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international bordercamp strasbourg

The Sans Papiers movement

a climax in the history of French immigration [part 1]

this item is available in: [en]

22.May.02 - the text below describes the continous struggles of migrants struggles in modern france. it was written for the booklet 'without papers in europe' that was published by no one is illegal in 1999. because of its lenght the text is split in five parts. this is part 1

"Man's only dignity is in the stubborn revolt against his situation"
Albert Camus

"Glowing embers are only felt when you walk on them"
Moroccan proverb

On the evening before the eviction of Sans Papiers from the Paris church of St Bernard by the police, the city council announced that, with regard to French law, there was no judicial obstacle to its legalization. The Sans Papiers collective naturally took advantage at once of this statement to back up their line of argument, based on their awareness of the longstanding practice of the authorities to legalize foreign immigrants time and again.
The state authorities have in fact, referring to their sovereign powers - excluding the mass legalization in 1981-82 (ca. 130,000 persons) and 1991 (ca. 15 - 20,000 rejected asylum seekers) - always had the possibility of legalization and have used it, whether the government was left or right-wing. The former Minister of the Interior, Charles Pasqua, made personal reference to this when he stated his support for the legalization of all applicants on the day after the French victory in the world championship in football - with a backward glance at France's great colonial past. "Let us not forget the role played by Algerians, Moroccans, Tunisians and Africans in the liberation of France. We cannot simply treat them like people from Sri Lanka. We need quota regulations in favour of all those from the former French dominions" (Le Monde, 17.7.1998).

The subsequent legalization of "wild immigration"

Theoretically, the ONI (Office National de l'Immigration - National Immigration Authority, later OMI, Office des Migrations Internationales - Office of International Migration) is, according to the regulations on immigration and residence of foreigners in France of 2nd November 1945, responsible for the controlled flow of immigrants. On its foundation the ONI was to have sole charge of the recruitment and deployment of foreign workers in areas of corresponding labour shortage, with due regard to the protection of national interests, which take priority according to the labour law of 1932.
A foreign worker entering France via the ONI had at that time to present a labour contract to obtain a work permit, which noted his trade and the region he was assigned to. This work permit was then a requirement to obtain a residence permit for a specified period (a 3-year temporary stay or unlimited). It quickly became apparent that foreign workers were entering France at their own expense and were active in areas quite different from those envisaged by the administration. Eventually they presented their labour contracts and applied for legalization. In the immediate post-war years "illegal immigration evolved which found employment in the motor industry rather than in mining" (Yann Moalier-Butang, "Un paese d'immigrazione, la Francia" in A. Serafini (Ed.), l'Operaio Multinazionale in Europa (Feltrinelli), - Milan 1975).
To stem the "wild immigration", the Minister of Labour decided upon a whole package of draconian measures (systematic rejection of "illegals" arrested at the border, occasional imprisonment in guarded camps) but all attempts to effect rigid control of immigration by workers were doomed to failure. From 1948 onwards, 30% of all immigration was illegal and the immigrations were subsequently legalized. Between 1948 and 1958 the proportion of those legalized after the event stood on average at 35% (Boulier-Butang, see above).
The number of illegal workers, or "pseudo-tourist" immigrants who subsequently obtained permanent residence, rose further: 53% in 1960, 69% in 1964, 79% in 1967. Some 86% of immigrant families also applied for legalization immediately after their arrival in 1967 (Bernard Granotier, "Les travailleurs immigrés en France", Paris 1970).
Many of the newly legalized workers did not join smaller firms, which, in order to survive, chose more submissive illegals, but went to large-scale building projects and to the metal-working and automobile industries, where they filled most of the low-level jobs. In fact, in the second half of the 60's the phenomenon of "incoherent unemployment" developed: it became impossible to induce the growing number of unemployed young people to work in factories. This situation was apparently the reason why the authorities accepted the presence of illegal immigrant workers and simplified the legalization procedures by passing a number of laws as from 1964 (20 March, 15 July).
However, other factors favoured legalization; one wing of the Gaullists as well as experts in population policy already supported the subsequent immigration of families, including more speedy granting of citizenship and the regulation of special cases. This involved some 100,000 Portuguese deserters fleeing from Salazar and the colonial wars.
Coming through well-worn immigrant routes, these Portuguese ended up on building sites and filled the growing slums in the Paris region. After legalization, many of them travelled on to Luxemburg or Germany in the hope of higher wages.

First attempts at migration control

This example illustrates once more the inability of the authorities to control the geographic and inter-sector mobility of immigrant labour. This was aggravated by social tensions which occasionally took on a racist character. There were complaints in high places about the "lack of adaptability amongst immigrants to the demands of industrial life" and warned of the situation in slums inhabited by the Arabs and Portuguese, which had become lawless areas where parents no longer had any control over their children. In a report to the Economic and Social Affairs Council in February 1969, the issue of the "tolerance threshold" in residential areas and schools was stressed, in conjunction with the recommendation of a temporary residence permit for non-Europeans (particularly North Africans) with the possibility of repatriation in the event of long-term unemployment (in 1967/68, 18% of the Algerians were unemployed).
Prior to this startling declaration, a decree was issued by the Social Affairs Ministry (July 1968) legalizing immigrants only in exceptional cases, such as female domestics, qualified personnel in fixed areas and Portuguese immigrants. The openly propagated aim was to move from spontaneous towards controlled immigration. The effect was principally to sort immigrants according to nationality. The legalization of Moroccans fell in this way to 12% in 1970 (as against 59% in 1968) and for Turks it was much the same. Whoever was not in possession of the necessary workpermit could not take vocational training courses.
The French-Algerian bilateral agreement of 28 December 1968 was typical of this new procedure, whereby the mobility and freedom to settle in France was no longer permitted for Algerians, as envisaged in the treaties of Evian in 1962 (at the end of the Algerian war of independence) and instead the principle of an annually fixed quota of Algerian workers was established. As justification for these new regulations the Foreign Minister Maurice Schumann wrote bluntly in the "Revue de Défense Nationale" in June 1969: "The considerable risk existed that our country could lose control of some sectors of our labour market and population "islands" could develop on our territory which would be hostile to traditional processes of assimilation".

Immigrant struggles during and after May 1968

The shift towards a new policy of limitation and increased control of immigration coincided with the major role played by immigrants in the great industrial strikes in May 1968 and in the squatters' agitation against the living conditions in the slums and working-class areas. Some participated in the fighting behind the barricades. They thus abandoned their duty as foreigners to keep in the background and risked being deported for "disturbing public order".
Raymond Marcellin, the notorious Minister of the Interior at this time, allowed police raids against students and foreigners which sometimes turned into pogroms, which awoke memories in this allegedly post-colonial era of the suppression of the demonstration in Paris on 17 October 1961, in which 200 Algerians died.
Immediately after this, the number of deportations increased dramatically. "Le Monde", on 20.6.1968, spoke of 161 deportations between the 8th and 17th June alone, but the number rose further. Activists at the Renault works publicly attacked attempts to send immigrant workers back to their countries of origin. However, all these measures, conducted by the authorities in a seemingly arbitrary manner, led to reactions on the part of students and immigrants the significance of which extended beyond this era. Even today, the mobilization against the deportation of the student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit, when the slogan "We are all German Jews" went the round, remains unforgotten. The slogan "We are all foreigners", which goes further, should however be remembered. Real solidarity between the French and the immigrants is evident in connection with the network of anti-colonial resistance which had been fairly dormant since the Algerian war of independence.
After a phase of abstract anti-imperialist enthusiasm full of entreaty, the French now discovered to their astonishment the slums and complicated legal situation of the foreigners who lived so close and still so far from their own realities. Shouting slogans such as "Borders don't mean a damn thing to us!" was no longer sufficient; they would have to get involved with the dirty business of papers and permits to secure the right of residence for their new comrades. This dynamic movement led some years later to the GISTI (Groupe d'Information et de Solidarité avec les Travailleurs Immigrés, Information and Solidarity Group for Immigrant Workers) which was specialized in the law applying to foreigners and has become an important support base not only for individual cases but for all those affected by the whole spectrum of immigration laws and regulations.

Mobilization against Deportation

The individual cases of deportation for "Non-observance of strict political neutrality" sparked off intensive public campaigns often leading to a retreat on the part of the authorities. Some examples are: when Lauretta Fonseca, the mother of five children, was to be deported in 1971 for taking part in agitation and the occupation of the town hall in the slum district of Massy (Essone), a demonstration by some 1,500 people brought about a reversal of the decision. The campaign for better housing went on, following the slogan "Accommodation for all", and the Communist-governed city councils in working class areas such as Ivry or Argenteuil in Paris were under enormous pressure because they had conducted town development at the expense of the immigrants and had cleared the slum districts with the aid of police and bulldozers.
In the same year, Sadok Djeridi, a Tunisian worker whose wife and children had just followed him to Amiens, appealed against his deportation order, crying: "My children are here, my wife too. I'm here and I'm staying here!" He was supported by an anti-racist committee set up on the initiative of the Maoist group "Secours Rouge" (Red Aid). When they started a hunger strike for him, he joined them.
Successive hunger strikes were spontaneously arranged, accompanied by meetings and demonstrations. Sadok obtained his work permit. The appearance of supporters at his place of work led to a widening of the struggle for papers and social insurance for all immigrant workers in his firm.
In October 1972, Fawzia and Said Pouziri were ordered to leave the country within 8 days because they had applied too late for the extension of their residence permits. In reality they were to pay for their political commitment. They were accused of agitating in support of the Palestinians and taking part in the campaign against the murder of the youth Djillali on 5 October 1971 in the Parisian quarter of Goutte d'Or and in particular of organizing, with Jean-Paul Sartre's support, the first major immigrant demonstration since 17 October 1961. The deportation order was revoked after a hunger strike in the community centre of St. Bruno next to the Church of St Bernard, and the committed support of renowned intellectuals such as Sartre, Michel Foucault, Gilles Delenze, Claude Mauriac, etc., who declared themselves "publicly responsible for the right to stay in France of Said Bouziri and his wife." From their support group, the CDVDTI (Comité de Défense de la vie et des Droits des Travailleurs Immigrés - Committee for the Defence of the Life and Rights of Immigrant Workers) later developed.
This committee later played a role in the campaign for an investigation into the murder of Mohamed Diab, who died at the police station in Versailles, and also participated in the general strike against racism in September 1973, together with the MTA (Mouvement des Travailleurs Arabes, Arab Workers' Movement), as well as in the struggle organized by Sans Papiers against the Marcellin-Fontana ordinances of 1972-1975.

The agitation against the Marcellin-Fontanet ordinances (1972-74)

These decrees came into force a few weeks before the campaign against deportations - on 15 September 1972. The Marcellin decree of 24 January 1972 limited the granting of work and residence permits to the police. From now on, the only point of contact for immigrants was the police authority (alternatively, the town council) and a central file on them was set up at the Ministry of the Interior. The Fontanet decree of Febuary 1972 made a labour contract for at least one year the precondition for a residence permit, as well as a document issued by the employer certifying "appropriate housing". In this way, new forms of control were placed in the hands of police and employers for control of the living conditions and mobility of immigrant workers. The renewal of papers became an arduous process and the authorities reserved the right to refuse the extension of permits on the basis of the "national labour market" or on political grounds.
Any migrant worker who lost his job had to hand in his work permit and produce evidence of a new job within one month. All these regulations were not yet applicable to the so-called "privileged" nationalities (EC countries, Algerians, francophone black Africans, refugees and asylum seekers, but to the "non-privileged" (Tunisians, Moroccans, Turks, Portuguese, Yugoslavians)
At the same period, the passing of a new law on temporary work by the National Assembly led to a little-known development in labour policy. According to Article 39 of this law it was not possible for a "non-privileged" immigrant worker to legalize his residence by producing a work permit. In this way a firm had the right to hire "Sans Papiers" by means of short-term labour contracts, but the immigrants had to take the risks involved in irregular residence status. The market for short-term labour boomed in the 70's in France; it was five or six times larger, with 600,000 employees, than that in Britain or Germany at the same period, so many immigrants, hoping for a better way of life, joined this market (Source: Al Kadihoun No 3, April-May 1973).
The precise knowledge and analysis of the Marcellin-Fontanet decrees immediately after their implementation is the consequence of the investigatory work undertaken by immigrant workers themselves and publicized by numerous journalists and writers, who created the APL (Agence de Presse Liberation), the predecessor of the newspaper of the same name. It was their aim to "bombard public opinion and the media" so that they would "become judges of the injustices occurring throughout France", all the more because the left wing involved with the "Programme Commun", the joint government policy of the Socialist and Communist parties, hardly paid attention to the consequences of the new course set by the government for the immigrants.
It was therefore the autonomous anti-racist campaign and agitation against deportation that are above all responsible for the rapid mobilization against the decrees. The mobilization against the murder of Mohamed Diab at the beginning of November 1972 took place simultaneously with Fawzia and Said Bouziri's hunger strike. The intellectuals in the support committee were the same ones who were brutally attacked by the police during a banned demonstration concerning the Diab affair on 16 December 1972.
At the same time Arab activists agitated against the murder of the Palestinian leaders Mahmoud Hamcheri and Mohamed Boudia. It should be noted that a number of activists in the CDVDTI and the MTA had emerged from Palestinian groups. The racist violence on the extreme right and their propaganda about "wild immigration" (a term introduced by the government, immigration authorities and the media) resulted in retaliation, and led to street battles and a ban on the Ligue Communiste in June 1973. One should also remember the significance of the factory agitation in which immigrants, who often made up the majority of semi-skilled workers, led the way in the struggle for decent wages, faced as they were by a diabolical pace of work, racist bosses and the fight for permits.
It is notable how at this time the various front lines merged, faded, then simultaniously developed further. The participants were able in this way to keep an eye on the whole situation, adapt to different situations and test new, more effective means of action. Instead of destroying the immigrants' political activity, repression and direct implementation of racism actually reinforced their movement. The various fields of conflict overlapped each other and formed unifying areas of strength: the new mood amongst immigrants led to a breach with the "mektoub", or fatalism, and with the passive resistance prevalent till then, because they were unwilling to interfere in the internal affairs of the country which they regarded anyway as a place of temporary residence.
Newly arrived immigrants took part immediately in the conflict and bypassed the period of "observation" common up to that time. This new attitude, due in part to the rise of social movements in their countries of origin, undermines the dividing lines between nationalities and provides the basis for a new community-linking culture of worker immigration.

1972-1982: Legalization through conflict

A hunger strike by 18 immigrants without papers in a church in Valence in December 1972, had a striking effect within the context of mushrooming activity and the maturing of a new autonomous immigrant movement. After a police raid on their tenement building they were threatened with deportation. At the same time hunger strikes also began, for example in La Ciutat, immediately after a strike at a building site for public works, and in Paris at the headquarters of the CFDT trade union.
In all cases Tunisian workers were involved. On Christmas Eve four priests from churches in Valence decided on a strike at Mass and a torchlight procession through the town in support of the "Sans Papiers". This event caused a stir throughout the country and led to moves towards legalization. In Paris the CFDT, presented with a fait accompli, made representations, if unwillingly, on behalf of the "Sans Papiers" and achieved their legalization through secret negotiations with the authorities.
Some weeks later, at the beginning of 1973, new hunger strikes began simultaneously in some twenty French cities (68 strikers in February in Toulouse, 51 in April in St Etienne, 56 in May in Paris...) and lasted from several days to a number of weeks (50 days in Lille).
Most strikers were Tunisians, but there were Moroccans, Portuguese and sometimes French people involved. At first the strikers simply demanded that employers should keep to the stipulations in the decree. Many employers did in fact refuse to issue pay slips to employees when they discovered their illegal residence status. On the initiative of the workers' councils in the NCLA (Union nationale des comités de lutte d'atelier, the National Union of Workers' Combat Councils) the Sans Papiers movement overran the workshops and now demanded the complete repeal of the Marcellin-Fontanet decrees. Parallel to this, support groups established an advisory centre, where individual application could be made and documents collected to be handed in parallel to those of the strikers.
On March 31th 1973, 3,000 people gathered in Belleville, an immigrant quarter of Paris. The following day the CDVDTI organized a countrywide conference of the committees at the famous assembly hall Mutualité in support of the hunger strikes. This huge gathering, the climax of the movement, spoke out against limiting the struggle mainly to hunger strikes.
Although the discussions were often chaotic, the will to take more offensive action developed, such as the occupation of factories exploiting Sans Papiers or occupying the offices of the regional labour authorities (DDT) which (after approval by the prefecture of police) were responsible for issuing work permits. On 28 April some 100 people occupied the Parisian DDT. They were evicted by the police. In May, 52 Moroccan workers (from a total of 70) started a strike in the Margoline paper recycling factory in Nanterre for fair wages and against working conditions, especially those of the Sans Papiers. They occupied their place of work till they obtained a pay rise and the legalization of all Sans Papiers. This exemplary struggle, supported by the CDVDTI, lasted seven months, and special care was taken to see that no one was dismissed afterwards, as it was well-known that employers could be bad losers.
During this period the hunger strikes continued, but less determinedly. After a meeting between a CDVDTI delegation and the Labour Minister, the hunger strikers were finally legalized. In June 1973 the new Minister of Labour, George Gorse, announced the provisional repeal of the Fontanet decree and made possible the legalization of immigrants who had entered the country illegally before 1 June, or who had no papers as a consequence of dismissal, eviction from their homes or through simple ignorance of their rights.
Public agitation subsided and the activists switched their attention to individual applications. However, the results can hardly be ignored: more than 35,000 people were legalized between June and October 1973. And as the crowning achievement of this era, the council of state annulled a number of regulations in the Marcellin-Fontanet decree, amongst other things the housing certificate.

[part 2]

Mogniss H. Abdallah, July 1999

[without papers in europe]