Paris opts for la mixite sociale

Observations on council flats on Champs Elysees

The estate agent in the Avenue de Suffren at the foot of the Eiffel Tower adjusted his navy blue Pierre Cardin jacket and described the district in which he works. "There are a lot of lawyers and professional people," he said in clipped, precise French. "We also get managing directors and then, of course, there are the people who own their own businesses. They are very common around here."

Soon, however, a new type of resident will be moving into the elegant seventh arrondissement in central Paris. A 7,000 square metre sports field opposite a four-star hotel in the rue de la Federation on the bank of the Seine has just been sold for a housing development that will include 120 council flats.

This is the equivalent of putting new council houses in Chelsea or Mayfair. The mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoe, wants to prevent what his aides call la Londonisation. "I don't want Paris to look like London, with a very wealthy population on one side and a very poor population on the other," said Jean-Yves Mano, the councillor in charge of housing policy. "It is the social balance that makes Paris what it is."

Delanoe has pledged to create 5,000 council flats a year - not in the three poor arrondissements in the north and east of Paris that already contain 70 per cent of the city's municipal housing, but in the wealthy districts of the west and south.

The authorities have bought land or existing buildings in the 16th arrondissement, which generally attracts embassies and celebrities, and the eighth arrondissement, which covers the Champs Elysees and the Arc de Triomphe, as well as in "les beaux quartiers" of the seventh arron-dissement. This will, at least in theory, bring the likes of Muhammad Amrouche - an unemployed Algerian immigrant with a wife and three children - into a district where a three-bedroomed flat is on sale for E1.15m, where the newsagent has a E686 Mont Blanc pen in the window and where the butcher sells a chicken filet for E14.95 a kilo.

Amrouche fled to France after his brother was shot by the army in his native Kabylia region of northern Algeria. "I applied for asylum and I have just got my official papers from the French state," he said as he queued outside a soup kitchen in the south of the city. "Now we can try to get a council flat. I will be putting in an application next week."

"Mon dieu," said a middle-aged woman in a bright red coat who works in an antique book shop on the rue de la Federation. "This is terrible news. Just the other day, a foreigner stole the mobile telephone from under my nose when I left it on my desk in the office. Now we're going to get even more people like that." How did she know the culprit was foreign? "All the thieves are foreign around here," she said in a gravelly voice as she inhaled a cigarette on the pavement. "Most of them are Romanian, and a few are North African. I'm sure crime is going to increase if they go ahead and put council flats in the road."

Catherine, who lives in a marble-halled residence at the bottom of rue de la Federation, took a more charitable view: "I think it is a good idea to put a small number of council flats in this sort of district. The people who live there will be elevated by those around them."

Housing officials insist the new council blocks are unlikely to become homes to social deprivation. "We will make a lot of the flats available to the middle and lower middle classes, who could not otherwise afford to stay in the city," said a spokesperson for the Paris Social Housing Office. "We want them to go to nurses, teachers, town-hall civil servants, supermarket checkout workers and all the other people who keep the city alive. Obviously, a proportion of the flats will go to those in urgent need of housing - such as families with no roof over their heads. But not all of them."

Many towns around Paris have been deserted by the middle classes, leaving behind largely immigrant populations. But Paris itself has maintained la mixite sociale. The city's rulers seem determined to keep it that way.

This article first appeared in the 24 January 2005 issue of the New Statesman, 1 in 5 Britons could vote far right