PARIS -- Having a decent home should be a legal right like healthcare and education, the French government said yesterday, after a lobby group forced the issue of homelessness to the top of the agenda.
The plight of the homeless has become a campaign issue ahead of this year's presidential election after a group calling itself "The Children of Don Quixote" set up tents in Paris to draw attention to people sleeping outside.
The issue has dominated the news and forced politicians from all main parties to promise more help for those without a roof over their heads.
"It will be possible to implement the legal right to housing from the end of 2008 for people in the most difficult situations, notably the homeless but also poor workers and isolated women with children," Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin of France told a news conference.
The right would be extended to other people, such as those in inadequate public housing, in 2012, Villepin said.
A draft law, which would enable those without decent housing to seek legal redress, should be passed by parliament before the end of February, a source close to Villepin said.
About 86,500 people are homeless in France, according to official figures from 2001.
Aid groups say more than 3 million people have serious housing problems -- living on the street, in shabby hotels, caravans, or in flats without bathrooms or heating.
"The Children of Don Quixote" initiated the current debate when it set up dozens of red tents along Paris's
Canal Saint Martin last month, calling on Parisians to sleep out in the cold in solidarity.
The government has already promised more money and longer opening hours for shelters, but the Don Quixote group has said that is not enough, calling on authorities to open shelters 24 hours a day throughout the year and to build more public housing.
"All this is heading in the right direction," Don Quixote's president, Jean-Baptiste Legrand, said after the government's announcement yesterday.
"We have won part of the battle, but everything will depend on how quickly these measures are implemented," he said, adding that the tents it had set up would be moved if the measures were implemented quickly.
Highlighting the intensity of the debate, President Jacques Chirac referred to the issue in his New Year's address, saying the right to housing had to become a reality.
The two main candidates for the presidential vote have also entered the fray.
Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, the conservative candidate, has vowed that no homeless person would have to sleep outside within two years of his taking office.
The Socialists' Segolene Royal has called for a "vast plan to fight against economic insecurity".
Surveys indicate Sarkozy and Royal equally matched ahead of the two-round election in April and May.
Villepin also received a report yesterday from Xavier Emmanuelli, founder of the Samu Social support group for the homeless, on a law enshrining the right to housing.
Writing "this fundamental reform into law . . . will put the right to housing on one level with the right to medical care or education," Emmanuelli told Liberation daily, saying that implementing such a law would take years.