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international bordercamp strasbourg

The Sans Papiers movement

a climax in the history of French immigration [part 2]

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

Immigrant Autonomy

In the course of the following months and years, new hunger strikes were organized, on the one hand in other sectors, e.g. agriculture, when migration workers went on strike in Southern France, on the other, with new activists from young immigrant communites, e.g. the newly arrived Mauritians. They were mostly women working as domestics or in the textile industry and now demanded papers, and above all their recognition as heads of household. Turkish women too, working in illegal sweat shops in the textile business, went on hunger strike on a number of occasions with the support of their CFDT union. All these hunger strikes, one following the other, from which new immigrant organizations emerged (MTM, Mouvement des Travailleurs Mauritiens, Mauritian Workers Movement; ATT, Association des Travailleurs de Turquie, Turkish Workers' Association) continued until May 1981, when the left came to power. They also went on when the government announced the official end of worker migration and the closing of the frontiers, under the pretext of coping with the crisis following the "oil shock". Within this framework, new restrictive and repressive measures rained down - the repeal of freedom of movement for black Africans, the assertion of the employment situation, stiffer controls at the borders and in immigrant areas, internment in "secret prisons" (Arenc in Marseilles) and countless deportations of foreigners without regular papers.
Conscious of this new intensification of the situation, the movement attempted from the date of their national gathering in Montpellier in 1975 to overcome the gap existing between the French and the immigrant organizations. They aimed to coordinate the various support groups arising from the recent conflicts "to make them a unified instrument for all workers, for French workers' organizations as well as the autonomous immigrant movement". Even if the Sans Papiers movement did not survive as an independent body, there was a noticeable rapprochement between the French and the immigrants. This was to lead later to a new formation against deportations, such as SOS Refoulements (SOS Deportations), and against the "militarization" of police controls.
Even if it was more and more scattered, the experience of immigrant autonomy continued in movements such as the coordination committee of "The Sanacatra Workers' Hostel (foyers) in Conflict", in the federation of associations according to nationality or in cultural initiatives (intervention theatre, music, films, newspapers, free radio, etc.). The less spectacular it was, the less vehement was the criticism of the immigrant activists by the Communist party and a section of the radical left-wing, as in the earlier accusations of "spontaneism" and "irresponsibility" aimed at supporters of radical groups (illegal occupation, demonstrations without security personnel, health hazards for hunger strikers, attacks on racist bosses, etc.). The trade unions now had less to fear from competition by autonomous organizations at the work place, which in their view propagated "radically dangerous and anti-trade union theories" (Syndicalism Hebdo, CFDT, 4/2/1973).
In fact, two concepts existed regarding the structure and reinforcement of autonomy; on the one hand, an organization-oriented structure (as practised by many Arab immigrant groups) which fitted the strategy of reformist forces. These transferred responsibility for specific immigrant issues to the immigrant organization, whereas they themselves were concerned, whether French or Arab organizations close to the government, with safeguarding overall interests. In return, these institutions (e.g. trade unions) allowed the immigrant organizations to represent immigrant interests. On the other hand stood the formation of an autonomous movement starting from the agitation and forms of expression initiated by the immigrants themselves, and "whose lines of communication and agreed policies were to lead the movement further". (Said and Fathi (ex-MTA) in "Luttes des immigrés, désobeisance civile et luttes autonomes'', éd. Alternatives, Paris 1979).
This splintering had decisive consequences for the federation policy of French and immigrants and for the kind of organization emerging from these associations. The so-called radical wing of the movement, connected at first with the Maoists of the Proletarian Left, developed a perspective running across the organizations. In this way Arabs met within the framework of the MTA and kept to themselves, but at the same time they played a leading role in the CDVDTI committee, which saw itself as "a union of the French and immigrant masses" and also in the UNCLA as the home of workers' self-organization. They attempted in this way to give shape to community and worker autonomy within the perspective of a global autonomous movement of social revolution. The autonomous associations, organized according to nationality, which were led by activists close to the traditional political culture of the Communist Party, fought for autonomy from the structure of immigrant control set up by the governments in their countries of origin (such as community clubs, mosques, educational facilities, cultural centres, etc.). To meet the challenge of social realities in France they committed themselves to working in the French "democratic" and "revolutionary" organizations and carried out lobby activities for the leaders of these organizations. They had no points of contact with worker autonomy or with "new forms of conflict", which accompanied the radical questioning of political and trade union institutions.
The debates concerning the contradictory approaches to immigrant autonomy were not brought to a conclusion. Thus there is a certain confusion to be seen in later immigrant agitation, especially with regard to the question as to what form political commitment amongst the so-called "second generation" could take.
These young people decisively rejected any attempt by first-generation activists, who grew up in the country of origin, to exercise control over them and demanded independence from traditional forms of organization in the community. At the same time they resented any move to reduce them to a "youth front line", practically an appendage of an organization whose strategic decisions they had no influence on. Instead, they concerned themselves more or less consciously with the idea of common interests with young people and other residents of the working class areas, be they French or immigrant, on the basis of their common social experiences.
At the same time, they kept their specific situation as immigrants in mind, and agitated against racism and the state of emergency they found themselves in, but were far less interested in the situation in their parents' country of origin. As a result they were called "little harkis" by the older generation, that is, cronies of the French ("harkis" were former auxiliary Algerian troops in the French army). In this conflicting situation of social and community autonomy, the young immigrants gained a new, if somewhat imperfect, political and cultural identity. At the end of the 80's the second generation immigrants were represented on autonomous lists at a variety of elections, sometimes with candidates from their community, sometimes with candidates from the same social environment, whereas others preferred to be represented on already existing political lists. Throughout the long history of immigrant conflict, it can be noted that in boom periods the concept of autonomy on a social basis prevailed, whereas in times of recession and a lack of perspective a more community-orientated autonomy with a corresponding identity was evident. This ambivalence also impressed itself on the Sans Papiers movement of 1996.

The "new immigration policy" 1974-81

From the beginning of the "new immigration policy", announced immediately after the official end of worker immigration by the State Secretary for worker immigrants, Paul Dijoud, the government presented the struggle against "illegals" as absolutely top priority. Immigrants with official status, however, were to benefit from better integration into French society, better family protection, equal social rights and promotion of their respective cultures. Behind this noble declaration of intent there were concealed, either deliberately or unintentionally, a number of objectives: a proportion of the regular immigrant corkers were to be replaced increasingly by French workers and the presence of foreigners in France to be placed in question in this way. Previous agitation by the immigrants, their potential for mobilization and the sensitivity of French public opinion did not permit a head-on attack. So the criminalization of the "illegals" was set in motion; they were presented as a threat to public order, but the unemployed were also stigmatized ("self-induced inactivity") and second-generation juveniles were regarded as potential criminals. In this way the authorities were subsequently free to imprison and deport them. The figures for juveniles tell the whole story: the number of deportations rose from 5,380 in 1977 to 8,000 in 1980. Police controls and raids aimed in principle at "illegals" now included children playing in the street or public playgrounds!
In 1977 the new Secretary of State, Stoléru, said openly he wanted to reduce the foreign population from four to two million by 1990. To this purpose he no longer intended to issue residence permits - particularly to Algerians. In this way he reckoned with 500,000 departures in 1979. He offered the possibility of repatriation aid, which came known as the "immigrant million". Immigrants with regular status were to receive 10,000 FF on their definitive departure from France (inc. the return of their residence permits); in this manner some 35,000 repatriations per year would result, according to forecasts. Whereas this repatriation aid was an unexpected stroke of luck for the Spanish and Portuguese, who had often decided on returning or travelling on, and who now profited in large numbers (23,033 and 16,193 respectively up till May 1979), there were only a few hundred or few thousand candidates of other nationalities. In the face of these figures, Stoléru regretted that only one or two per cent of immigrants actually left France, when some 10 % had been obliged to leave Germany.
Stoléru, who had sworn not to tolerate any form of racism in France (he came from an orthodox Jewish family with its origins in Rumania and frequented, as he himself asserted, institutional anti-racist circles), now provoked at his own expense a general mobilization against the racist laws for which he was responsible. The Bonnet law passed in their wake in 1980 aroused little attention however, although, as a veritable police law, it treated illegal entry and residence as grounds for deportation, being a threat to public order, and institutionalized administrative arrest centres and escorted return to the borders. In February 1981 it was supplemented by the Peyrefitte Law, which legalized preventive identity checks.

From Rock against Police to the Intifada of the working class districts

At the end of the 70's the second generation of immigrants took the stage. Those of them who had been born before 1963 still did not have French citizenship. They left school in hundreds of thousands with no hope of apprenticeships or job. In addition to this, they displayed a certain scorn for the social order and its work ethic and developed their own everyday rhythm, which was characterized by muddling through, playing tough now and again and taking night-time joyrides. No one had really foreseen this increasingly visible presence in public places. They very quickly became a target for the security mania which had overtaken public opinion. The confrontation with sober-sided citizens who equipped themselves with hunting rifles they could buy freely in any supermarket, as well as with the police, who were evident everywhere, led constantly to dramatic situations and clashes. The deaths of several young people, imprisonment and above all deportations resulted in spontaneous collective mobilization. A kind of network of informed groups supported those people in the housing areas threatened by deportation and ad hoc anti-deportation committees launched autonomous campaigns bringing the repeal of a number of deportation orders. Parallel to this, groups of young immigrants articulated their claims via their own cultural means (action theatre and cinema, photography, music, comics, newspapers) to live here and now according to their own conceptions and not those of first-generation immigrants or French anti-racists or moralizing social workers assigned to take care of their needs.
Inspired by the autonomous cultural movement begun by their older comrades, but even more direct and always open to improvisation, groups like "Week-end à Nanterre" (Theatre & Film) and the collective Mohamed à Vitny (Super 8) documented a slice of life in the "forbidden zones" and various collective activities. When television teams entered their housing areas to record eye-witness accounts by young people, the juveniles themselves determined what was to be edited out, and discussed with the journalists how the final version would appear. These practical experiences ended in the foundation of "Rock against the Police", the first experiment attempted by the National Coordination of Young Immigrants and Proletarians in the housing areas between 1979 and 1982, and led in 1982 to "Immédia", a press agency for immigration and urban culture. This new current, which was anchored mainly in the transit-housing areas of the Greater Paris Region and in the council estates (HLM) of the dormitory towns (Nanterre, Vitry, Argenteuil, Bondy...) caused a resounding echo, especially in the suburbs of Lyons. It was active for a short period in a kind of co-existence with the Parisian autonomous movement, whose militancy, arising from a radical student milieu, they did not however share and attempted more or less successfully to cooperate with former members of the MTA in the "by and for immigrants" context of the newspaper "Sans Frontière" (Without a Frontier) and later with the radio station Soleil Goutte d'Or run by Mokhtar Bchiri, formerly a member of MTA and the Al Assifa group. Contact was also made with the collective "Race Today" in Brixton and with the Black Radical and Third World Bookfair organized by Caribbean and Indo-Pakistani activists who up till then - in contrast to France - had managed to uphold the connection between anti-colonial conflict and youth rebellion (cf. Mogniss H. Abdallah, Jeunes Immigrés Hors-Les-Murs, éd. EDI, Paris 1982.
Back at home in France, activities were aimed at the PCF, which drove newly arrived North Africans out of a workers' hostel in Vitry-sur-Seine, but the experienced agitators of "Rock against the Police" had difficulty joining forces with the tenants, as they had scattered after their eviction. On the other hand they managed to mobilize, with an ease that astounded observers, the young people and other inhabitants of the transit housing areas and council estates with the objective of obtaining justice for the murdered youths and immigrants. From this dynamic movement resulted the Association of Relatives of Victims of Racist Crime and Security Mania, comprising some 40 mothers and other relations, who were called the "crazy women of Place Vendome". The struggle against racist crime went hand in hand with the fight for new housing for the evicted. A coordination between the transit settlements was set up, which was quite new and doubtless the only occasion when young people, little by little and autonomously, had engaged successfully in such a conflict on their own ground and achieved their aim of new housing for all the families affected.

The 80's and the switch to integration

At the same time Christian activists supported the young immigrants in word and deed. The priest Christian Delorme and Parson Jean Costil began a hungerstrike in April 1981 together with Hamid Boukhrouna, a young Algerian who was facing deportation. They demanded an end to the deportation of juveniles. This initiative aroused intense public interest. Francois Mitterand, the Socialist presidential candidate at the time, promised if elected to end deportation of juveniles and other long-term immigrants. And he kept his word. The day after his election (10 May 1981) one of the first measures introduced by the President was to end these deportations. He was acclaimed from then on as the "President of the Immigrants", having already visited the Sonacatra residents evicted by the police from their hostel, and the Turks striking for papers in the Sentier quarter, as well as offering the Socialist Party's private station to the immigrants so that they had own free radio transmitter. In this phase of almost surrealist generosity, Mitterand symbolized the breach with the notion that sees immigration only under the aspect of economics and security. It asserts the idea that the immigrants are also part of French society: "They are a part of the national reality". In the general jubilation over the collapse of Giscard's "old régime", the fate of the Sans Papiers was however lost from sight. In fact, public interest switched to the defence of long-term immigrants in France, and this otherwise positive development brought about serious and perverse consequences: the anti-racist and immigrant movement tended to reproduce the split into "illegals" and "regulars" which the authorities had introduced with the official end of immigration in 1974. There no longer existed the same overlapping of agitation, and activists increasingly ignored each other. From this period onwards a section of the immigrants internalized the talk of "illegals", who allegedly threatened their new hopes of greater acceptance within French society.
In the face of the special legalization procedures introduced by the left-wing government, the controversy over the number of illegals, estimated at more than 300,000 in 1981, reinforced their image as parasites. In any case, the division in the treatment of immigration led consequently to a slump in agitation against the whole spectrum of regulations controlling the entry and residency of foreigners. The left-wing government repealed the Bonnet-Stoléru-Peyrefitte Laws, decided on new guarantees for a series of "protected categories", strengthened judicial control over independent action by the authorities (including the police) and legalized immigrants at last. But the new aspect was that it was legalization for political motives which allowed the right of residence only according to the needs of the economic situation and the labour market. The creation of a uniform right of residence with 10 years' validity (Carte de résidence unique de dix ans) which immigrants and their families had full legal right to if they had lived in France for at least 3 years, corresponded with this policy. This residence permit was automatically extended and permitted the exercise of a vocation of one's own choice anywhere in the country (Law of 17 July 1984).
Paradoxically however, the legalization of 1981-1982 served as the starting point for intensified action against illegal immigration on the grounds that since the overflow of illegals had been eliminated, the past should be forgotten and the problem regarded as solved. This "special" solution was at the same time a first-class burial of any policy of legalization after the event, as normally practised up till that time. It also reinforced the switch in policy in 1974. Even worse, the left-wing government made an everyday event of attacks on illegal immigration, detention centres and "escort to the borders", by systematically prosecuting foreigners without legal status in the country.
"Illegals" could be legally sentenced to deportation with immediate implementation. Deportation increasingly became a matter for summary proceedings. From now on, the legality of entry and residency became the decisive criterion for legalization, even for juveniles who had not entered the country with the family, and for the family itself.
When the left-wing government was overtaken by the complications of immigrant administration, it showed its irritation and outrage. It limited the entry of family members and forbade henceforth the automatic legalization of spouses and children. In April 1984 Stoléru's repatriation aid, under the name "public support for repatriation", was reintroduced for immigrants made redundant in the motor industry - this was their answer to the widespread strikes by unskilled immigrant workers against mass redundancy at Citroen-Aulnay and Talbot-Poissy in 1982 and 1983, which had enraged a number of Socialist ministers. Prime Minister Mauroy went so far as to defame the North African strikers as "Islamic Fundamentalists" who had no place in French society. In the Talbot factory occupied by strikers in 1983/84, violent racist clashes took place between striking immigrants and non-striking French workers, who shouted "Into the oven, into the Seine!" at the North Africans. Support for the Talbot workers was extremely weak, with the exception of former members of MTA and MTI, together with young immigrants who had just completed the march for equality and against racism. But they were far from the euphoria which had accompanied the triumphant arrival of this march.
On December 3rd 1983, 100,000 people had elebrated the arrival of the "Beurs", the slang term for the Arabs in the outer suburbs. The media were immediately attracted to the phenomenon and built it up as a veritable fashion which would regenerate French culture. The Arab rock music of the group Carte de séjour (Residence Permit) and the exciting rap melodies of the outer suburbs soon became culture products and export successes of world music made in France. A new elite, the "Beurgoisie", found favour in the corridors of power. It was their mission to take the place of the "hooligans" in the movement who kept the revolt going in the suburbs, and to project a positive image of fraternity towards French society. They were also to act as an antidote to the spectacular rise of the Front National, which since its victory in union with the Right in the communal election in Dreux in September 1983 had been the centre of attention.
However, as the vox populi had always suggested, Arabs can never really be trusted. The powers that be therefore had several irons in the fire. The "SOS Racisme" Association, founded by Mitterand's office in the Elysée Palace at the end of 1984, experienced immediate success. It was formed as a connecting link between the authorities and French youth, who were extremely sensitive to racist issues and celebrated their new identity as "black-blanc-beur". But the groups which had emerged from immigration, with thousands of members since the law of October 1981 on freedom of association by foreigners, played their own role. Through the award of subsidies they became more and more dependent, falling under control, and gradually developed into lackeys of the authorities. They became institutionalized and decrepit and their officials were now specialized, in the name of professionalism. In this way there was a decline in militant culture and agitation by the immigrants and a strong inclination towards an "administration of misery". The authorities kept up the pressure in this regard: they subsidized activities aimed at "integration" but warned the institutions against any support for "illegals". The move towards integration was therefore accompanied by non-commitment towards new arrivals, whose movements were necessarily very discreet in the 80's. The first and second generation immigrants succeeded in turning this page of their history and to concentrate on obstacles blocking their social advance: racism and limitation ofy civil rights. To take these hurdles, many of them now demanded French citizenship. As a warning prediction, the latest issue of the newspaper "Sans Frontière" carried the headline: "Ciao Immigration?".

[part 3]

Mogniss H. Abdallah, July 1999

[without papers in europe]