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international bordercamp strasbourg

The Sans Papiers movement

a climax in the history of French immigration [part 3]

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 3

Here I am, here I stay

The return of the Right to Power in 1986 placed the question of insecure residence status firmly on the map. In fact, the Pasqua laws, which instantly facilitated deportation, led to general suspicion in a climate where "illegals", delinquents and immigrants were all thrown into one pot. Fear was widespread, and exacerbated by the deportation of 101 people from Mali in a chartered plane, an event consciously sensationalized by the media. No one felt safe any longer. The Minister of the Interior, Charles Pasqua, made no secret of his intention to limit the right to asylum and to have "illegals" escorted on a massive scale to the borders, to reduce "protected categories", and even to place in question the French citizenship of immigrant children born in France.
To this purpose the law on citizenship was to be amended. In practice the immigrants were open to endless oppression on the part of the administration and many had their papers confiscated. The idea of deporting unemployed immigrants also gained renewed popularity.
The brutality of Pasqua's offensive surprised the immigrant and anti-racist groups. Amid the general cacophony, Djida Tazdait and Nacer Zair, members of the JALB (Jeunes Arabes de Lyon et Banlieue: Arab Youths of Lyons and outer districts) went on hunger strike against the proposed Pasqua law. Their main demands: retention of the non-deportable categories and full rights to 10-year residence permits; Father Christian Delorme joined the hunger strike at once in solidarity. True to his old commitment, he had a debt to pay: after his hungerstrike in 1981 he had discovered a "paternalistic attitude" in himself, "a lack of faith in the ability of the young people to fight", which led him to disregard initiatives of self-organization such as "Rock against the Police" (Christian Delorme: Le mouvement beur a une histoire, ANGI, Aubervilliers 1984). Other hunger strikers joined in solidarity, while the Church and the Paris Mosque became active as intermediaries during the Pope's visit to Paris.
Apart from some concessions by the government, this strike initiative succeeded in mobilizing the beurs movement which had suffered badly from the competition of SOS Racisme and France Plus. The committees formed on this occasion in a dozen cities joined quickly to form the network "Here I am, here I stay". But as from autumn 1986, the presence of a large student movement and a crisis in the Chirac government were dominating factors. The death of Malik Oussekine, who was killed during a demonstration by a motorized police unit, led to agitation in which a million people went onto the streets in memory of this French student of Algerian origin.
The university reform project of Devaquet was then abandoned, as well as the planned reform of the law on citizenship. The government created the Marceau Long Commission instead, so as to discuss French citizenship in detail. It thereby became evident that immigration constituted an important component of the French population: the parents and grandparents of some 18 million people are not of French origin. "First, second, third generation, we are all immigrant children!" was now chanted at every demonstration in contempt of Pasqua. In reaction to this public outcry, the Mémoire Fertile (Fruchtbare Erinnerung) group, which was formed in connection with the "Here I am, here I stay" campaign, fought for a new citizenship no longer coupled to nationality. The demand for political franchise for migrants was made, a promise made by Mitterrand in 1981, but regularly deferred on the pretext that public opinion was not yet ready for it. In addition, the former hunger striker Djida Tazdait campaigned for election on the subject of political rights for immigrants and was duly elected at the top of the Green party list to the European Parliament.

Against double punishment (prison and deportation)

In 1988 the left won power again and returned once again to the regulations which had applied before Pasqua. But they no longer wanted immigration to be the central themes in French political life, and no one was interested any longer in deportation stories, not even in the thousands who were thrown out by the Pasqua laws.
In this context, young people in the collective "Résistance des Banlieues" (Suburban Resistance) formed the countrywide Committee Against Double Punishment (Comité national contre la double peine). Double punishment means that in addition to imprisonment a temporary (ITF) or permanent (IDTF) residence ban from entering France was imposed.
It was aimed at immigrants who had been sentenced for various offences but above all, drugs dealing. Existing associations were reluctant to defend "criminals".
The committee criticised them mercilessly for this, organized itself autonomously and organized instruction in judicial matters for those affected. It demanded the abolition of double punishment, which affected some 20,000 people, and achieved some concessions after a collective hunger strike in Paris. Regulations were proposed for individual cases and an amendment to the law repealed the ITP, which in principle was not to be applied in "privileged cases", e.g. to the seriously ill, such as Aids victims.
However, the administration could avoid this hurdle if it invoked the "absolute urgency" of a deportation. In the committee's judicial consultation periods, other problems such as police violence, racist murders or simply daily chicanery obliged the activists to develop a political structure to cope with the general situation. After a lengthy running-in period they formed the MIB (Movement de l'immigration et des Banlieues: Immigration and Suburban Movement). Some activists from immigrant groups of the first generation joined them.
The question of double punishment was tabled again and again. And the Sans Papers movement discovered it for itself after the occupation of the St Bernard church, when it was overwhelmed by a wave of imprisonments and subsequent deportations due to irregular residency or refusal to board deportation flights (for 1999, it was estimated that some 3000 Sans Papiers per year were thus affected, mostly with 3-month prison sentences and 3 years ITF).

Rejected asylum-seekers (1991-92)

At the same time as the campaign against double punishment, there was a further hunger strike in a church in the Rue Saint-Maure in Paris. This time it involved rejected asylum-seekers, above all Turks, Kurds and a few North Africans. The movement, which had started in Bordeaux in August 1991, spread through some 60 cities; about 1500 people took part in the hunger strike and it continued till September 1992. It clearly showed the consequences of the refusal of the Left to repeal the limitation of the right to asylum. The number of rejected asylum seekers was estimated at ca 100,000. They had often lived in France for a number of years, awaiting a decision by the relevant authorities, and had integrated little by little into French society. But the administration suspected them of not being refugees, wanting only to abuse the privilege of asylum, and rejected more and more applications. The rejection quota constantly rose from the beginning of the 90's and reached 84% in 1995. According to data from "France, terre d'asile" (France, land of asylum) only 3,900 people from 22,632 applicants were recognized as refugees in 1998. Rejected asylum-seekers were ordered to leave the country; their only alternative was to swell the army of "illegals".
The government pinned its hopes increasingly on measures which reduced the appeal of France and checked the flood of applicants whose asylum application was "clearly unfounded". Prime Minister Michel Rocard announced: "France cannot absorb the whole misery of the world" and a new law institutionalized "waiting zones" in ports and airports, so that new arrivals could not even land on French soil while their applications were being examined. Asylum seekers living in France had their work permits confiscated and now had to fear for their right to welfare benefits. This situation explains the motives of the movement of rejected asylum seekers, of whom 20,000 who had lived for at least 3 years in France were finally legalized. The others found themselves driven once again into illegality - until 18 May 1996. In fact, some of those not legalized in 1991-92 were amongst the "refugees of St Ambroise" who decided on this day to come out in the open and occupy the church.

The Pasqua Laws and general suspicion

When the Right came to power again in 1993, the right-wing Pasqua government had prepared the ground well: visas only sporadically, accommodation certificates, stricter sanctions for aiding "illegal" entry and residence, deportation charter, etc. But Pasqua employed the same brutal network as in 1986 and choked any attempt at resistance with his rules and regulations, which were issued at a breathtaking pace: reform of citizenship rights, identity checks, entry and residence of foreigners, asylum laws, criminalization of aid for immigrants, denunciation and arrest; all of this was carried through. The manifold restrictions heightened the sense of insecurity once more amongst immigrants; in fact, the right of residence of every individual was threatened. In order not to be misunderstood, Pasqua began with powerful symbols, the young and the family: the acquisition of French citizenship for those born in France, which had resulted automatically till now at the age of 18, was now made dependent on an oath of loyalty. This could be denied to those with a criminal record. "French citizenship must be earned" - this extreme right slogan became the official policy of the country. The government set its sights on immigrants whose children had French nationality and adopted the position that immigrants produce offspring only to prevent their deportation and obtain welfare benefits. From now on they were unable to apply for citizenship for their under-age children, and for welfare benefits they required regular status and valid papers.
Nevertheless, many parents could not be deported, as the law was not retrospective. They created a new category of people who could neither be deported nor legalized. In the face of the absurdity of their situation, six immigrant families whose children had citizenship went on hunger strike on the premises of the Cimade, a Christian support group in Paris. This campaign, although attracting little publicity, raised the question openly of the right to family life and marked the beginning of new agitation after two years of apathy. In a gesture of sudden generosity, Pasqua issued a circular on the eve of the presidential election of 1995, which ordered the Prefecture, with regard to some contradictions in his own laws, to examine the situation of foreign parents with French children in a benevolent matter. This recommendation, however, was largely ignored. During this period, the pedantic application of the Pasqua laws created thousands of Sans Papiers, which meant that in this new context immigrants lost their former rights. The other feature of the Pasqua offensive was the intensification of police and administration control, as well as the extension of registration and interference in the private lives of the whole French population in order to uncover fraud. Officials in public service (the post office, hospitals, social insurance, tax and labour offices, etc.) were ordered to join in the checking of clients' papers and report any "irregulars", especially to the police. The denunciatory zeal of some authorities sometimes exceeded ministerial instructions, and often went so far as to refuse welfare benefits to members of the community who had a right to them, on the pretext that there were irregularities or anomalies of some sort or other. This extraordinary internalization of the hunt for "illegals" in some officials can be explained, not so much by their own convictions or particular racist views on immigrants, but above all by their fear of sanctions for "supporting illegal residence", as this offence of voluntary or involuntary solidarity was now punishable by imprisonment or a fine of up to 2,00,000 FF.

The Sans Papiers of St Bernard (18 March- 23 August 1996)

The Sans Papiers lived in constant fear of police controls and chicanery, which increasingly dominated their everyday lives, many of them being completely without means.
To set an end to this insufferable situation of having no rights of any kind, a group of African men, women and children decided to emerge from the shadows. On the 18 March 1996 they occupied the Church of St. Ambroise in Paris, to the general amazement even of the groups specializing in immigrant issues. They came from the African workers' hostels in Montreuil, a Parisian suburb where the immigrants had been practising a kind of self-administration for years. The initial group thus consisted of people who knew each other and had no papers for various reasons, parents of children with French citizenship, rejected asylum-seekers, single persons. After earlier failed attempts to achieve something with the help of SOS Racisme and others through individual claims, they now decided to gain the government's attention by acting together. They pinned their hopes on the fact that Jacques Chirac had been elected to the presidency in 1995 after making the "fracture sociale", the social division in society, a major theme in his election campaign - perhaps he could do something for them.
The Sans Papiers were hardly inside the church when radio and television stations were at the door, and the church became a rallying point for Sans Papiers, amongst them their future spokesman and -woman, Ababacar Diop and Madjiguène Cissé. The humanitarian organization Médicins du Monde was first on the site and informed committed groups such as Droits Devant!, a street people's organization, which played a major role in the mobilization of prominent supporters. Léon Schwarzenberg, Albert Jacquard, Monseigneur Gaillot and many others stood by the Sans Papiers, then and now.
As more and more people, French as well as immigrant, wanted to take part in the occupation of the church, it was decided to limit the occupying group to 300 Sans Papiers, above all black Africans from Mali, Senegal and Mauretania. The church hierarchy under Cardinal Lustiger denounced the occupation as "manipulated" and indicated, indirectly, support for eviction by the police, which promptly followed. The Africans found themselves on the street again. But the pictures of Africans wandering round the Paris streets awakened memories of the exodus of war refugees in Africa (the drama in Ruanda was unforgotten) and caused an outrage in the media and public opinion generally.
Humanitarian organizations, the radical left and several trade unions, as well as numerous public names, came to the support of the Sans Papiers. The Communist Party and members of the Socialist Party also joined the movement.
Even more remarkable was the fact that thousands of ordinary citizens from all walks of life spontaneously offered help. This solidarity was evident too in the opinion polls, according to which 53 % of all French sympathized with the Sans Papiers movement. A situation which reminded one, not by chance, of the popularity of the social agitation from November to December 1995, when the strikes which had paralyzed public transport in protest at the social insurance reform gained widespread support, even though they seriously disturbed everyday life. The rejection of government policy found expression at that time in a kind of authorization of the strikers, and the campaign of the Sans Papiers following three months later was seen as a welcome continuation of the social agitation. The Sans Papiers evicted by the police were therefore logically provided with accommodation in the LCR bookshop (a Trotzkyist organization), on the premises of the postal trade union Sud-PTT and those of the Droits Devants! Group, and then long-term in the empty rooms of the SNCF Railways in the Rue Pajol (18. Arrondissement), which had been allocated to them by railway workers in the CFDT union.

Papers for all

The Sans Papiers movement which was now evolving accepted this support gratefully but insisted on the autonomy of its campaign. They did not want others to speak in their name or act as their spokesmen with the authorities or media. In fact, contradictions soon became obvious: some groups made their support dependent on certain conditons. SOS Racisme, for example, wanted only to help parents of children with French citizenship and demand for them the right to family life. To this attempt to split the movement, Madjiguène Cissé replied with her special knack for hard-hitting words: "Some people demand the right to live as families. We however simply demand the right to live!" In the face of the increasingly uncontrollable and explosive situation, other support groups felt out of their depth and panicked. They ordered the Sans Papiers, who were arriving in ever larger numbers to join the conflict, to "go home again". In view of the rather unfavourable odds, the demand for "papers for all" seemed quite unrealistic. "You cannot win on all fronts at the same time", they said. "Only the battles which aren't even begun are lost at the start", Madjiguène Cissé replied. Tension reached their climax, when, after arrests on 27 March, 57 people from Mali were deported to Bamako by charter flight.
On the initiative of theatre director Ariane Mnouchkine the 300 Africans of St. Ambroise were then accommodated on the premises of the Cartoucherie theatre in Vincennes outside of Paris; subsequently they moved into the empty railway building in Rue Pajol. The movement developed its own structure. The full general meeting of the families became a democratic instance of advice and decision-making, on the initiative of the women, who made their mark on the meeting with their presence and readiness for action. They also organized some meetings in which they determined the course of action and so formed an opposing force to any possible resurgence of the tribal tradition of the "village chief".
The general meeting selected - as a sovereign body - their own delegates, who could be dismissed at any time. These, on the other hand, entered into discussions with the support committees recruited from associations and groups. However, the numerous unorganized supporters not participating in the discussions developed ever-friendlier relations with the Sans Papiers and played an important but informal role in the movement. New Sans Papiers groups emerged in a dozen cities, in Paris, the suburbs and in the provinces. At first they joined up in regional coordination, to take up negotiations with united force with the Prefecture on their cases, and they dreamed of countrywide coordination to force the government into discussions on a general solution. They largely agreed to reject individual regulations and all discussion revolved around general provisions for global legalization.
Moreover, under the leadership of the former French ambassador Stéphane Hessel, a committee of 26 mediators was established to start negotiations with the government. This body made a list of ten criteria by which global legalization of all immigrants was to be made possible for those whose "integration into French society could be proven". This attempt at mediation, however, proved unsuccessful. On 26 June, the Minister of the Interior announced in a communiqué that he would legalize only 48 of the 315 Sans Papiers cases presented to him and ordered the others to leave the country, although they too fell under the criteria by which the 48 had been legalized - in other words, it was a purely arbitrary decision. Even the more moderate mediators were outraged, saw a breach of the republican principle of equality before the law, and felt insulted by the government's scornful attitude to the mediators themselves. The widespread coverage in the media since the beginning should not lead to false conclusions; the Sans Papiers went through long and difficult times between April and June 1996. More than once, exhausted and discouraged, they were close to giving in.
The decisive role in new mobilization was played by the women, the "Sans Papières". They were ready to continue the campaign alone if the men decided to go home. In this way they initiated a number of independent activities such as the March of the Women on 11 May 1996 or the occupation of the (Socialist-governed) Town Hall in the 18th arrondissement in Paris on 25 June. The movement gained new impetus again and again through these initiatives.

[part 4]

Mogniss H. Abdallah, July 1999

[without papers in europe]