Jacques Chirac, the French president, used his New Year's address to promise swift government action on a "right to housing" - a key demand of protesters who have mounted a headline-grabbing campaign in support of France's estimated 100,000 homeless.
 
Enforceable
 
Villepin said the government wanted the right to become legally enforceable by 2008 for "people in the most difficult situations: the homeless, but also the working poor and single women with children".
 
"That is the time necessary to ensure that all the people concerned can be provided with decent lodgings, whether in a transitional shelter or an individual home," he said.
 
By 2012, the government wants the right to housing to be legally enforceable for all, with a guarantee provided by the state, or in some cases regional or local authorities.
 
From that point onwards, "every person or family housed in unworthy or unsanitary conditions" will able to take legal action to have their rights enforced, he said.
 
Political issue
 
Four months before the presidential elections, with the homeless issue thrust centre-stage, the housing measure was seen as a bid by the centre-right to underscore its commitment to social justice.
 
The protest wave began last month when a small group of campaigners - called Les Enfants de Don Quichotte (The Children of Don Quixote) - pitched a 200-strong tent camp along a trendy Paris canal, housing homeless people as well as well-heeled citizens prepared to sleep rough for a few days out of solidarity.
 
Makeshift camps have since sprung up all over France, including in the Mediterranean port of Marseille, the historic town of Orleans, and the southern cities of Lyon and Toulouse.
 
On Tuesday a group of eight struggling families, backed by campaigners, moved into a vacant office block near the Paris stock exchange, a giant squat thay have dubbed a "ministry" for the homeless and ill-housed.