The law versus the city

Athens in the Age of Crisis

Vasiliki MAKRYGIANNI et Charalampos TSAVDAROGLOU, 2016

Collection Passerelle

Since Henri Lefebvre published his book Le droit à la ville in 1968, it has been a source of inspiration for many social movements. As a starting point for many urban movements, it contributed to a wave of resistance and destabilization of sovereignty in many parts of the Western world during the turbulent decades of the 1960s and 1970s. However, many forms of sovereignty used their revolutionary and innovative rhetoric to try to root radical contexts in their political agendas. In this sense, one Greek political party, under the name of « Right to the City », adopted aspects of Lefebvrian rhetoric to confirm its political agenda and win the Athens municipal elections in 2010.

The right to the city between Marxism and sovereignty

This article seeks to confront two antinomic approaches to the right to the city. On the one hand, we will explore the notion founded by Lefebvre in the 1960s and, on the other hand, we will unveil the reappropriation of this notion by the mayor of Athens, George Kaminis. The first approach reflects the efforts to introduce Marxian thought into the study of space in order to contribute to the emergence of emancipatory movements, and the second is an example of the contextual distortion in order to seize power and promote neo-liberal policies.

Unfortunately, we will never be able to organize a debate between Lefebvre and Kamanis. However, showing new interpretations of Lefebvre’s analysis does not just serve to highlight the contexts stolen from sovereignty.

We show that this is not only a great opportunity to explore once again and rethink Lefebvre’s writings in the 1960s, but also a motivation to question and think further and challenge the contemporary contexts of urban revolts and riots.

The right to the city and the Lefebvrian approach

In the late 1960s, Henri Lefebvre wrote his famous book Le droit à la ville. The book was published on the hundredth anniversary of the publication of Marx’s book, The Capital, and just before the revolutionary events in Paris, Prague, and many other cities in Europe and the United States. The right to the city was influenced by radical academics and social movements. One of the basic theses and starting point for Lefebvre (1996/1968 : 109) was that: «  The city is a projection of society on the ground that is not only perceived and conceived by thought […] The city is the place of conflicts and conflictual relations, the city is the place of desire and the place of revolutions ".

Lefebvre uses Marxian thought to understand urban space. Lefebvre’s most important contribution to this subject is his identification of space and the city as the result of class antagonisms. He demonstrated the trialectical character of space as being conceived, perceived and experienced. Moreover, he focused on the right to belong to and determine the destiny of the urban space that city dwellers create. He insisted on the right of peoples not to be alienated from their daily living spaces. He states that «  the right to the city is a higher form of right : the right to freedom, to individualization in socialization, to habitat and to live. The right to work, participation and appropriation (very different from the right to property), are implicit in the right to the city ". (Lefebvre, 1996/1968 : 173-174).

In this context, Lefebvre aims not only to understand the city but also to find all the forces to change it. According to Stavrides (2007 : 8) : «  Lefebvre, like so many other scholars and artists of the inter-war period and the mythical 1960s, found in the city not only horror but also hope, not only order but also disorder, not only the reproduction of principles of domination but also challenges, not only the normalization of routine but also the delight of liberation ".

However, Lefebvre’s concept of the right to the city defies the very notion of the citizen. Since his thinking is based on the social production of space, he focuses on « everyday life ». In this context, citizenship is not defined by belonging to the nation-state but by belonging to a habitat. Purcell (2003 : 577) notes that «  those who carry out their daily routines in the city, both in living there and in creating places, are those who possess the legitimate right to the city ". (Lefebvre, 1991/1974).

Thus, in recent decades, many social movements and individuals around the world have rejected neo-liberal policies. Abahlali baseMjondolo in South Africa, «  Right to the City Alliance » in New York, the «  Movimiento Urbano Popular » in Mexico in the 1970s and the «  Other Campaign ", or the owners of «  nail house  » in China to name but a few, are fighting deadly state policies, racist policies, rebelling against evictions, demanding public housing and resisting displacement and gentrification. Although not all are aware of Lefebvre’s work, they share common perspectives on their place in the city and their right to shape public space.

The right to the city and the sovereignist approach in Athens

At the dawn of the socio-economic crisis in 2010, a new party called Right to the City appears in the Athenian political arena. Led by George Kaminis, a former ombudsman 1, the party won the Athens municipal elections.

The Right to the City party manifesto focuses on citizens, public space (cleanliness and safety), private property, social services, green development and innovative entrepreneurship. In this perspective, Kaminis (2010a : 5) considers the city to be «  a collective work created by its inhabitants, visitors and everyone who lives and works in the city and creates its current wealth ".

Furthermore, Kaminis (2010b) adds : «  I refer to our common perception that life in the city means a conglomeration of rights. Rights are nowadays under attack from all sides. The right to mobility in public space without limitation of space or time, the right to work, private property, the freedom to create. For all of us, « asking for the city » means claiming our right to the city. All rights for all human beings. We want and demand a civilized city, open to its citizens and to the world ".

Reading Kamini’s manifesto in detail, we encountered many contradictions. First of all, the repeated reference to the «  collective work  » that forms the city is an indicator of the gap between the form and content of Kaminis’ rhetoric. In this context, Kaminis himself presented himself as «  a citizen for citizens ". (Kaminis, 2010a : 2). He said this in order to reach potential voters and to strengthen the party’s pluralistic profile. His understanding of the notion of citizenry itself contains inconsistencies and contradictions. Although he refers to citizens, inhabitants, workers and students in general, he clearly distinguishes between natives and newcomers. Thus, in his political manifesto, he emphasizes that young couples or students must live in the city centre and change its nature, not only because of their economic status but also because they are considered members of the « creative class » of the city. Kaminis therefore adopted the government’s language of « preferred citizens, » a creative class that could inhabit the recently gentrified downtown areas.

On the other hand, Lefebvre (1996/1968 : 170) states that: «  The right to the city, accompanied by the right to be different […], makes concrete and more practical the rights of citizens as city dwellers […] and users of many services. It therefore affirms on the one hand the right of users to make known their ideas about the space and time of their activities in the urban space; this also covers the right to use the centre,. […] instead of being scattered and stuck in guettos (for workers, migrants, the « marginalized » and even the privileged) ".

Going against Lefebvre’s approach, Kaminis’ manifesto takes up the analysis of the ghettoization of the city centre and introduces the concept of security, urban development and entrepreneurship as a solution. It is thus in line with the process of gentrification which seems to be the salvation from the so-called «  decay of the city ".

It is interesting to see how the relationship between the city and the rest of the world is interpreted. The relationship with the outside world is seen through the prism of the tourism industry. Lebvrian internationalism is overtaken by the universal city industry. Athens is seen as the « face of the country » and therefore a first-class tourist destination. Kaminis is thus embarking on a city lifting strategy, including large and small-scale projects to promote the city as a ready-made product. Kaminis’s city-goodness reflects the absolute subversion of the Lefebvrian city. The keywords of the manifesto under the title « urban development » are entrepreneurship, city identity and tourism (Kaminis, 2010a : 7). This constitutes an explicit contradiction to Lefebvre’s critique of the deification of the city’s image and its transformation into a consumer good.

Moreover, the right to city development, in other words, the right to a tourist city, is directly linked to entrepreneurship, and for this reason Kaminis has announced measures against excessive bureaucracy. In the context of the first Greek memorandum 2, the exceeding of possible deadlines to facilitate investment or entrepreneurship is directly connected to new investment laws, so-called acceleration laws, a governmental tool invented to overcome any legal difficulties or oppositions regarding private investments.

By deconstructing Kaminis’ manifesto, the radical intentions that were very ostensible are definitively buried. The patchwork of rights, from private property to public space, with strong indications of neo-liberal policies and governance, leaves no room for doubt : there is no link between Kaminis and the right to the city of Lefebvre.

Law versus the city as a sovereignist practice

The Athenian urban space is deeply marked by the policies of the municipal authority. These policies made it easier, and even started, the segregation between the old and the new inhabitants, who did not fit into the imaginary of the ideal city of Kaminis.

As Kaminis (2010c) states in an interview, «  Greece is a country in which you cannot suddenly gather 5000 people and take them to three concentration camps. It is practically not possible and it does not go with the fundamental principles of coexistence of a coordinated community ".

However, since 2010, hundreds of police operations have taken place in Athens. According to the statistics of the Ministry of Public Order and Citizen Protection (2013), during seven months (from August 2012 to February 2013) 77,526 migrants were persecuted, in most cases beaten, deported, arrested or ill-treated.

At the same time, several concentration camps, called « hospitality centres » by the authorities, were set up, particularly in the outskirts near Athens. It is often thought that migrants come from the outside world as if they had no current ties, references or rights in the city where they live. The Kaminis government explicitly targeted migrants from the beginning of its mandate. According to him, (Kaminis, 2011) : «  Our migration policy must aim at social inclusion, managing illegal immigration and all illegal migrants living in our country. This population should be known and counted. All illegal migrants should return to their countries of origin ".

Using the «  illegal trade  » as a pretext, Kaminis separates the original populations from the newcomers. Newcomers are used as scapegoats for the recent crisis and are blamed for the collapse of the commercial sector (Kaminis, 2010c; 2011). In 2011, the attitude of municipal authorities towards the largest hunger strike in Greece is revealing. As 300 migrants go on hunger strike in Athens and Thessaloniki to demand legislation for all migrants in Greece, Kaminis turns a deaf ear and refuses to give them accommodation during the strike and shifts the blame to the government. Shortly afterwards, the municipality violently attacked the migrants by notifying them of their expulsion from the city on the pretext that they were not citizens. This large-scale pogrom involving Nazi, racist groups, the national and municipal police (Vradis, 2012) resulted in several victims, including Sheikh Ndiaye, an African street vendor who was killed by a municipal police officer in February 2013 after a full-scale manhunt .

The peak of this police brutality occurred in December 2011 when a raid took place in the downtown area. Many sex workers, mostly migrant women, were arrested and imprisoned for about a year. They were accused of being HIV-positive and of «  transmitting diseases to Greek families ". (Loverdos, 2012) by the Ministry of Health. A few days later, Kaminis signed a protocol of cooperation with the Ministry on measures for the implementation of the daily life of citizens and the assurance of better living conditions.

However, in 2011, many groups and individuals openly expressed their clear rejection of the austerity measures. Their spaces of reference have constantly been targeted from different aspects of sovereignty, including the municipality. In recent years, there have been numerous evictions of squats, occupied buildings and social centres in Athens. The eviction of these places shows the effort undertaken to break and exclude certain people and ideas from the city in order to produce a sanitized city. As Kaminis (2011a) says, «  the decay of the city centre is due to two things : illegal trade and demonstrations ". The culmination of this urban conflict takes place with the expulsion from Syntagma Square occupied by the Indignant. On 29 June 2011, this square was the scene of a major riot. In the days that followed, the mayor (Kaminis, 2011b) declared : «  It is inconceivable that those who call themselves Indignant think they can occupy the centre or any other square in Athens. The square must be clean, open and available to all citizens and inhabitants of the city without exception or discrimination. This is valid for all squares in the city, in particular for Syntagma ".

In the same vein, in March 2016, Kaminis invited «  everyone to cooperate in cleaning the city from defilement and degradation ". He referred to the removal of graffiti from the city walls and the «  continuous struggle we would like all residents and active citizen groups to engage in. We want to be the guardians of the public space. » (Kaminis, 2016).

Exclusionary policies go hand in hand with some inclusive practices. The discourse of the municipality reflects the domination of capital over the space of the city and promotes a specific and restrictive typology of rights. The production of the desired space derives from the exclusion of the «  speakers  » and the concomitant inclusion of the «  desired  » population. The production of city space according to Kaminis’ « rights » and principles is in direct opposition to Lefebvre’s suggestions. In the case of Kaminis, the collective work of the inhabitants alludes to the creation of a pleasant setting to welcome tourists and investors. In this context, he creates new spatialities by taking as a key principle not only major projects but also small-scale interventions in daily life. The makers of the contemporary city have become familiar with tools such as «  daily life  » introduced by Lefebvre (1991/1947), but they use them to insert the city into the market and transform it into a tourist and antagonistic place. However, it is under the pretext of revolutionary ideas that sovereignty plays the game of contemporary neo-liberal policies. However, citizens and social movements are fighting against these practices of recuperation, creating breaches in these power structures and forming spaces of resistance and emancipation in the heart of the city.

1 N.D.L.T : This is the Greek equivalent of the Mediator of the Republic.

2 The first economic adjustment programme for Greece signed in May 2010 between the Greek government, the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the European International Fund was introduced as a financial assistance to the Greek state in order for the government to cope with the debt crisis. For more information


  • BANG SHIN, H. (2013), The Right to the City and Critical Reflections on China’s Property Rights Activism. Antipode 45(5) : 1167–1189.

  • HARVEY, D. (2008), The Right to the City, New Left Review 53.

  • KAMINIS, G. (2010a), The Right To The City : 9 Priorities for Athens, Athens : Manifesto of Campaign Trail

  • KAMINIS, G. (2010b), The Right To The City : the list of candidates [in Greek, accessed 2016-04-15].

  • KAMINIS, G. (2010c), Interview in Lifo, 13/10/2010. [in Greek, accessed 2016-04-15].

  • KAMINIS, G. (2011a), Speech in environmental committee of the Greek Parliament (15/03/2011) [in Greek, accessed 2016-04-15].

  • KAMINIS, G. (2011b), The cleaning of Syntagma-Parliament square, Revue de presse 01/08/2011. [in Greek, accessed 2016-04-15].

  • KAMINIS, G. (2016), Speech in front of Kerameikos ancient cemetery in Athens 22/03/2016 [in Greek, accessed 2016-04-15].

  • LEFEBVRE, H. (1991/1947), Critique of everyday life. Verso, London.

  • LEFEBVRE, H. (1996/1968), Writings on Cities. Blackwell, Oxford.

  • LEFEBVRE, H. (1991/1974), The Production of Space. Blackwell, Oxford.

  • LOVERDOS, A. (2012), Checks on all brothels. Newspaper To BHMA 30.4.2012 [in Greek, accessed 2016-04-15].

  • MARCUSE, P. (2010), Rights in Cities and the Right to the City? In SUGRANYES, A. and C. MATHIVET, Cities for All : Proposals and Experiences towards the Right to the City, Habitat International Coalition (HIC), Santiago.

  • MINISTRY OF PUBLIC ORDER AND CITIZEN PROTECTION, (2013), Valuation of the police operation « Xenios Zeus ». Athens 06.02.2013 [in Greek, accessed 2016-04-15].

  • VRADIS, A. (2012), The Right against the city. Antipode Foundation.

To go further

Lien vers le numéro de la revue Passerelle