PARIS — The building that houses Foyer Bisson is on a side street, off an avenue crowded with Asian and couscous restaurants and a handful of trendy bars. The exterior is nondescript and indistinguishable from its neighbors. Inside, though, it’s another world.
Instead of the mailboxes found in most residential entryways, visitors will find a small bazaar, with men selling single candies and cigarettes, peanuts in the shell, eggs and whole chickens. Just past the makeshift market, a short staircase leads down to a prayer room and, in the next room, a small recording studio. This is the headquarters of Radio des Foyers, an ambitious radio project that offers an inside perspective into the lives of foyer residents and of other immigrants who live at the margins of French society.
During a live broadcast this past winter, three producers debuted audio documentaries and took questions from several dozen people in the audience. Across a small cement courtyard, people gathered in a common kitchen to cook. In the rest of the foyer — a type of communal residence to house migrant workers — people came and went, going about their daily lives. There was a familial feeling in the room as friends and strangers shared food, listened to radio and explored tough questions about multiculturalism in contemporary France.
Foyers, originally constructed at the end of the 1950s across France to house migrant Algerian workers, occupy an important but often almost invisible space in the country’s cities and suburbs. Typically located on the periphery of urban centers or in surrounding working-class suburbs, they feature simple rooms for sleeping and, most often, shared bathrooms, kitchens and living areas. The residences are closer to hotels than rental apartments, with no long-term contract and rent paid on a monthly basis.
Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, foyers also drew residents from other former French colonies in Africa. Though the construction of residences built expressly for foreign workers ended in the 1980s, the communal living spaces are still a lifeline for many immigrants arriving in France. According to the Ministry of the Interior, the number of immigrant workers currently living in foyers, now also called “résidences sociales,” is roughly 90,000.