The fire in Vaulx-en-Velin: a tragedy and a warning

Lutte Ouvrière workplace newsletter
December 19, 2022

People jumped out of the building to escape the flames and ten people, including four children, were killed: the dramatic fire in Vaulx-en-Velin was not just an accident due to bad luck.

This apartment block is in one of the poorest neighborhoods of the Lyon suburbs. It lacked proper maintenance; its common areas had been transformed into a dump; the emergency accesses were sealed and its entrance hall was used as a sales point for drug dealers.

Such a tragedy could happen in hundreds of neighborhoods transformed into ghettos of poverty. Mass unemployment, the misery it generates and the lack of prospects for young people are leading to the degradation of all social life. Buildings fall into disrepair. Illegal dealings start to spread. Public transport becomes scarce. Schools lack the staff and resources to accommodate children with greater needs than elsewhere. Doctors no longer practice there and post offices are closed.

Low salaries, low pensions and job insecurity prevent those who are relegated to these areas from finding housing elsewhere. Those who borrowed money to buy their apartment are trapped, unable to pay for renovations or to resell their property. And many, because they are immigrants, are rejected from other neighborhoods.

The tragedy triggered a wave of mutual aid within hours. This momentum shows that solidarity within the working classes is not an empty word. Despite the reactionaries who portray working-class neighborhoods as a jungle, this mutual aid between neighbors or within families is permanent. It is the only way to cope with the degraded living conditions, the cost of living difficulties and the collapse of public services.

Such solidarity cannot be expected from the politicians in power. No less than two ministers, the President of the Region, the representative of the constituency and many others came to the foot of the building. This parade of elected officials is despicable because they shed crocodile tears over the fate of a neighborhood that all their past and present policies have transformed into a ghetto.

The Minister of Housing Olivier Klein praised "the investments made for urban renewal". Tens of billions of euros have been spent on urban renewal by successive governments. This public money has enriched myriad construction companies for often questionable renovations. It has sometimes been used to drive the poor out to even more distant areas following the replacement of social housing by condominiums.

In reality, ever since the early days of capitalism, a significant fraction of workers has struggled to find decent housing. The cause is simple: employers refuse to pay sufficient wages for decent housing and successive urban policies have not made up for it.

Even when working-class municipalities do renovate housing they are caught in a stranglehold because the state prefers to offer hundreds of billions to the bourgeoisie. Many municipalities can no longer finance day-care centers; many are restricting the opening hours of libraries; many have had to close swimming pools and municipal halls this winter because of the price of energy. These restrictions leave young people on the street where they fall prey to gangs.

Cultivating his “die hard” posture, Darmanin claims the number of police officers has increased in Vaulx-en-Velin. Delinquency certainly makes life hell. But neither the increase in the number of police officers, especially if they behave as if in enemy territory, nor the arming of municipal police officers will stop the rise of violence, whose causes are primarily social.

To change their fate, the exploited can only count on themselves. Faced with bosses who exploit their labor, with governments who attack their conditions of existence, with contemptuous landlords and even dealers, workers constitute a force capable of acting on their own behalf and of solving many problems.

This force, once embodied by the Socialist and Communist parties the workers had built, must be reconstructed, both in workplaces and in working-class neighborhoods. The challenge is not just to avoid new fatal tragedies. It is to overthrow this unbearable social order in which the fortune of a handful of fat cats relies on the perpetual misery of those who produce everything.

Nathalie Arthaud