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international bordercamp strasbourg

The Sans Papiers movement

a climax in the history of French immigration [part 4]

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 4

The debate on immigration in St Bernard Church

After the failure of attempts to negotiate "on a more realistic basis", the Sans Papiers movement achieved new élan when, this time with the agreement of the priest responsible, Father Henri Coindé, they occupied the church of St Bernard in Paris. On 5 July 10, Sans Papiers went on hunger strike. In the middle of summer, mobilization reached its climax and gained international attention. Support increased dramatically and hundreds, even thousands came to prevent the police from intervening. The media were present everywhere and turned the event into the main topic of debate that summer.
This public interest in the question of immigration, quite unique up to this point, except perhaps for the march for equality in 1983, led to a dramatic leap in the quality of discussion by placing the event at St Bernard within the new context of globalization, the domination of the north over the south and the general precarious situation of French society. Many who had up till then shown little interest in the questions arising from immigration now had an intensive course in the realities of the issue, and the idea of "zero immigration", so much favoured by the former Minister of the Interior, Pasqua, became completely discredited.
The "Left to the left of the Left", as the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called them, now concentrated on the discussion about freedom of movement and the fundamental right to come and go within the framework of the globalization of free circulation, restricted up till now to capital, commodities and to the rich.
The support groups now had the opportunity to pose hard questions about what they themselves stood for. Jean-Pierre Alaux, a member of GISTI, showed his amusement about the confusion aroused by the autonomy of Sans Papiers: "It is quite extraordinary to observe how the associations, my own included, have been caught on the wrong foot ... It's somehow rather amusing to see how they wonder how they are to accommodate the people evicted from St Bernard. Put them up even in our own offices? But then we won't be able to work there any more! As if it was no job for the support groups who ostensibly clamoured for the defence of the rights of foreigners, to accommodate actively struggling foreigners. And although all these groups said their daily legal advice had been ineffective for years. And now it could at one stroke have an immediate effect again! But to break up a pointless routine, that would break up the support groups themselves!
So I am of the opinion that this could bring about a change in their work and in their relationship with the foreigners. The foreigners, with regard to their allies, now have more influence. They themselves will now feel that they have allies, whereas previously they were the allies of those who defended them. (cited at the end of the film "La Ballade des Sans Papiers" and "Sans Papiers, chronicles of a movement", IM média/Reflex, Paris 1997).
The greatly feared but nevertheless inevitable eviction took place on 23 August 1996 at 7.30 in the morning. The axe-blows on the church door, the use of brute force against these people, against women and children who wanted nothing more than papers whereby they could live, the deliberate splitting up of whites and black, all this aroused the disgust of the public, which experienced the eviction live on television. Public outrage had reaches its peak, and spontaneous demonstrations were held the same day all over the country.
25,000 people gathered in Paris at the St Bernard church and marched, to the slogan "Let the Sans Papiers go free!" to the detention center in Vincennes. The wave of indignation was even echoed in Africa, where protest demonstrations were also held. At the airport in Dakar the ground personnel refused to attend to a military Airbus full of deportees from France who had been forced to board the plane.
In the course of the following days the arrested Sans Papiers were freed again - the consequence of completely chaotic administrative tribunal proceedings, where most of the arrests for deportation were declared illegal. 13 Sans Papiers from St Bernard, however, amongst them two heads of families, were ordered to leave the country; in reaction the trade unions CGT and GFDT of the air transport branch organized a demonstration against "the charter of shame" at Charles de Gaulle Airport. The released Sans Papiers, on the other hand, moved into the Cartoucherie at Vincennes before being put up in the premises of the employees' council of the Banque Nationale de Paris in the Rue du Faubourg-Poisonnière in Paris. The authorities had tried to force them back into illegality but they had chosen the opposite, to continue and widen the campaign and prepare for a longstanding battle.

The Sans Papiers and the illegal labour market

On 31 August 1996 the National Coordination Group of the Sans Papiers Collective founded on 20 July called for a broadening of the campaign. The appeal was aimed at Sans Papiers but also at trade unionists, workers and teachers as well as other levels of immigrants and "sans" (the homeless, unemployed and illegally employed are described as the "sans"). Other immigrants joined the movement: the Chinese, absent from immigrant agitation up till then, turned up at meetings on St Bernard. They formed, together with Turks, North Africans and various other nationalities (27 altogether) the "3rd Collective".
The immigrant groups which had long been in existence were active in the background, at the side of Sans Papiers and organizations like Cedetim and the Human Rights League. Amongst the founding members were people like Said Bouziri, the former president of the MTA and a 1972 hunger striker, and the university anthropologist Emmanuel Terray. The 3rd Collective made itself known by stressing the role of the Sans Papiers in the economy, thereby publicising their importance as workers. It attempted to establish contact with the trade unions in the sectors in which Sans Papiers and illicit work are generally to be found: the building, hotel and restaurant trades, the textile industry and farming. In fact, police repression hurt the labour force without papers more than it did the employers hiring them. There were 12,000 deportations in this context in 1996, whereas only a few dozen employers - moreover, usually foreigners - were prosecuted, and seldom the actual persons responsible, who hid behind an extremely complicated system of cascade-like sub-contracts and sham companies and so were able to cover their tracks.
Theoretically they could be sentenced to two years' imprisonment and a fine of 200,000 FF, be barred from conducting business, and have their goods confiscated. But in practice, according to a police official in the newspaper "Le Monde" on 16.10.1996 "The sanctions are so mild that it's not worth the trouble". And rightly so, as illicit work has strategic significance in some sectors of the economy. The above official alleged: "You can say without exaggeration that practically all the Made in France clothing for women comes from hundreds of workshops which employ illegals. Moreover, this sector can only compete on that basis".
It is not a matter here of a marginal phenomenon in archaic sectors opposing "modernization", but a matter of this "modernization" itself. "From the crisis management of the second half of the 70's up to the restructuring in the 80's, the employment of foreign workers was always the decisive moment whereby a reaction took place to the new demands for flexibility and the smooth flow of the global labour supply. The massive reduction in the pay rates of foreign labour in industry, their increasing invasion of the tertiary sector, their relative stability of employment in small businesses, and the renewal of the forms of illegal work, have in this way accompanied, promoted and even anticipated the productive and employment systems and the renewal of working relationships" (Claude-Valentin Marie, "En première ligue de l'elasticité de l'emploi", in: Plein Droit No. 31, April 1996).
"Flexibilité" - the word has been uttered. It rhymes with "precarité " (precariousness, insecurity - of employment, for example - conquers the whole labour market and affects social life. Suddenly many French people accepted "dirty" jobs they had previously rejected. Various surveys showed that the proportion of Sans Papiers involved in illicit work was on the decline, and according to estimates of registered offences was now below 10%. The struggle for legalization of the Sans papiers employed illicitly led in this way to the question of illicit work in general.
It would however be illusory to believe that the legalization of residence would place the illegalization of employment in question. To counter demands by legal wage-earners, employers often resorted to taking on other, illegal workers: French people, immigrants with residence status or new Sans Papiers. This situation explains why many Sans Papiers preferred to remain under cover. They wanted above all to keep their jobs, no matter how illegal or badly paid they were. It was a matter, then, of a global struggle against capitalist exploitation in ever newer forms.
The authorities were unhappy to discuss these realities and reacted violently if the Sans Papiers became active in this area. The attempt to occupy the giant Stadium of France in St. Denis was thus choked at the outset and one of the initiators, Hadj Momar Diop, was imprisoned on the spot. By this action the movement wanted to indicate that the Stadium of France, where the World Football Championship Final was to be held in 1998, would never be completed in time without the employment of Sans Papiers.

Humanitarian commitment and political instrumentalization

The agitation about economic aspects did not however stand at the centre of the movement's efforts. The argument of economic benefit had no validity for the legitimation of Sans Papiers activities. "The arguments used as a basis for demands have changed completely; they have left the field of economics in favour of the humanitarian and/or political area. Agitation in 1992 revolved around the question of asylum, the mobilization from 1996 to 1998 proclaimed as its main argument, "The right to live in the family" or "good integration". (Claude-Valentin Marie, "Emploi des étrangers sans titre, travail illégal, régularisation: des débats en trompe-l'oeil" in : Immigration & Intégration, l'état des savoirs, (La Découverte), Paris 1999). On the eve of the eviction from St Bernard the movement found itself at the cross-roads between humanitarian and political orientation.
Beside the constant efforts to ensure unity at the roots of the movement, which was torn between the different interests of the various categories of Sans Papiers, it now had to try and resist the instrumentalization of its campaign for political purposes - namely the downfall of the Juppé Government.
SOS Racisme wanted "new, wide-reaching agitation against the Pasqua laws" and played down the role of the Sans Papiers campaign even in this formulation. In this way they wanted to prepare the ground for the Socialist Party, whose leaders had been markedly absent during the whole St Bernard affair. The radical left followed the same pattern with their seemingly more radical slogan: "Debré and Juppé should be thrown out, not the Sans Papiers!" The Sans Papiers reacted coolly to this, announcing : "Debré, Juppé don't matter to us, what we want are papers!" To show that they needed no lessons from others, the Sans Papiers demonstrated their political autonomy by organizing caravan treks throughout the country to hold public debates on site and at the same time to draw the Sans Papiers collective into a common line of action as agreed in the proclamation of the National Coordination Body on 31 August 1996: "The important thing is the abolition of the Pasqua-Méhaignerie Laws and the whole arsenal of legislation hostile to foreigners in the last 20 years, whereby this uniform demand should not just be a consolation till some distant election day, but used as a rallying point for mobilization here and now".

The wave of petitions urging "civil disobedience" (February 1997)

This warning was made at a recent internal French political debate sparked off by the elections now on the horizon. Jacques Chirac had not yet announced the surprising dissolution of Parliament and new elections in May/June 1997, when the Right as well as the Left closed ranks for the election campaign. A section on the right wanted to counter the view that the social and economic programmes of the different parties seemed all the same to the voters, and to win the election on the basis of an energetic immigration policy. This programme was then presented as a draft law of Debré's - under the name of the then Minister of the Interior, who wanted to put his stamp on immigrant legislation with a renewed modification of the decree of 1945. Article 1 of the draft proposed that anyone receiving a visit by a foreigner had to report this to his local town hall, otherwise he/she was threatened with the charge of aiding and abetting illegal residency. At exactly the same time, Jacqueline Deltrombe, a Frenchwoman living with a Sans Papiers in Lille, was sentenced on just these grounds. The reaction was spectacular: 66 film-makers held a press conference and made an appeal for civil disobedience against the proposed Debré law. Immediately afterwards, writers, artists, scientists, university teachers, jounalists, doctors, lawyers and members of many other professions drew up a petition to this end, and the daily newspapers carried never-ending lists of people ready to accommodate foreigners without asking for papers.
On 22 February 1997, 100,000 people demonstrated in Paris against Debré. The Socialist Party was once again completely overtaken by events. A further important political factor helped to explain this wave of petitions: at the beginning of February, Bruno Megret, or rather his wife, won the communal election in Vitrolles in the South of France. Bruno Megret, the No. 2 in the Front Nationale and an ideologist of the "New Right", had made a frontal attack on cultural circles as "cosmopolitan" and "depraved". In cooperation with the other FN-mayors in the region brought to power in the Toulon, Marignane and Orange elections, he now wanted to close prestigious institutions such as the drama school "Centre d'art dramatique" in Chateauvallon. Intellectuals and artists had then begun, faced with the threat to their livelihood, to mobilize all their networks against the cultural looting envisaged by the new mayor of Vitrolles and Le Pen's future rival. No one could imagine reporting a visit by a foreign friend to such a person, even if he were the mayor of a large city. In this way the movement for civil disobedience finally succeeded in forcing Debré to withdraw Article I. The rest of the law was approved by Parliament and officially published on 25 April 1977.
But the mood had changed. The election campaign had already begun. With regard to the sudden flood of petitions, they represented an independent movement with its own fundamental ethics of civil disobedience. Free from "support" complexes arising from ambigious and fixed role allocations, this new movement was to articulate itself on a much more organic basis, together with the autonomous Sans Papiers. Both currents of resistance against the government developed in this way a kind of give and take relationship. This was illustrated in an exemplary way at the Cannes Film Festival, when a short film supported by 175 directors and film-makers was presented, in which Madjiguène Cissé, in close-up, recites eye to eye with the audience: "We, the Sans Papiers of France, have decided to come out into the open". And although, after the withdrawal of the contested Article 1, numerous signatories to the petition dropped out, the civil disobedience campaign was not short-lived; on the contrary, many believed they saw signs of a possible resurgence of the left (compare, for example the call on the eve of the election: "We are the Left!").

Help! The Left is coming back!

A gift from God - the left-wing election victory on 1 June 1997 awoke wild hopes amongst the Sans Papiers. A march for legalization set out the same day from Angouleme and reached, some ten days later, Matignon, the seat just won by Prime Minister Jospin. A delegation was admitted. Eventually Ababacar Diop announced that he had Jospin's agreement to the legalization of all Sans Papiers of St Bernard. In all other cases the government proposed a case-by-case legalization limited to conditions and pronounced by the Prefects according to the stipulations of a decree. The six criteria which the Human Rights Commission had drawn up in September 1996 were also to apply, being close to those of the negotiating committee: spouses of French people and foreigners with residence status, parents of children born in France, people well integrated into French society, rejected asylum-seekers, those in serious danger in their home countries, the seriously ill, and students. In addition, the senior government official Jean-Michel Galabert was to act as a "transmission belt" between administration and Sans Papiers, especially in difficult cases.
The government refused, however, to place a moratorium on deportations. Promptly on the 17 June, Gary Moussa, a member of the St Bernard collective, was deported. On 14 July an extraordinary meeting of the National Coordination Committee of Sans Papiers took place in the Paris Employment Centre. In a heated atmosphere due to the importance of the matter, the committee was to decide on the course to be taken now. The views conflicted: were the government proposals to be seen as an act of good will, a first step or even as an initial victory which could lead to others? The committee finally decided to stick by its rejection of the case-by-case regulation, demanded the repeal of the Pasqua-Debré laws and all laws directed against immigrants, an end to deportations, the return of deportees as well as the release of arrested Sans Papiers.
The necessity of a law on global legalization similar to that of 1981 or those of other countries (Spain, Italy, Portugal...) was also stressed, but the battle for all this did not really begin. The Committee was weakened at this time by personality conflicts in its leadership and was subjected to a kind of passive boycott by its supporters, which did not accept the autonomy of decisions by the national secretariat, which consisted solely of Sans Papiers. In the face of the unwillingness of the government to adopt a genuine policy of legalization, "the National Coordination Committee, caught up in conflicts about its own work, was unable to unleash new, collective dynamic forces which might have brought about global legalization" (Salah Teiar and Madiguène Cissé, in an open letter to the Sans Papiers Collective and support groups on 5 May 1997). Said Bouamama, one of the spokesment of the Sans-Papiers Collective North (CSP59) had already written before the left returned to power: "We are far from having the political leadership necessary to launch countrywide initiatives and stick to them. Coordination at present is just an occasion for monthly meetings without real power of decision or a precise mandate. This absence of national structuring is a serious weakness in the present phase". (in: "Sans Papiers: Chronicle of a movement", IM média/Reflex, Paris 1997).
The other serious strategic gap in the Sans Papiers movement was the absence of an organic link with legal immigration. The movement which had emerged from immigration was doubtless going through a difficult period, was demotivated and suffering from an obvious lack of perspective. For many activists, commitment on the Sans Papiers front line was a substitute for this lack of presence.
Suddenly, immigrants with regular status found themselves supporting the Sans Papiers, but were swamped by the number of those who in their ignorance saw immigration as something connected only with the particular Sans Papiers situation.This helps to explain the anger of the MIB, the immigration and suburban movement, at the alliance policy of the St Bernard Sans Papiers, which from the beginning had preferred good relations with the solidarity groups.
For the MIB, the tensions between the Sans Papiers and these groups were irrelevant, and diverted attention from the important thing: the necessary redetermination of an alternative capable of reconstituting the immigration campaign. The Sans Papiers neatly avoided this question by pointing out the absence of legal immigrants in the movement. The open hostility of many "beurs", (a slang word for North Africans) towards the "clandos", or Sans Papiers, did not help the situation, but hinder it. In many respects the Sans Papiers movement had lagged begind the immigrants' historical political demands with regard to the 10-year residence permit, the new citizenship and even freedom of movement. For the most part this retreat in Sans Papiers demands can be ascribed to French humanitarian "support" and its concern about "realism".
This situation intensified the sharp criticism of MIB activists, who rejected decisively the principle of unconditional support for the Sans Papiers ("Either you support us or you shut up!"). "It is not enough to know who you are fighting, you must also know who your allies are", said the MIB. In the spring they launched a counter-attack in the form of a CD entitled "11'30 contre les lois racistes" (11'30 against the racist laws) which began with a discussion between the film buff Jean-Francois Richet and Madj, from the Rap group Assassin. "Laws by Deferre, laws by Joxe, laws by Pasqua and Debré - all with the same logic: hunt the immigrants. And don't forget the flood of decrees and regulations. We will never forgive the barbarity of your inhuman legislation. Only a racist can pass racist laws. So stop all this folklore of anti-racism and putting up a good front in the euphoria of the national holiday. Legalize all immigrants without papers and their families! Repeal all racist laws regulating immigrant residency in France. We demand the emancipation of all the exploited in this country, be they French or immigrant. What do you think of that?" Over 120,000 people would buy this CD to support the MIB, "a group that always defended those that others did not consider defensible".

The implementation of the Chevènement decyree on 24 June 1997: the trap of case-by-case examination

On 24 June 1997, the government published the so-called Chevènement Law, named after the Minister of the Interior. Some 150,000 Sans Papiers stormed into the Prefectures to hand in their particulars before the deadline on 31 October 1997. A veritable obstacle race now began with the aim of fulfilling the selection provisions, which became more and more restrictive the greater the number of applications. Apparently the government had vastly underestimated the figures. Moreover, it tried to win time so that the publication of legalization figures would not coincide with the regional elections in March 1998. Activists in legal advice centres were literally collapsing under the weight of paperwork required for acquiring the necessary documentation, by which the following had to be proven: a minimum residence of 7 years in France, a period of regular residency of 3-6 months, income from a steady job, regular attendance at school and even proof of political persecution.
In the end, the Sans Papiers received, at best, a residence permit for one year, with or without a work permit, according to the individual case. Such legalization, often nothing more than a stamp in the passport, was very limited compared with earlier legalization, which awarded residence permits to families for 10 years. From now on, the one-year residence permit had to be extended three times for any hope of a 10-year residency. After several postponements under the combined influence of agitation and bureaucracy, the legalization procedure was finalized officially on 31 December 1998. The result: for 143,500 appplications there were 81,000 legalizations and 62,500 rejections.
Three quarters of the applications on the basis of family bonds were accepted, but only 20% of the "single" applications. From one département to the other these results varied arbitrarily according to the goodwill of the respective prefectures, and a number of applications were rejected at one office but accepted by another.
Apparently some nationalities were given preferential treatment. 87% of the Chinese (with 9,000 applications) but only 37% of the Turks (with 8,000 applications) were accepted. The high percentage of legalized Philippinas (70% of the 1,900 applications) indicates the intention to legalize the situation of domestics. Last of all, the analysis of legalizations permits a vocational and sociological profile of the Sans Papiers. It confirms the large proportion of social classes which were relatively privileged in the countries of origin. Amongst the Algerians, for example, of whom 58% out of 11,000 applicants were legalized, were often "western-orientated, higher-level office workers, doctors and teachers; amongst the Malians (50% acceptance of 10,000 applications) the predominance of people from the middle-level farming sector was apparent. These findings, which had already become evident in the differing social attitudes of the Sans Papiers during their agitation, went a long way to relativizing the cliché about "the whole misery of the world".

[part 5]

Mogniss H. Abdallah, July 1999

[without papers in europe]