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international bordercamp strasbourg

The Sans Papiers movement

a climax in the history of French immigration [part 5]

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 5

The registration of the "official illegals"

Retrospectively, the activists in the support groups suffered quite a shock. What if they had now become unwilling accomplices of a gigantic campaign aimed at registration of the Sans Papiers? In fact, all the available information was now stored in a central register established for the legalization process. The police now had all the data on rejected applicants. What would happen to them? "They are called upon to return home", Jospin said repeatedly and added reassuringly, "but they won't be picked up at their homes". These explanations induced a senate investigation committee (dominated by the Right) seriously to conjure the term "official illegals" and complain that this was "a signal that you could be illegal in France and stay there". A signal to foreigners that could produce a dangerous snowball effect? Rather more a signal to employers that they could carry on using illegal labour. They could continue to depend on them.
The Minister of the Interior, Jean-Pierre Chevenèment, also assured everyone that the rejected immigrants would not be deported. They would receive the order to leave the country within a month (IQT). If they so wished, they could receive "repatriation support" for their country of origin, 4,500 FF per adult and 900 FF per child. This measure, the outcome of an interministerial commission under the chairmanship of the university professor Sami Nour, was presented as a symbol of a new cooperative North-South policy ("codéveloppement Nord/Sud"). Several thousand candidates were to take advantage of it. But up till June 1999 only 21 rejected Sans Papiers had made use of it!
The Sans Papiers movement did not first await the end of the legalization procedure to react. From the summer onwards, new forms of activity such as the weekly picketing in front of the police prefecture of Paris kept up the pressure and highlighted the contradictions in the administration. The involvement of "Act Up" in the campaign made it all the more spectacular. The announcement of the first rejections aroused further anger and there was talk, especially in Lille, of a return to unlimited hunger strikes.
On the day the deadline for the presentation of applications expired, the initiatives made themselves heard. On 1 November 1997, 5,000 people demonstrated in Paris with the slogan "Papers for all!" The feeling of being betrayed by the state was so strong that groups such as MRAP demanded the destruction of files (this was done after the 1981-82 legalizations). Petitions were also drawn up again. 30,000 people signed the call by "Droit devant!": "Jospin: legalize now!" -"Because we don't want to assist in this fraud, because the situation appears extremely serious to us if there are more and more shattered hopes in France, we call upon the government to respond to this situation with a political gesture: we demand the legalization of all Sans Papiers who have made applications. In expectation that legislation that breaks radically with the laws of yesterday (Pasqua-Debré) and what is proposed today (the Chevènement project) might finally stop the machine which produces people without papers".

The "republican consensus" against the Sans Papiers

The Chevènement reform project, by which yet again the 1945 regulation on entry and residence in France was to be amended, was in reality a large-scale manoeuvre by the left aimed at legitimizing the struggle against illegal immigration. The task of working out new key points in immigration policy was given in the summer to the political scientist Patrick Weil, a good friend of Jean-Pierre Chevènement with a comparable republican and Jacobin mentality. With incredible arrogance he took over the whole terrain by declaring to all who wanted to hear that the defenders of the Sans Papiers and campaigners for open borders were the "Trojan horse of neoliberalism and the international destabilization of labour laws". In defence of the "nation states which by definition have the right to decide who can enter the territority over which they exercise sovereignty" he suggests "an alternative policy in the fight against illegal immigration" which was to replace the strategy of repression and persecution by deterrence.
"First of all, I suggest allowing unemployed young people and those drawing RMI (Revenu Minimum d'Insertion, a state supplement for low-level incomes up to a fixed "minimum" (for people over 25) to improve their unemployment benefit or RMI with income from sectors where illicit work is on the increase, such as restaurant trades, at the weekends or during the season, in farming or in building..." To deter "foreigners without residence status from coming here and trying their luck in these sectors", he even suggests placing temporary and other insecure jobs under state control (Patrick Weil, Controvers: quelle politique pour l'immigration? in Revue Esprit, July 1997).
With this reference to the old idea of "national privilege", which consisted of replacing "illegals" by native unemployed, Patrick Weil was fishing in the murky waters of the Front National. The Chevènement-Weil tandem did not even shrink back from warning that whoever defended Sans Papiers so irresponsibly was playing into the hands of the extreme right. A new view of history was also presented: the comprehensive legalization of 1981 was one of the reasons for the spectacular rise of the Front National, in the words of Chevènement! The aim of this consciously polemic offensive was to marginalize the Sans Papiers and cause uncertainty among their supporters, as well as to create a "republican consensus" on immigration, which alone could produce an "objective approach" to the issue. Immigration should no longer be allowed to poison the political climate. The government thus demonstrated its firm will to republicans on the left or the right to re-establish its authority. From this point of view the justification for the proposed legislation speaks volumes:
"None of the parties represented in Parliament questions the necessity of coping with the flood of immigrants. No one demands "papers for all". A world without papers and regulations would moreover be an unstable one which would open the gate to all kinds of abuse and repression. To protect our social model we need a clear dividing line between foreigners with regular status (3.7 million) who should have the same social rights as French citizens, and those who intend to remain illegally on our national territory". The whole argumentation for the law went in this direction and even gave the rejection of "papers for all" a progressive veneer: "One cannot fight against the injustices in the world by distributing residence permits, but only by helping people to liberate themselves from their misery and from all forms of repression". - Anti-imperialism "à la francaise"! -
During the debate on the proposed legislation, Chevènement received constant applause from the Right, especially when he came to the "trouble-makers" with their "fundamental lack of civic virtues", who had opposed the deportation of Sans Papiers at Roissy Airport. As a proper watchdog of the Republic he waved the big stick: he would punish the members of a "Trotskyist organization of British origin", "the pamphlet distributors", but also a certain number of passengers who prevented the take-off of the plane by their interference" - a plane in which, on 28 March 1998, thirteen people were sitting, waiting for their deportation. "Whoever gives this kind of support makes the law ridiculous and contributes to a loss of the orientation which the Republic needs to form a front against the Right". "There are many measures we can resort to and we are considering them in detail".
The offence of "aiding people to refuse to go on board", "traffic obstruction in the vicinity of airports", or even registration with the SIS (Schengen Information System) and a ban on entry into member states; Chevènement's tirade of hate led some months later to the conviction of Siréné Diawara for refusal to go on board - he was, as one of the Sans Papiers to be deported, to be flown out that day. He was sentenced to a year's imprisonment, a proceeding unknown up till then.
At this time the Minister of the Interior and Jospin were inaccessible for new petitions from film people and writers, who demanded once again the legalization of all those who had submitted applications and declared themselves ready to sponsor one of the rejected applicants. In the end the Parliament passed a correspondingly limited law on 11 May 1998 which was to improve on earlier regulations. It contained some positive elements such as a one-year "private and family" residence status for those with "personal and family ties" in France. In reality it was just an adaptation of French regulations to the European Human Rights Convention.
But why bicker - a new opportunity was created here for foreigners who were not polygamous, could provide minimum residence of 10 years (students: 15 years) and were not a "threat to the public order". In addition, equality in social rights (support for the handicapped, old age benefits, council homes) from which immigrants with regular status had been excluded till now, was also guaranteed. Special residence status for scientists, artists and the seriously ill was created, and finally so-called "constitutional asylum" for "freedom fighters", as well as "territorial asylum", which the Minister of the Interior could grant to foreigners "in danger of inhuman treatment or discrimination in their home countries", were introduced. However, the whole arsenal of measures against foreigners without regular status was maintained or even extended. The symbol of this intensification was the extension of the legal maximum period of administrative arrest to 12 days, as well as the tightening of sanctions for "gang-like" aid in illegal residence (10 years' imprisonment and up to 5 million francs in fines). Whether this regulation, obviously aimed at smugglers, could also be enforced against groups and associations involved in refugee solidarity, was still a secret. It was however clear that there would be no breach with the previous policies towards immigration on the part of the republican left represented by Jospin and Chevènement. The hopes of all those who had believed the vague election promises to abolish the Pasqua-Debré laws had now been dashed. But don't we say that "promises are only binding to those who believe them"?

Splits and regrouping in the Sans Papiers

The end of the illusion led to a radicalisation of the movement ( including those who had argued for a "critical support" of the government). Hunger strikes were launched, as well as (negotiated) church occupations and "republican sponsorships" of rejected Sans Papers in the town halls governed by the left. The dismay of the supporters and their efforts to help the rejected by any means were serious in nature. But behind the criticism of the change of course of the left-wing government in immigration matters, attempts were also hidden to re-form the left-wing coalition and on the basis of the internal power balance to negotiate their own position anew - a section of the "support" for the Sans Papiers (the Greens, the Communists, the Socialist Left) actually shared power with the Socialist Party without ever seriously considering leaving the government to cause a breach in the policy practised up till now.
In this context the Sans Papiers became a manoeuvrable mass for an internal dispute within the left-wing. The anti-racist groups and associations, which claimed practically a monopoly on the defence of foreigners, regarded themselves as indispensable discussion partners for the government. To justify their sole claim to representation, they had to occupy disputed terrain. And to avoid surprises with unforeseeable consequences they had to take control of the Sans Papiers movement as a whole! This is one of the decisive reasons which caused the section of supporters allied to the government to seize control of the headquarters of the Sans Papiers at the beginning of 1998. Madjiguène Cissé and Salah Teiar, the historically leading figures in the coordinationg group, were expelled from the National Secretariat for "incitement to uncoordinated and irresponsible activities"! An opportunity for this was offered by the attempted occupation of the church of St. Jean in Montmartre on 18 March 1998, which led to the arrest of 71 Sans Papiers. The new "mixed" National Secretariat (Sans Papiers and supporters) competed with Chevènement in their tirades on "irresponsible actions" which "played into the hands of the government"!
The squabbling reached the peak of absurdity when the new leadership of the National Coordination followed a head-in-the-sand policy towards Chevènement's proposed legislation, which was still the subject of debate; in fact they no longer demanded its repeal, so as to give the government a way out. The breach within the movement could no longer be repaired. Immediately afterwards, the Ile-de-France (Paris) collective attempted to bring the Sans Papiers together on a regional level to mend the divisions in many collectives and to maintain an autonomous radical rallying point on the basis of: "Legalization for all Sans Papiers". This rallying point was to make possible an intensive debate on the movement's demands and especially intensify criticism of the short-term nature of the legalizations achieved (residence permits only for 3 months to 1 year with no guarantee of extension). Further aims were to spread mobilization of the Sans Papiers to foreign workers' hostels, increased cooperation with anti-deportation committees in France and Europe, and an alliance with other social entities, especially the unemployed. The Ile-de-France collective suffered however from a lack of logistic facilities and had to cope with internal differences about how to deal with conflicts within the movement.
Paradoxically, a split within the "Left to the left of the Left" also became apparent on the eve of the European Parliament elections: "On the one hand the left-wing government factions and their satellite groups, on the other, some organizations for the defence of foreigners (GISTI, FASTI, MRAP) the radical left-wing Lutte Ouvrière and LCR, some sections of the trade unions and above all the Christian activists, human rights campaigners and unorganized radicals. The former supported the demand for "Papers for all who applied", as well as one-year residence permits, some spoke out for immigration control and regulation of freedom of movement, i.e., a quota policy (e.g. Cohn-Bendit), others defended the demand of "Papers for all" within the context of the struggle for equal rights, freedom of movement and a uniform residence permit of 10 years for all immigrants. Even if there was a clear dividing line between these two lines of thought, the dividing line in practice, especially in the provincial committees, was less distinct and many activists on the ground switched from one line to the other, often unconsciously. And there were further common campaigns, e.g. for the release of Diawara or support of Michel Beurier, a CGT trade unionist from Clermont Ferrand who was sentenced to two months' imprisonment on probation and a 3,000 FF fine in March 1999.
The CGT had then campaigned all over the country and mobilized 10,000 people who admitted openly to the "offence of solidarity". The Sans Papiers movement had often gained new elan in the battle with its opponents, but it had setbacks in 1999; it was affected by the demobilization and loss of perspectives in other social groups - under the general impression that everything was getting better: unemployment had declined, two thirds of legalization applications had been approved and even the Front National suffered losses in the European elections in June 1999. Many activists felt that the problems were not so serious any more and they were on the right road to solving them.

What about an European Sans Papiers movement?

The splits in the movement and the retreat into local activities intensified in the period after the official end of the legalization process under Chevènement, in spite of several demonstrations throughout the country, which remained, however, isolated. The absence of a really nation-wide organization of the movement became clearer and clearer, but the temptation to surge ahead with activities gained the upper hand over the need for political reconstruction of the Sans Papers on the basis of self-organization. When negotiations with the French government had obviously reached a deadlock, Europe and the international stage became the last court of appeal, which was the right approach in the sense that the harmonization of refugee policies on a European level was on the table. The French Sans Papiers now wanted to take advantage of their almost legendary reputation throughout Europe since the spectacular eviction from the St Bernard Church, and to initiate new activities all over Europe.
They had already started this after the events in summer 1996. Various collectives had planned, in September 1996, to climb up the European Parliament building, meet MP's, inform them about the social and legal situation of the Sans Papiers and urge them to support their demand for global legalization. To ensure that they were heard, Ababacar Diop and his friends wanted to occupy the building. The initiators of the event, the League of Human Rights, the Migrant Forum of the EU and the Pure Left Group in Strasbourg persuaded them to abandon their plans. In return, 80 Sans Papiers or their supporters were admitted to the Parliament, photographed according to regulations and given stickers to allow them through the check-points. For the Sans Papiers, this measure, the result of broad but peaceful pressure, was equivalent to official recognition, and came at a time when the French government rejected any form of dialogue. They therefore decided to play along and inspected their surroundings with great interest. After they had made their views felt, a debate developed among the European MP's. The day after, the European Parliament passed a resolution supporting to a great extent the demands of the Sans Papiers and charged the Commission on Public Liberties with the preparation of a report on the circumstances surrounding the deportation of foreigners with no regular status in France.
Above all, the commission's work led to the suggestion by the European Parliament that its own decisions should be binding on all member states of the European Community. On 8 April 1997, it approved by 174 votes to 166, with 66 abstentions, a resolution requiring the countries of the European Community to give "secure legal status" to Sans Papiers who "due to restrictive immigration laws" had lost their legal status, and demanded that people without legal status who had lived for a long period in the country should not be arrested. Had the Sans Papiers been fooled about the real power of the European Parliament? Not really. They certainly hoped the European Parliament would exert additional pressure on the French government, which had been following the route dictated by a rigid, authoritarian Right Wing. They hoped all the more because they had succeeded in winning part of the European centre for their cause. But they knew only too well that it was a general decision, the affirmation of a principle which in the face of the present realities of the power ratio between France and the European institutions would hardly have concrete effects. One must also remember the situation at the time, which was marked by the general bustle of activity which the supporters of the movement wanted to encourage. The appeal to the European Parliament was therefore only one event amongst many. It was repeated once again when the Left were in power. When Lionel Jospin refused to meet them, Noumou Dicko and Brahima Niakaté, hunger strikers from Limeil-Brévannes near Paris, went to Strasbourg for European support. They were accompanied by a delegation from the National Coordination, well-known personalities, MP's and representatives of solidarity groups. Once again it was a matter of obtaining renewed support in principle to force the French government into negotiations, as it was known how sensitively it would react - despite all declarations to the contrary - to renewed European disapproval of its immigration policy.
Otherwise, for the Sans Papiers, Europe signified, for the most part, border police, detention centres and deportations, sometimes even fatal ones, such as the case of Semira Adamu, still fresh in everyone's memory because the media printed photos of her and explained how she was suffocated by having a cushion pressed over her face. It was therefore no wonder that the Sans Papiers relationship with European institutions had been rather difficult since then.
Nevertheless, the idea took root that the French state should be condemned for not respecting international agreements, especially the European Commission on Human Rights. The lawyers of the GISTI and various intermediaries such as Monique Chemillier-Gendreau are to be thanked for this and for their participation in public debates on the future course of the movement.
Working upwards from individual cases, they often won the day, and in this way laid the foundations of favourable legislation, even if the French authorities often ignored it, a reaction which was increasingly difficult for them to maintain. The Sans Papiers from France did not limit their activities at the European level to the European Parliament, however. Numerous contacts were made in many countries, especially Germany, Italy and Belgium, to launch a European Sans Papiers campaign.
Fascinated by the French example, European public opinion is beginning to shift noticeably with regard to immigration. Here and there, social, politically radical or alternative movements are attempting to find articulation, even if they ignore each other's existence or at least refuse to cooperate (e.g. Dutch and German anti-Fascists play no part in the unemployed's campaign and the German unemployed have difficulty in showing solidarity with illegals). This continued fragmentation of conflicts which run side by side without ever joining up (including major anti-capitalist events such as in Amsterdam, Geneva and Cologne) is absurd, considering the continuing efforts by European states to create general insecurity in working conditions and to control the "dangerous classes". If we are not careful, the terms "national" or "European priority", which have become so common, will apply to everything from entry into the European Fortress to access to employment, income and social security.
The French Sans Papiers movement could make a useful contribution to a joining of forces, but first we must abandon the tendency to play the star, roaming around Europe and boasting of the "French exception". Beyond self-promotion and European joyrides, which all too often serve internal French purposes, it is now essential to formulate a new kind of immigration policy, which is not just seen as the simple sum of specific situations in any country, but as a common experience.

Mogniss H. Abdallah, July 1999

[without papers in europe]