Grenoble, France: Interview with ex-400 Couverts squatters

“Les 400 couverts” was a five houses squatted street in grenoble, france. It was a place i used to enjoy a lot, and i felt like interviewing its squatters in order to make people know about it. When we actually made this interview, they were about to be evicted so it was a bit particular : barricades in the whole street and houses, dozens of people around waiting for the cops to come, but in a relaxed atmosphere and while having daily plans such has building a hut in a tree, learning how to climb on a house, collective readings of the Road Protest movement in the UK. In a pub, xavier and I asked questions to julie and alain, and to aude the day after. The three of them used to live or organize activities in Les 400 couverts. The interview is very long as the discussion was very long and interesting, i already cut large parts, didn’t feel like cutting more. Thanx loads to nico and his friends who helped for the translation. Les 400 Couverts, and another squat that was very close, “La Kanaille”, have been kicked out one week after we made this interview, on august, 2nd, 2005, with at least 250 cops, who needed about 4 hours to evict everyone from the roofs and other places… Then there was a spontaneous demo into town. This was a moving and angry end… but it’s not finished and there are still squats and many plans in grenoble.

NB : In les 400 couverts, more than 30 people used to live and/or organise activities, so these three people only express their own point of views…

elsa : can you introduce the place, its history, describe what The Chapitonom is…

alain : Les 400 couverts is a squat. Those houses are owned by grenoble’s city council and were abandonned, then they have been occupied for about four years by a collective of people : more than 20 people live there, and there are activities. For one month and an half now, this place can be evicted at any time… so the life and activities their have changed.

julie : The story is a bit long… Five years ago, in 2000, a group of people occupied a first squat, it was called CPA. They were kicked out in january 2001. They occupied a new squat, and also named it CPA. We left the place a few months after, following negociations with the city council. Then this group squatted another house, the Sing Sing. Then Les 400 Couverts was the fourth squat opened by this collective. And two years ago, many squats have been opened in the city. So there is a mix between this group that’s been squatting in grenoble for six years and other people who arrived later. Different people, different points of view.

xavier : What are the activities in Les 400 couverts ?

alain : There is the Free zone and the Infoshop, and some times people bring them into town… Some particular distros are hosted there too : a distro against jails, etc. There is also a room for french boxe trainings, self-defense trainings. It’s also been used for dance and theater practices. There’s also a bread oven that’s been built, we used it to bake bread and pizzas, we make pizzas parties, a sort of meal where everyone from the neighborood is welcome, people bring their own ingredients and we bake the pasta. There is also the plants pharmacy. We built some gardens in front of the houses, digged the concrete in order to grow some trees… And some people go sometimes to pick up some plants in the countryside, then they prepair them, so that you can use them as medicines.

julie : there’s a workshop to filter oil…

alain : we recycle it from a restaurant, they make fried chips, and we recycle their oil, we filter it in order to replace diesel in the cars’ engines.

elsa : how many cars use it ?

julie : it’s used by the cars from “les 400 couverts”, 4 or 5 cars… And we give some to people who want to try, and in a certain network : when some people who are used to use some vegetal fuel are travelling and come here, we give them some so that they can go on. It’s a kind of “vegetal fuel relay”.

alain : there has been a photography workshop… actually teses are many activities you can find in many peoples’ home, but here they are collective, some other people have access to them…

julie : a bike workshop…

alain : a vegetables and fruits garden…

elsa : Can you quickly explain what a Free zone and an Infoshop are ?

julie : In a Free zone you can bring everything (clothes, etc.) you don’t need, and take anything from the Free zone… It’s not some kind of trade, as you don’t have to let something if you want to take something. It’s completely free.

alain : … And when we don’t bring this free zone into town, it’s on the Chapitonom’s mezzanine, where there’s also an Infoshop (ndt : in french we actually say “infokiosque”. It’s usually translated into english by “infoshop”, but in french there is no “shop” idea in the word) : it’s a space that’s opened whenever there are activities in the Chapitonom. Before we had to move everything (because of the threat of eviction), there was a library with about 500 books that you could borrow, and some photocopied booklets that you could take and give a donation instead.

julie : and some of the topics you can read about are : anti-capitalism, écology, feminism, class struggle, self-building, blahblablahblah… ideas like this.

elsa : I’ve had this question for years : one big difference between “les 400 couverts” activities and most of the squats i know is that there’s no punk gig. And grenoble is sometimes seen as a city where there’s a lack of punk (which is not actually true). You used to organize punk gigs in the second CPA, why don’t you anymore ?

julie : i think it’s really about what the Chapitonom is. It’s the shows and activities venue in “Les 400 couverts”, it’s been opened about one year after the first squatted house in the street. A collective that’s autonomous from the rest of Les 400 Couverts organises activities there. Off course it has been very diverse during three years, as any collectiev where people arrive and leave… There are some basical principles : the entrance is always “free price” which means you give the amount of money you want or can, so that the money is not a problem if you want to participate to our activities. The bar was selling organic and made by craftsmen beer, fruit juice from the area, it was in a way of questioning some kind of trade : we’d prefer selling some drinks from craftsmens than from the supermarket. And everything was organised by or with the people from the Chapitonom collective. alain : The Chapitonom used to be a barn, when this place was not yet into the city, fifty years ago. So it’s a barn with a big mezzanine and you can’t sound-proof it. In another squat before, we used to have a venue and some people who enjoyed punk sound-proofed it and we made gigs there… and for a few months grenoble was the star city of punkrock… (julie laughs)… with st-étienne, which remains a star city of punkrock… (we laugh)

alain : … and it was a good relay for the punk network, but after a while we gave up. There was no feeling for going on with it. And a few months before we got in here, another squat opened, “Le Crocoleus”, they had the main plan to build a sound-proofed venue where they could organize punk gigs, and they still do.

julie : About punkrock, there are two things… first it’s nearly impossible to soundproof this room. And the people where not motivated to organise punk gigs, or noisy gigs in general.

elsa : some people say (and i say this sometimes) that’s a pity there’s no punk gig in grenoble (there are some actually, and a collective tries to open a squat for punk gigs, even if they’ve been evicted twice since les 400 couverts were evicted, and there’s also an anarcho-punk collective that has a place opened every week)…

alain : There are some, 800 meters from here (Le Crocoleus)

julie : And i could talk for hours about why i wanted to stop organising punk gigs. (elsa : i ask her to explain) After having been organising punk gigs, having been running a venue, i had been disgusted by gigs. I felt very opressed by the atmosphere. I wanted to make it change, but it didn’t. It’s very hard to manage to make these things change. And i didn’t want to have this kind of human relationships. Punk gigs are also…there’s this separation between the audience and the band, the bands become some kind of stars – it also happens in other kinds of shows. And i was so fed up dealing with annoying guys, fights, things like this. I felt like doing something else.

elsa : About Le Chapitnom there’s something else : i think this space is very beautiful, people spent much time doing this, and i have never seen something like this, the atmos there is terrific.

julie : When we built the inside, we started with the idea that the décor and the atmosphere have influence on the people’s behaviour. So we really wanted to think about how to change the décor according to what’s happening inside. That’s why we spent much energy working on the décor.

alain : by example there are some stained-glass windows… i enjoy that.

(Then we talk about the fact they’ve been more or less involved and living in the several squats, about the fact people who organize activities do not always live there, and that it can be a bit hard to share the work between the people, as people who live there most of the time feel more involved and have more “power”in what’s happening)

elsa : maybe we could precise that Les 400 couverts is actually three houses where people live and are autonomous from the other houses + a collective activities place : Le Chapitonom + a general collective that’s gathering everyone from the street. Is that it ?

julie : thats’ it.

alain : and people who don’t live here but organise things in Le Chapitonom do not all participate in the general organisation meetings. That’s make many meetings every months… !

elsa : Can you finish with the lists of activities that took place in Les 400 couverts…

julie : There used to be a computer workshop : computers connected to internet, installed with Linux free equipments. And there were a lot of skills sharing about all of this.

alain : and there was this stained-glass windows workshop in the beginning.

julie : And sometimes some skill-sharing : silk-screening, electricity, plumbing, framework, woodwork,… mosaics.

alain : There were also people questioning the way we discuss. As it’s very important in our practical experience, we have many meetings, and we also organise public discussions about various topics, so how to experiment ways of discussing so that we can share the speeches with equality ? so that everyone can speak ? so that we can express our feelings ? Then some texts were published about this, and some “discussions about discussions” were organised.

julie : And the grenoble Indymedia group used to have their meetings and to use the computers here.

alain : And there used to be for two years the anti-psychiatric activities : gatherings about this, some things to read about, and a practical activity… i mean when your friends go mad or feel very very bad, you don’t know what to do, how to react… and we also know a bit about the laws, how to help people who are locked up in a psychiatric hospital to survive, things like this…

julie : the same for anti-jails activities… many classical topics actually !

elsa : Now tell me about your passion for building. How do you learn to make all of this ? Why is it subversive to build a mezzanine above the street our an outdoor bread oven ?

julie : How did we learn ? we’ve been learning things like this for five or six years now. In the beginning we didn’t know anything, then we learnt while making things, then some people helped and taught us how to do, they shared their skills, and some people here also developped and invented some particular technical skills, and some even work in building jobs.

alain : There are some more or less crazy things that have been built. Some things that can happen to anyone : you get into a house, there’s no water and no electricity, you want to have water and electricity, and you say “we want to do it ourselves, and we want to learn”, and people who know try to make it with the others and to teach them. And we also try to share the skills and tasks between the people, so that it’s not always the same people who do the same things. That’s crazy that most of the time you call a professional to make the electrictity stuff. We just had to learn about the security things and to learn from people who knew, and when it didn’t work we tried again and again and again and then it worked. And there are also crazier things that have been built, like this “pirate tower” on a roof (a place to see the cops arriving and from where it would be very hard to evict people) or the mezzanine (a mezzanine that’s been built above the street, so that big cops truck can’t get into the street easily), and other things like the bread oven…

julie : … mosaic in the public garden…

elsa : You changed a street full of concrete into a kind of garden…

julie : Actually, the “subversive” – as you called it – part of it is linked with questioning urbanism. We’re many people here interested in building things by ourselves. First because we enjoy building things with our own hands and then because, by learning technical things, we learn a kind of autonomy. For me this will to learn buildind skills was very important in Les 400 Couverts because in our daily lives we will always need this. It’s great and it makes you more and more autonomous.

elsa : According to you, what’s the influence of this squat in the city ? How do you have an influence in the city by daily and practical actions ?

alain : By example… we were talking about self building, and i think the way the street and the houses look now is a collective expression, and as we refuse to be controled by some specialists’ skills, we have crazy ideas, and they are expressed in the way the squat looks, and when some people from the city walk here, they see it, it “talks” to them directly, and that’s important.

julie : It’s hard to know how much impact we have in the city. The links between people from Les 400 couverts and the associative scene has been built for 6 years, we have many friends in many different associations. And in the Chapitonom, once or twice a month there were other collectives that came to organize something there. Then we met and organized things together, and then we could become friends and people from these collectives now support us. We also have influence when we bring the distro, the infoshop or the free zone into town, or when we are invited to some public discussions…

alain : We also have influence by the way we express ourselves… We make our own posters, we stick them around the city by ourselves. And sometimes we write texts on them. They can only spread the idea of “free price” as it’s written onto them.

julie : And we also make wall newspapers, in which we express our ideas, especially now with the eviction… That’s funny because i never think about these posters as something that as an impact in the city, whereas it must be one of our activities that has the more important impact, that’s the most seen in the city. We use posters to announce our activities, but also to express ourselves and protest when the repression is stronger than usually, when some squats are evicted.We can say it’s efficient and it frightens the city council as they clean or posters more and more.

[Then we had a short talk about the fact there’s no direct repression on people who stick posters in this city, whereas it’s very hard to stick posters without gettinginto troubles with the cops in some other cities]

xavier : You know the history of these posters started during the French Revolution : posters were stuck around the cities to announce riots or the revolution. Black and white posters. And it was very important during the world warII : black and white posters were the annoucements of an extreme emergency situation. And now we use it when we have things to say, and we forget that’s an heritage from the revolution, from the people. That’s great to keep on doing this even if there are threats from the cops.

elsa : it remains one of the best ways to communicate.

alain : Yes. But actually only people who read french can read them.

julie : We thought a lot about it and actually i think only a few people look at them : not everyone read french, and we have this particular way of talking within our scene, maybe not evryoen understands the way we write and the things we say … But it remains one of the best ways to communicate about our activities. elsa : What kind of links do you have with people from other squats and autonomous spaces or things like this… in france and elsewhere ?

julie : First, thereare other squats in grenoble, and we have intersquat meetings. We talk about emergency situations and how to deal with the evictions, but we also try to have deeper discussions and to develop solidarities between ourselves, talk about resistance to evictions…

alain : we talk a lot about being legal or not…

julie : And in other cities ? It’s mainly about friendship. People from different squats from different cities are friends and this creates links, an informal network. I think some links are created about some particular topics, by example about free computer science, anti-jail movement, anti-pychiatric stuffs, feminism, only women gatherings, self-defense workshops… that gathers people from different places in france about particular topics. And this creates links between people from different places.

alain : And even from the rest of the world. There are by example people linked with People’s Global Action, the AIT (International Workers Association)… There were also intersquat gatherings in the previous squats we had, with people from other squats in france…

elsa : Yes i think that for me and many people who started to squat at this period, these intersquat gatherings were a way to meet people and then we created stronger and stronger links… (I explain to xavier 🙂 These were week-ends when people from various squats could meet and talk about what they were experiencing, how we could organise together, create a network… And the first one was in grenoble. Then there were some others and it stopped.

julie : and i see strong links between different cities. As long as we’ve been seriously threatened to be kicked out, many people from other cities came to live here, and join us and we have many plans together.

alain : There are also a lot of common plans about writing and publishing texts.

julie : Yes there is a lot of things shared between the infoshops.

elsa : Feminism and questionning gender seem to be very important in Les 400 couverts. Does it change the daily life in the place ? Does it influence other places ?

alain : In the first squat that was opened, when people talked about what they wanted, there was the idea of refusing sexism, homophobia and racism. And even before the squat some of the people had already thought about feminism. I think that in our scene we’ve been questioning sexism more than racism. But from the beginning it was part of the will to create nice places to live in, and first of all these oppressions were theoretically excluded. Which doesn’t mean nothing bad happened, but we cared about it.

julie : More precisely about Lescouverts… it’s a big collective and more than half of the people there are girls. And everything came slowly, but some times, girls gathered together and tried to stay among themselves in order to think about some things. And something else is that there have always been a strong care about sharing the daily tasks, as the housework and washing the dishes, which are still traditionally more for women. And then we cared about women to be able to get involved in the “technical buildings” too, we didn’t want it to be made only by men.
There was also something that had a strong influence in the feminist group : “La flibustière”, an only-women squat, had been opened in grenoble, then many women could gather and think together about many topics. They’ve been evicted and then there was a second one. Then there is this group of women, from the squats but not only, who define themselves as feministsand have the will to do things together. I don’t know if we can say it “changed life”, but definitely it changed the daily life as we care about classical domination from men above women, about sharing skills and tasks, that are usually submitted to “gender difference”.
This has not been influenced by Les 400 couverts, it was something general at one moment, linked with the only-women squat. In Les 400 couverts women wanted to think and discuss about gender issues, and men wanted too. Then an only-men squat opened too. So it became a general topic to think about…

alain : There is a self-defined “radical feminist” activity in grenoble, but there is also a “non radical” feminist activity. Some people are not in the squat scene, are in women associations, and when the “radical feminism” goes out from the squat scene and gets together with these people, they work sometimes for the same things, but radical feminists bring another way of thinking and sometimes the other ones are happy with this, they think “oh, we were telling the same thirty years ago and we don’t say this anymore”. So if there were no people from the squats involved in this feminist scene, i have the feeling that the radical voice wouldn’t be expressed. And it also makes all of us meet some people we wouldn’t know without this feminist activity. As men from the squats we meet people we would have never met without the feminist activity.

julie : Yeah these topics, gender, feminism, have taken a lot of importance during the last years, in the way people do things. And there’s also links with lesbians collectives, women collectives, housing rights associations runed by women, etc, in grenoble. And there are some more global gatherings too, women gatherings from different cities. This topic is very important in daily thoughts and actions, for me, but it also had a large influence in Les 400 couverts daily life. And many people tried to change things because they thought it were important.

alain : And i think when you show publicly that there is a way to experience other kinds of relationshipsbetween people, when you show that it’s possible, they can realise it’s possible to change. That’s important.

elsa: What about town planning ? What’s your opinion ? (everyone laughs, flattened by the enormity of the question…)

Julie: Town planning, for me… er… here’s a definition: it is a vision and a construction of urban space made by specialists who, basically, have authority. Of course, with such definition : I don’t like town planning. How about you, what is your definition, Alain?

(he tries to change the subject to vegetarianism, disco music…)

Alain: “De-urbanism” is the opposite of town planning… but it is also the title of a (french-speaking) hand made zine, which is good. And deurbanization can also be what we attempt to accomplish through opposition to the urban planning that we so dislike. It would be destroying the city, the whole idea of the city, in fact. “In facts,” because we do dig holes in the asphalt. And in theory by trying to reflect on the dynamic between the city and the country and on migrations toward the country.

elsa: In leaflets from the 400 couverts we frequently hear about the “housing shortage” (or «crisis») But what is this ? What is the situation in Grenoble?

Julie: well, i want to add two or three things about town planning, then we’ll move on to this …ing housing crisis afterwards! —who are the idiots who write “housing crisis” in the tracts?!?
For example : the city and the buildings are built by some people, for some people. And here, we try to build our own habitat, for ourselves. In other words, the places where you live are way better when you are the one who build them and when you can put whatever you want in them, rather than being constrained by the specialists who build your home so that you can’t do anything about it.

Alain: and it’s the same with the city. We can build our own house, and we can build our own city…..and that’s not what’s happening now. The inhabitants of Grenoble are not in charge of what’s being built around them. So it sucks… (Laughter)

Xavier: I agree with you, when nuclear stuff is built, or research complexes, I don’t think that anyone asks what people think. From the moment that they sign for representatives who nominate town planners… we become mere spectators of the city as it grows.

Julie: … So, for me, the question of town planning is the question of “which city do we want?”. For example, there has been – and there continues to be – quite a bit of thought about nanotechnology : basically, Grenoble is meant to be a sort of Silicon valley, home to nothing but engineers and research centers, and all of that also changes the city in a tangible way. And there’s a link with “the housing shortage”… I didn’t understand this whole story of the “housing shortage” very well, I read the leaflets but sometimes it was a bit obscure for me ! Basically the real estate prices in Grenoble are a total delirium. Very expensive.

Alain: … and it’s the same in every city where a technopole is being put in place, with people with strong purchasing power who are hired as engineers, for whom it is necessary to build residences, because it is unthinkable that these people sleep in hotels, so… since to serve them, we also need cleaning services, people who will throw away their trash, wash up their dishes, etc, and then we need also residences for those people who have less money.

Julie : this is the way that the town managers, who have a human livestock to manage, think about urban planning. For the Ecologists political party, who play a part at the town hall, urban densification is a very important thing… and at the same time that they want to increase the population density of the city, they also want to evict the poorest, to replace them with working poor who hold service-sector jobs, and with the rich. By squatting abandoned places, we are right in the thick of things. We are directly threatened by city hall’s plans.
That’s why we criticize the choices of this city, a city for engineers and executives, and rich science students, and which tends more and more to eliminate the poor from the city center, while “Social housing is being built” in the suburbs, as they say.

elsa: by squatting, you question these politics, but there were also initiatives related a bit to the 400 couverts, to go beyond the question of squats to question “the housing shortage”.

Alain: from the end of 99, there was this idea that the squat could not accomodate people ad infinitum, and inevitably, others squats had to be opened if other people wanted to lodge themselves for free. So from the begining there’s been a will to explain to people how to open their own squat, to collectivise this knowledge as much as possible. And when we squat for free, many people are intrigued and come to see us and may be inspired…

(the minidisc being filled, we stop for this evening and we will continue tomorrow with Aude…)


elsa: Hello Aude. So, tell us about “l’agence occupée” and “Defend toit”, their links to the 400…

Aude: The first link is that there were people who were involved in both projects who came from the 400 couverts. It was all about access to housing, promoting the practice of squatting… “L’agence occupée” is a band of people from the 400 who set up a kind of small stand, with signs, booklets, and other stuff, and who went on campus at the beginning of the year. So they presented themselves as an “alternative real estate agency”, by proposing free residences, and they handed out “the squat from A to Z” (nde: booklet which inventories useful and legal recommendations for squatters, elaborated collectively and updated regularly – see, and some other texts about squats. And it was a way to talk to the students who arrived in Grenoble about the housing problem – everyone has problems to find a home in grenoble, even the rich people ! and it can be very hard for students who arrive in the city.
I was more involved in “Defend-toit”. Last year, we got together with people who do housing-related things in Grenoble… an unemployed people commitee, some people who make a cafeteria for homeless people… At first there were also doctors… Also some women who work with women in precarious situations, who are on the street – there were also squatters, and many other people, a girl from the local social forum… wonderful people… we all gathered together with the aim of putting together a collective dealing with the housing-related struggles, which was called “Defend-toit”. The idea was to really work on autonomy for people about their housing challenges, to set up collective forces to find solutions for any case. This goes from helping someone trying to get subsidized housing (nb : there are a lot of subsidized flats in france, but it’s difficult to get one, especially for the poorest people !), to helping people to open a squat, and having a different approach than that of a social worker (where people help those incapable of doing things) we want to find solutions, according to people’s needs and wills, and together as it makes us stronger. It is very cool, and at the same time very difficult because many different people are involved, people of different ages, some of whom don’t have any militant experience, or who have old, slightly trying militant habits, and so on… It’s a sort of collective lesson in working together. For us, the people from the squats, we learn some other ways to organize and so on… It is very interesting to learn how to diffuse these practices and to also learn from the other people who are there, and who are very different…
We did some cool things, like the occupation of the town hall of a small city, to demand housing for a family of three women that had been evicted. And it was a kind of victory. We did two or three things like that, and we wrote some texts, some technical sheets are being prepared, some people wanted to have hours for the public… basically the idea is to gather a bunch of people who deal with housing issues, but with independent perspectives, who don’t have financial backing, and who mess around a little with institutions and with social workers whose overall methods are fairly worthless… this is really interesting.
Then we can talk about the rent strike, or the auto-reductions. There were massive rent strikes in the seventies in grenoble, like in italy. Entire buildings or neighbourhoods stopped paying their rent… we are interested in this kind of idea. I forgot to mention that there are also some social workers who are in this collective, cool people and open minded, rather angry and fighting within their own jobs. There are different kinds of people, so we have a lot of resources, contacts, information… And there are also some people, out from this collective, who make legal assistance about housing questions, for squatters and for renters. A legal information center was created. People organized themselves, rewrite texts, gather informations… I would find it very interesting to make contacts with people in “more conventional” situations, who are not squatters by choice, just people who can’t pay the rent anymore, and more precisely to extend the practice of resistance to eviction, the rent strike, etc.

elsa: Let’s talk about FRAKA… can you tell me about the influence it had on the 400 couverts, or vice versa.

Aude: It is a long story, because Fraka is way older than the 400 Couverts… Fraka is the “Festival of Resistances and Alternatives to KApitalisme”. It started in the spring of 99. It was some students, some unemployed people, who were a bit militant, or some musicians, libertarians… anticapitalists… who had this idea to have a festival that mobilized a bunch of associations, a bunch of people, to show everything that is done as far as subversive actions, various social topics,… and in the same time, parties… In the beginning in Grenoble, people who participated in this did not come from a squat background at all. They came more from student strikes. There were a few people who had squatted before but didn’t see it as political. Then we invited some squatters from other cities to speak about their practices, about access to housing,… and it was after one of these moments, in March 2000, that we said ” we would really like to do that too after all”. In a way, it was by this festival that we had the desire to do likewise. (then she talks about how the squat “Rhino” in genève impressed and influenced them as it was the first squat they’ve been in and as it was beautiful).
Fraka continued and from the moment that there were squats, Fraka’s events stopped being held mainly at the university, in bars or places like that, and were more frequently held in squats. Little by little we could completely abandon the subsidy system we relied on at the beginning, and became less and less tied to student unions. In two years we came to these practices of freebies, free pricing, self-financing, whereas we hadn’t even imagined that it was possible. So, there was an interaction between the practices of squats and Fraka, learning “how we can do things differently”, outside of the commercial circuit… Now sometimes people want to get out of the squats to organize Fraka events elsewhere, and we realize it is way more difficult (laughter) because in our squats, we have built up a basic infrastructure that makes it possible to do plenty of activities (we have everything to cook, the cart to go recycling…), and you don’t have it in a bar or in a public room you rent.
That’s it. Fraka continued, there was always a mix of different topics, it is one moment when a lot of people gather, and also a lot of people in Grenoble do things for this moment, regarding a topic on which they worked, for example “the Seventies in Italy”, people who worked on criticizing advanced technologies, that was always a kind of catalyst, that gave a kind of deadline for making things public, and I think that it is rather stimulating, even for us, and that also allowed us to meet a lot of people.
It’s funny because the people of the 400 couverts were not necessarily very involved in Fraka. There are some people linving in the 400 who are more or less “activists”. For some of them it was sometimes “too much” to see so many people coming to the 400 couverts during the Fraka festival… But all these reflections and learning, brought together by the Festival, were spread in a relatively relaxed way, some texts were written, and these reflexions were diffused in a much more informal way, and that ends up being the culture of this scene that is assimilated by imitation, and by people becoming specialized in a topic or another…
And as an example of what the festival brought : it really boosted up the “debate on debates”: during the Fraka, there was a public event which was a discussion about modes of discussion, with the publication of a booklet. Many people participated, and then, we totally assimilated it into our communication practices. I could give plenty of examples like that…
One really sweet thing, I think, (primarily done by Fraka, but not exclusively) : it mixed things up each year with new people. Many people who got involved in the festival were new to things like activism, politically libertarian questioning, anti-authoritarian things, anti-capitalism, etc, who arrived at the university or in Grenoble… or who left what they were doing before and it was a kind of a discovery of some reflections and of a scene, and it is important for people who organize the festival to learn the things by doing them. Some people started by investing themselves in Fraka, and then started to squat. And finally it was a connection space with the outside, and gradually you have affinities that are created. And not only integration, it also makes it possible for people to put together autonomous collectives, practices different from us.

(we talk about the fact that at the same time, the same kind of festival emerged in approximately nine other cities in France, and about the attempt to create a network between them, and how it was tied with the building of a squatters’ network, and in the end it mainly created some friends’ networks rather than formal political networks.)

elsa: All that is wonderful, but now you are threatened…

Aude: We’ve been threatened from the beginning! But now it’s stronger. When we opened the 400 couverts, in November 2001, the town hall wanted to evict us…

elsa: assholes !

Aude: assholes. They had a trial at the beginning, and that failed in the middle, then they stopped, we didn’t really understand. After that, they gave us electricity (nde: in Grenoble, even when the squatters want to pay electricity, it’s often refused, whereas in other cities in france you can get and pay for electricity when you’re squatting), perhaps it was politically better for them at this time… The 400 couverts, now, is a totally squatted street. They wanted to demolish the whole block, to make a large residential building to earn a lot of money selling apartments. They needed years to get rid the last owners who lived in the street. Then they’ve been saying for a year and a half that they’re going to start their project, they say in the newspapers that we are nice people and we agree to leave on our own, etc… And then, they had a trial asking for us to be evicted immediately, without delay. And that worked quickly (nb : in france if you’re lucky, and if you choose to “play” the court’s game, you have several months from the beginning of the trial to the day you’re actually evicted by cops), and now they can evict us at any time. So… we are a bit afraid…
Of course, we decided not to leave, because often in the squats, people decide not to leave, to demonstrate what an eviction is, how much violence it represents, and to have a show of force that bothers them, so that they then hesitate to evict others… And as it’s a very famous place in the city which is supported by a lot of different people, there is a kind of base of solidarity and of mobilization which makes it so that we feel strong enough to try to give them as hard a time as we can.
If they evict us, they evict us. We’ve got nothing to lose, but they do, when we resist them. We know that one of the possible outcomes is that we’ll be evicted, and that we will continue our projects elsewhere.
And then, we’ve got a touch of old beliefs in our heads, that when people resist, sometimes it works! That the cops arrive, they can’t lanage to evict squatters, and that re-opens negotiations or I don’t know what…
So, we want to make the eviction visible. As usual : we barricade our doors, they can’t come into the building too easily, so that allows us the time to phone our friends and the media – perhaps – with the idea of doing the same thing as in the occupation of the Mistral park last year in Grenoble (nde : in protest against the building site of a huge stadium that would destroy part of a large park in Grenoble) : people were in the trees for four months, and it was very difficult for them to evict us, the expulsion lasted three days… the occupation of the Mistral park was a very popular movement, we know that these practices could make a big splash with the population… Well, we set up camp on the squats’ roofs for them to try to climb up there, so that they have trouble evicting us… and making it known allows us spreading ideas about the housing crisis, about autonomous cultural centers.

elsa: so now you’re waiting… Aude: many people in the 400 think there is something strong regarding this finale, we wanted to build it up like a real project, and not just like the end of the 400 couverts, where we waste away for months waiting for the cops in our empty houses… We’d rather think that there’s not only the spectacular side of eviction, but that the months of waiting were an experiment : how can we build something out of these last days of collective life, activities, to transform it into a collective learning experience, a kind of “summer action camp”. Many people from the city or from other cities came… I find that brilliant, but not everyone enjoys it.
I’ve got the impression that we’re learning a lot of things, a bit like any fight or more intense mobilization : in retrospect, you can say that it was a great learning experience, because you got out of the status quo…
This time forms really strong bonds between people, it brings people together, it forms connections with a lot of other people who didn’t know anything about the 400 couverts, and because there is a lot of hubub about it, suddently, they come…we have to explain everything all over again…
First we had a panic time, two months ago, and now we realize that it’s still possible to live together, to fight together, while not all of us have the same priorities, the same approaches, the same rhythms. It’s more about internal things, but it’s wonderful too.
There is an another positive thing, that is that the 400 couverts became a very important place in the city because it concentrated a lot of people, it’s a big place, with a lot of tools and materials, etc… Now the fact that this place is closing will make it possible to create new other things, being free from this rather old and main space’s reference. It’s not like the eviction corresponded with a time when people are tired, are sick of it, or can’t start anything else afterwards.
There are a lot of different groups who have either opened, or have plans to open, new things are happening, or that are planed…

(Then we talk about how such a place can take a lot of space in a kind of “virtual space” when it’s threatened of eviction : i mean they spread so much informations about them (via indymedia’s website, websites and weblists, and many activists’ web tools, etc) that you could think they were the only fighting squat in france, that you could think the whole french activist scene was focused on les 400 couverts… That upseted a bit some people, like me… But she explains that it was only a few people from les 400 couverts, or their friends, spreading all of these news, and that they also really needed to give news during this period, even if they couldn’t control everything, every news sent… they were aware it could also create a kind of myth around a place, and that it’s difficult to manage this, as some people from the squat care and some others don’t)

elsa: can we talk about future plans, what comes next, personal projects, collective ones, for post-400?

Aude: Overall, it’s a bit hard to project ahead with other plans when you are busy defending your position with your squat, and when it takes a lot of time in your life. There are a lot of people in the 400, and that’s clear that we can’t do everything all together anymore. Some people talk about opening a new place to live in and also for public activities, others about opening places without activities, squatting a flat, travelling, or renting something to settle somewhere for a while. For example I am with some people who are looking for a house in the countryside, but not too far from Grenoble : to extend what we are doing by bringing these practices into the countryside.
Some people are a bit frightened of the future of the “squat scene”, maybe there will be more divisions between people who are “more radical”, in more libertarian and political practices, and others which are regarded as “soc’ -dém” (“social democrats”), more into “art” and so on. But i think we can still have common fights and activities, not divide ourselves because of identity questions which would weaken us. It is unclear and complicated. I think that nobody is leaving the 400 disgusted, with the desire to return to a conventional life, etc… but it’s not just a question of desire, but also of money… it would be really difficult : it’s much more easier in this town to squat than to find an owner who wants to rent you a flat! Inevitably a lot of things will happen. There will be a lot of surprises! (laughter)

elsa : And we’re gonna have fun !

Aude: And we’re gonna have fun… And some new people want to squat and do things… !

elsa: have you got one or two sentences – not more! – that would explain “how this experiment is a breach in the system you hate?” It is the bonus question!

Aude: (embarassed laugh) oh dear ! … It is a breach in the system I hate because there are some people that we really drive nuts, and that’s cool for us (ha ha) – to see how much we bother them.

elsa: The town hall, etc…?

Aude: yeah! Owners and others, I believe that they really are bothered ! And that it is a breach. And it is a breach also because we enjoy ourselves trying to get autonomy, we feel more freedom in what we do daily, etc… so we really want to continue. It is not only a breach that lasts a moment where we open a squat and do freer, more subversive, and disruptive things, etc, but it’s also very motivating. It gives us the desire to continue and push the envelope.
Contacts for the squats in Grenoble :
grrrville [at] squat [dot] net
You can find some recordings of “Dégenrée”, a feminist radio show in Grenoble.