Society

Millennial And Homeless, In France

Young adults between 18 and 25 are an increasingly vulnerable population in France. Jobless and rejected by their families, they are finding themselves on the streets in disturbing numbers.

Living under a bridge in northern France
Living under a bridge in northern France
Florence Aubenas

VALENCE — "My name is Julio," a young man says to introduce himself. His two friends laugh. "It's not true," they say. "He's called Antony, like everybody else." Julio-Antony wears an engaging smile and a smart outfit, as if we were going for a drink in a trendy cafe here in Valence, in southeastern France. Julio-Antony would like to be a bodyguard. Or a sports coach. He hasn't made up his mind yet.

His two friends are jostling next to a car, trying to catch a bit of the engine's warmth. "You damn homeless," Julio-Antony says. The three of them met on the streets, which is where they live, even though they don't look like it. They put a lot of effort into hiding it.

When he found himself on the streets, Julio-Antony thought to himself, "Man, already?" He had seen homeless people before, "mostly on TV, very filthy ones who drank." He thought it could only happen to old people, or to "those who've failed, even salesmen," one of his companions explains. "Life hasn't even started for us, and we're already in this situation." They're 20 years old. "What do we do now?" asks Julio-Antony.

They are unfortunately not alone. From the city of Rochefort on the southwestern coast to Laon in the Aisne region, social workers are describing a growing vulnerable population in similar ways. They're clean, nice, often invisible — and hopelessly lost. "Kids who sometimes just fall onto the streets," a Paris caseworker says. The other day, in a homeless center, one of them asked him "where the Nutella was for breakfast."

In the northern Aisne region, for example, calls to the humanitarian emergency service SAMU shot from 835 to 1,233 in 2013. Most of the callers were from this frighteningly new demographic, young adults aged between 18 and 25.

In the Paris area, the 18-to-25 set represents 13% of emergency calls, twice as much as in 2007. For a long time, the image of a laid off executive finding himself homeless was the symbol of a collapsing society. Then there was the working poor who slept in their cars. "Take a close look at these youths," says Eric Pliez, SAMU chief for Paris. "Tomorrow, their faces will be the face of our time."

In the Paris metro — Photo: stephane333

Family dysfunction

At a bus shelter around Nyons, a small city near Valence, a boy shouts, "September 11. Down!" It's his dog. Christopher is waiting for the bus to go to his mom's, like most weekends. "Do you think she'll take you back?" asks another boy, also with a dog. For months, Christopher has waited for a text message on his phone, one that would read, "Come back. Mom."

The bus doesn't come. Christopher decides to walk instead. Sixteen kilometers later, his mother is waiting for him in front of a dream house situated in the middle of a field. "You're late," she says. "Just like you dad." Christopher doesn't care. He doesn't see him anymore.

They sit on the couch, where he slept for five years, after his mother remarried. "I've got things to do," his stepfather says before slipping out. "He's living off your bank account, isn't he?" Christopher whispers to his mother. She touches his cheek. "Shh. Don't start."

Two other kids are playing noisily with the dog, September 11. They're "the new children," as Christopher calls them. He "fucked up" during his vocational education and in other ways too, he admits. But something about a PlayStation he borrowed from his stepfather was the final straw.

"This time I've had enough. Get your things and get out," the stepfather shouted. At first, Christopher slept hidden in a bush, next to the roundabout 500 meters from his mother's home. He ate from the bins of the fast food restaurant where he used to go with his cousin. That was six months ago.

On the couch, his mother asks him, "Have you found something now?" Before he leaves, she shoves sport socks and two chocolate bars in his small rucksack, next to the fleece blanket. Then, she says, "Promise me you won't talk about this with your grandma. She'd worry."

More need, less aid

In Valence, particularly committed Red Cross volunteers roam the streets to help the homeless. In front of the train station, a crowd gathers for clothes and food. "More and more people, and younger too," says Joseph, who heads the local branch. They hang out in small groups, inseparable for a few days or a few months, sharing everything and fighting over nothing, before splitting as suddenly as they formed to create new groups.


Homeless in Lyon — Photo: FaceMePLS

"If at least we still had compulsory military service," grumbles Las Vegas, a skinny man with blond eyelashes and wearing ball cap. "We were all equal in the army — same shit, same chances. At least we'd have achieved something."

Two of the city's four welcome centers have closed, leaving the homeless situation more difficult. Here as elsewhere, budgets for social aid have melted away, and entire services have vanished. Even the heated parking garage in the city center now closes at night.

"Let's go back to the wagon," another man, Guigui, tells his friend Stéphane. The wagon is where they sleep. It's a small abandoned train car at the end of the railroad tracks that was used as a shelter when Stéphane was a schoolboy here in Valence.

"Me, my parents threw me out of the house," Stéphane says. The crowd around him burst out laughing, even the undocumented immigrants and the old ones lost in their booze. They've heard it all before. It's become a common story to all of them.

"The concept of family has broken apart," says Jean-Luc, a shelter worker in Tournon, just north of Valence. "Kids end up on the street with every reason not to make it: no connections, no jobs, no experience and no qualifications. These young people are let down by social policies. It's as if they were told, "We don't care about you." We need a youth policy big bang."

Defeat and denial

Dusk sets in outside the Oasis jobs and homeless center in Romans, another town near Valence. Small groups of people are smoking in the garden, including a young couple who have been living in a broken-down van in the nearest parking garage. The cook at Oasis seems to them like "the only normal person here," one boy says. As for the other adults, "when we step inside their offices, we have to explain every time why we've fallen to such lows. Then the boss says he's got nothing or just a temporary thing." The girl from the van says it reminds her of school, with "worn out and depressed teachers."

That's when a young man appears. He steps from the train, wearing a thin jacket and black glasses too big for his face. He's got a job and an apartment, but he says he can't find his keys. The others stare at him, trying to size up the stranger.

Actually, Black Glasses has been living on the streets for two years. At first he tried Reims, in eastern France, believing he had uncles there. He found nobody. Then he headed southwest for the Corrèze, President François Hollande's region. "So many politicians come from there, so I told myself there must be something special there." Again, nothing.

So he headed for the Riviera for some sun and later to Paris for job hunting. He's lost nearly everything precious to him, except his cellphone. He's stopped believing he should have a reason for going somewhere. He just hops on any train and hops off when ticket inspectors catch him.

Black Glasses eyes the bowls of soup with hunger. But he rises abruptly, trying not to be vulnerable. "No thanks. No soup for me," he says, choosing to bluff for a little longer. "Good night. I'm going to the hotel."

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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