Africans and about half of them children, the squatters at 10 rue de Tanger took turns staying up late, keeping an eye out for anyone who might try to torch the dilapidated building they call home.
"You have to think that if a fire starts at the bottom of the stairwell, no one's going to get out," said Mohammed Fofana, an unemployed 29-year-old from Ivory Coast who lives with his wife and two small children in a back room on the fifth floor. "We had people staying up until 3 or 4 a.m. keeping watch."
Paris police said they were not sure whether any of the four blazes since last April were meant to target immigrants. But Fofana and about 50 other African residents of this run-down building in northwest Paris, abandoned by its owners and commandeered by squatters more than eight years ago, aren't taking any chances.
In late August, 24 immigrants were killed in two fires that consumed buildings remarkably similar to this one, with dozens of legal and illegal immigrants packed into sweltering, rancid rooms with jury-rigged electric systems and inadequate water and sewer services. Arson is suspected in at least one of the blazes, a police spokesman said Friday.
The fires moved the government to action, though occasionally in seemingly opposite directions. Taking a hard line, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy announced that he would immediately seek to evict all squatters, who according to private estimates number up to 5,000 in Paris and its suburbs. It remained unclear where the people would go; the city does not have alternative housing for them.
Two days later, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin took a softer approach, promising to build 5,000 government-subsidized apartments in the city in the next two years.
Some social workers and immigrants call the housing crisis in the capital a symptom of a much larger problem -- the alienation of immigrants, especially blacks from France's former West African colonies, who live apart from French society after years in the country.
Patrick Doutreligne, director of the Abbe Pierre Foundation for the Housing of the Underprivileged, said Sarkozy's eviction program was "scapegoating the victims and trying to lay the responsibility on them, even though they are the least responsible."
He criticized the government for not giving immigrants "the keys to life in a city, the keys to French life," particularly safe housing. French authorities too often build small apartments that are not suitable for immigrants, who typically have larger families, he said. "Their only choice is to live in unsafe housing."
Marilou Jampolsky, an official with S.O.S. Racism, a private group that fights discrimination in France, said that "there is discrimination against foreign people, against large families, against black people."
Sarkozy, a presidential hopeful, defended his eviction policy in a recent interview on French TV. "I don't regret it," he said. "Facing the proliferation of fires, what was there to do?"
"It's not the government that is discriminating against these people," said Patrick Weil, an immigration specialist at the National Center for Scientific Research and the Sorbonne in Paris who occasionally advises Sarkozy. "It's the housing market that's terrible to black people. Apartment owners discriminate against them."
"Even if you go to see an apartment and you give your name on the phone, when you get there and they see you're black, all of a sudden the apartment's taken," said Fofana, who lost his job in a manufacturing warehouse nine months ago.
Like many others in the building, Fofana said, he is in France legally and has valid working papers. But because of the short supply of low-cost housing in Paris, he said, he was forced upon his arrival in France eight years ago to move into 10 rue de Tanger, where he and as many as 50 other families can live, one family per room, without paying rent. All are waiting for public housing, Fofana and other residents said.
Each room is about 100 square feet. There is no running water, so Fofana and others fill five-gallon plastic jugs at a nearby public fountain and lug them to their rooms. There are no toilets, so residents relieve themselves in buckets and carry them downstairs. Five floors below Fofana's accommodations, the open-air courtyard is littered with plastic bottles, cans and other refuse tossed from the windows.
Fofana's wife cooks in a makeshift kitchen erected in the corridor. The family sleeps on a bunk bed in a room that measures roughly 8 by 12 feet. The wallpaper and linoleum floor are peeling, and a light dangles from a cord.
Fofana and his wife have talked about what to do in a fire, and there are no good options. Even in the middle of the day, the building's narrow stairwell is pitch black. "I'm very scared," he said, "but we don't have any choice."
"I think I'm lucky to be here, because if I didn't have this place, I'd have nothing," he said. "People try hard to find a place like this, so afterwards they can get housed in proper accommodations. Lots of people who have lived here have been re-housed by the government, and I'm going to wait here until they find a place for me."
Special correspondents Caroline Huot and Andrea Denham contributed to this report.