In France, a law exists that is meant to discourage landowners from leaving property vacant for long periods of time. This law offers protection to “squatters”: people who unlawfully enter a residence or building and set up house.
After 48 hours in residence, squatters are afforded legal rights: they cannot be legally evicted without a court process, which often takes a very long time. Sometimes this law is exploited by those looking for free rent, but mostly it is employed by activists and artists as a way to reclaim property that is going to waste.
In particular, the law is targeted at land speculators: investors and corporations who purchase a piece of property and simply let it sit there, abandoned, as they wait for economic and political conditions to improve, thereby increasing the value of their purchase. In the meantime, they often lobby local governments and officials in order to create a more profitable climate.
This is exactly what is happening with the former home of James Baldwin in St. Paul de Vence. Not only have the land speculators who own the property been letting it deteriorate for seven years, they have also destroyed two wings of the house, including the one that contained Baldwin’s study and living quarters. This demolition was conducted under suspicious circumstances: the house and its ten acres are located within the two-kilometer historic protection perimeter that surrounds the medieval walled village just up the hill. Furthermore, the building plans—which call for eighteen luxury condos, a parking garage, and a swimming pool—are grossly incongruous with the charming historic nature of St Paul de Vence.
On June 21, 2016, our staff organizer Shannon Cain, in a show of individual artist-activism, illegally occupied the house. After 48 hours, she established squatters’ rights: she was legally entitled to claim the place as her residence.
After a week of occupancy, the owners discovered her there and called the police. She refused to leave the property, citing her rights under the “loi squatteur,” and for two days the developer respected her right to leave the house and come back as she pleased. They posted round-the-clock security guards and an attack dog, ostensibly to prevent other squatters from joining her, but more clearly as an intimidation tactic. On the ninth day of her squat they illegally evicted her by removing her possessions: bedding, clothes, food, and water. Then they bricked up the front door of the house.
While the best case scenario for the squat—indefinite residence and eventual improvement, as is very often the outcome in artist squats—didn’t come to pass, the action brought much-needed attention in the French media (click here to listen to a seven-minute radio story that aired June 30 on France Culture, the most popular arts station in France) to the plight of this property, shining a light on an injustice that most people had simply accepted as another example of Black history being bulldozed. This new attention gives His Place in Provence an additional measure of power and influence as we continue our work to petition the Ministry of Culture and concurrently negotiate with the developer to purchase this historic property. Two days after the end of the squat, we received a message from the owner telling us they’re ready to sell. This in comparison to our attempt to contact them nearly a month ago to open negotiations, which was ignored.
His Place in Provence embraces strategies that are both mainstream and otherwise. We are dogged in our commitment to pursue all methods necessary to rescue this house and convert it into a place for the arts.