National Geographic : 2014 May
128 national geographic • may 2014 “Don’t imagine the boat holds just the French,” he adds. “If there is a conflict in Mali or Afghani- stan, we see it here.” The men, some with backpacks, some with only the clothes they wear, are greeted with a handshake and shown their bunks. At 7:45 they sit down for dinner. The day’s menu: green beans, fish, cheese, yogurt, and fruit, served “as you would in your own home,” Casseron says. “I came from Martinique,” says René, who is 58 and wears a gray T-shirt and jeans. In a voice full of wistful sadness, he explains how he lost his most recent job building cabinets for electronics. “They outsourced my work. I lived in my sister’s flat for two months. She threw me out. “Family stories can be complicated,” he adds ruefully. He will not elaborate. There is little conversation at the dining table. The men eat hurriedly, reaching eagerly for a sec- ond, third, and fourth piece of bread. After din- ner three men settle down to a game of Scrabble. Others play cards. René fills his pipe. “During the day I go to exhibitions or the library. But I never give up. You have to be strong. It’s easy to let go. Two beers, a joint. That’s it. You sink.” Patrick Declerck, anthropologist and author of Les Naufragés (The Castaways), estimated the number of homeless in Paris to be between 10,000 and 15,000 in 2001. According to the National Institute of Statistics, the number has increased by 50 percent since then. No one keeps exact statistics; the total could be much higher. Casseron goes to greet a late arrival. “ There are never enough places for everyone,” he says. “The work is rewarding, but I always ask myself if I am doing enough. “ This”—he means the shelter the boat pro- vides—“is a drop of water. Pure. Unpolluted. But just a drop of water in the river that is the Seine.” thou shalt Not water-ski on one of those wilting summer days when heat rises from the asphalt in visible waves, the river outside the office of the chief of the police who patrol 17th-century town hall where she presides, dressed in skinny jeans, a short black jacket, and impossibly high heels. “The Berges cost 40 million euros [$55 mil- lion],” she argues. “Perhaps instead we could have taken care of the 27,000 children unable to attend a crèche or developed public transport. Three- quarters of Parisians ride the Métro, but there’s been no investment in its infrastructure in years.” Doesn’t the new space make life in Paris more pleasant? “Paris is not about pleasure. We need to work.” On the transformed riverbank in front of the Musée d’Orsay, many seem happy to indulge in its pleasures. “We are Parisians but don’t feel like we’re in Paris,” enthuses Bertine Pakap, a beautician who lives in Batignolles, in an outlying arrondisse- ment. She has come for a family reunion. Her daughter Elohina raptly watches two mimes perform, while her mother sits at a picnic table. “Normally we wouldn’t come to a chic neighbor- hood like this,” she says. “It’s almost inaccessible for us. Now it’s more democratic. Also free—we don’t need money to have a good time.” PasseNgers By 6:20 p.m. three men have lined up in front of the gangway leading to the Fleuron St. Jean, a light green barge moored on the city’s outskirts. The men are about to embark on a one-night voyage that will not entail travel—simply a warm meal and comfortable bed. “We call them passengers out of respect,” says Adrien Casseron, manager of the floating homeless shelter funded by the Order of Malta in France and 30 Million Friends Foundation, an animal welfare organization (the men are allowed to bring their dogs). The voyage is an interlude in a life that has stalled in the vise of unemployment and poverty. “In a village if you lose your job, your neighbors help. In a big city you are alone. You lose your job, your family, and you find yourself in the street.