On 12 July 2019, a collective of undocumented migrants (known in French as sans-papiers, without papers) occupied the Panthéon, a mausoleum and popular tourist site in Paris’s Latin Quarter. Calling themselves the gilets noirs (black vests), they have occupied several high-profile locations in recent weeks, even taking over a wing of the capital’s Charles de Gaulle airport. Their protests have highlighted their conditions as sans-papiers in France but also the harm done by French business and military interference in their own (mostly African) homelands. Mathilde Mathieu and Rouguyata Sall explain how migrants who are usually reduced to the most invisible of conditions have begun to make their voices heard.
After the gilets noirs occupied the Panthéon on 12 July, the undocumented migrants’ collective found themselves surrounded and even outright trampled on by the police. Some of those arrested were handed “compulsory orders to leave French territory”; 15 of them were detained, awaiting their expulsion.
But that wasn’t the whole story. This young movement of sans-papiers, which arose in November 2018 with the demand for mass regularisations, had long remained in a media blind spot. Now it claimed a “victory”.
This was, firstly, a “legal victory”. The 15 people who were detained were all freed, thanks to the aid of a pool of “anti-repression” lawyers who had been mobilised in advance of the action. One participant was called back before the courts for “public indecency”.
But this was, above all, a “political victory”. For years, it seemed that undocumented workers’ struggles had been rendered invisible, as public debate instead polarised around the refugee question – that is, the matter of who had the right to asylum and who had what Interior Minister Christophe Castaner called the “vocation” to get back on the plane home.
Today, with the Panthéon occupation, the gilets noirs proclaim that “the fear has passed over to the other side”. Now counting in the hundreds, they address themselves to none other than the prime minister himself, refusing to be “managed by Castaner and the police prefects”.
On 12 July, Prime Minister Édouard Philippe was indeed forced to react, faced with images of the (peaceful) occupation as well as the radical speeches – delivered over the tombs of Victor Hugo and Voltaire – with their talk of “France perpetuating slavery by other means”.
Galvanised, the gilets noirs have announced that fresh actions are coming soon. As one active member, Houssam, puts it, “we’re ready to take action – civil disobedience”.
Who are the Gilets Noirs?
But what do the gilets noirs want to achieve? Why has their movement arisen now? And in what sense do they mark a change from more “traditional” sans-papiers collectives?
Fundamentally, their aims can be summarised as follows: “We are not just fighting for papers [to be regularised] but against the whole system that produces sans-papiers.” Houssam adds: “We want to destroy all the actors in the racist system, or at least go on the attack against them.” And they’re doing so with a kind of risk-taking that’s rarely been seen in recent years.
“We’ve already lived through hell in the Sahara and in Libya,” explains Camara – a well-known name in the movement, in a migrants’ hostel in Paris’s 19th arrondissement. “So, we won’t be giving up.” A Malian, he arrived in France only in September 2018 and is already working on building sites: “The employers pay us 50 euros a day, they profit. And if you ask for a Cerfa form [to present an application to the prefecture, requesting regularisation on the basis of your work], they get rid of you and take someone else on instead. And so on and so forth.”
Camara’s not the only gilet noir bearing the scars of what was once the land of Gaddafi. In Libya, almost all migrants are thrown into detention cells and camps, and sometimes traded by Mafiosi, tortured and reduced to slavery. Nor is Camara the only one who’s survived being cast off in a raft on the Mediterranean. The French authorities endeavour to distinguish the people on these rafts who are potential refugees and those who are “economic migrants”. Yet the raft-goers all show one same face: an expression of terror. After all this, should they then have to play a waiting game in France, hiding away and begging at their employers’ feet for “a Cerfa form”?
“The fear is over. If we don’t take risks, we won’t get anything,” insists Mamadou, a 21-year-old Malian who arrived in France in 2016 via Libya and Italy. Arrested in front of the Panthéon on 12 July and slapped with a “compulsory order to leave French territory” (the very first one he’s received in France), he was subsequently locked up in the Vincennes detention center before being released by a judge.
“I’ll be there for the next action,” Mamadou promises. “We don’t win rights just sitting at home.” His older brother Samba, employed in the building trade, will also participate: “On the building sites, in restaurants, in cleaning, there’s no one but sans-papiers working there. It’s time the prime minister listened to us. We’re a bigger sight than the Panthéon!”
Kaba also took a big risk on 12 July. A 24-year-old from Mauritania, she explains how she fled abuse and a forced marriage. After arriving in France less than two years ago, she saw her asylum application rejected by the Ofpra (the office responsible for granting or denying refugee status) and then the National Asylum Rights Court (in a case that is still on appeal). If she gets checked by police, a police prefect could decide that she will be subject to “forced displacement” (as the administrative euphemism puts it) within just two hours.
Kaba had already taken part in several gilets noirs actions, without getting arrested. The actions in which she participated included the one at Charles de Gaulle airport on 19 May 2019, in order to buttonhole the CEO of Air France (“the French state’s official deporter”) and the one on 12 June 2019 at the headquarters of the Elior Group, a specialist in collective catering with a reputation for hiring sans-papiers (who, a company spokesman claims, provide “aliases” when they sign up, ie the papers of some other person who does indeed have regularised status).
This time, in front of the Panthéon, “the police asked if I had papers, and I said no”. Kaba was taken to the police station, only to be released an hour and a half later without being given a “compulsory order to leave French territory”. According to her comrades, this was just another case of the reign of “arbitrary rules”.
“Thanks to the gilets noirs I’ve found work,” she points out – lining up cleaning and “garbage removal” jobs in offices from 5.30am to 8.30am, and then working afternoons for a perfume brand, for 500 to 700 euros a month. But what about the crackdown with which these actions meet? “We have no choice.”
Some of the gilets noirs even sleep in the street. Indeed, this is a novelty of the movement: while the struggles of undocumented workers have traditionally been led by solidarity networks and by West Africans (Malians, Mauritanians, Senegalese people, etc) boasting no few years in France, the gilets noirs also include Sudanese, Eritrean, or even Afghan migrants who have only just seen their asylum claims rejected, or even been “Dublinised” (that is, they risk being sent back to the first EU country where their fingerprints were taken – an application of the “Dublin agreement” on asylum).
“Among the gilets noirs there are new arrivals who are still looking for a place to put their suitcases,” confirms Anzoumane Sissoko – one of the spokespeople for the CSP 75 (a longstanding Paris sans-papier collective). “The only possibility they have is to accept any job going.” At a personal level, Sissoko – who has already been fighting for “18 years” – gives hearty support to the gilets noirs: “There’s 700 of them – if we joined together with the other collectives and unions, there’d be maybe 2 000 of us.”
Indeed, behind this movement, we find just two organisations: most importantly, La Chapelle Debout (“La Chapelle, Stand Up!”) – an association created in northern Paris in 2015 in order to help out migrants on the streets – and Droits devant!! (“Rights First!” – a pun on “Straight Ahead!”), an association founded by figures like popular scientist Albert Jacquard at the end of 1994, not long before the months-long occupation of the Saint-Bernard church by some 300 sans-papiers.
These two associations worked on their own, without either the “traditional” sans-papiers collectives (for years weakened by divisions or even internecine struggles) or the unions who have engaged on these issues. They directly mobilised in the workers’ hostels, one by one (some 40 such structures are already involved).
“Yes, we took a step back from some collectives (like the Union Nationale des Sans-Papiers, UNSP) who have lowered their ambitions and now settle for deals in the police prefectures to push a few people’s files under the radar, while losing sight of the goal of a general regularisation,” reports Jean-Claude Amara, a long-time leading light in Droits devant!! (and cofounder of Droit au logement – Right to Housing). “This gave us more chance of taking forward steps.”
‘It’s state racism’
As one member of La Chapelle Debout insists, “Our aim is to smash the criteria of the Valls circular of 2012” (a circular issued by then-Interior Minister Manuel Valls, which defined the possible justifications for regularisation in terms of employment or family and private life).
After the gilets noirs’ action outside the Comédie-Française theatre (one of their very first actions) in January, they nonetheless sent a delegation to the Paris police prefecture – getting at least one regularisation into the bargain. But after that, “case by case” measures were over.
This ruffled feathers among the classic actors in the sans-papiers movement. As one of them (wishing to remain anonymous) put it, “We found that a dynamic toward unity had been set in motion.” Since autumn 2018, all kinds of collectives and union bodies have worked on combining their efforts, cooking up fresh actions for after the summer break. They have been mobilised both by former Interior Minister Gérard Collomb’s “asylum and immigration” law (promulgated in September 2018), with its battery of repressive measures, and by the lies the right and far right have spread about the “Marrakesh pact” (a United Nations agreement on sharing refugees among different countries). But they have also been given fresh impulse by the gilets jaunes protests.
“We took part in meetings,” acknowledges Jean-Claude Amara of Droits devant!!. “There was, it seemed, a will to go beyond little demos that no longer worried anyone . . . But nothing came of it.”
“It’s a mistake not to work together,” laments Alioune Traoré – a representative of the UNSP. “Faced with the arrests, it’s an obligation on all of us to give our support, and we should try and do that all together. But I have my differences with La Chapelle Debout: we shouldn’t say we can hope for regularisation or housing for everyone. People come [to the protests] for that – that’s what they hope for – but most gilets noirs don’t meet the criteria. We, too, raise slogans to demand that everyone should be able to move and live wherever they want. But in reality, you can’t go along to the prefecture taking people who haven’t racked up the [required] time [staying in France] . . . Personally, I think there’s manipulation going on.”
Alioune Traoré isn’t a fan of the choice to stage the action at the Panthéon: “The cemetery is sacred ground. Even [to occupy] a church is pushing it. People have been occupying them ever since Saint-Bernard. But even in the case of the Saint-Denis Basilica, when we went in there [to denounce the ‘Collomb law’] in 2018, Marine Le Pen denounced this as ‘profaning’ a place of worship . . . We should seek out different targets, so the far right and the government won’t be able to exploit the situation.” Others like him fear that ultimately the 12 July occupation will merely harden the government’s stance, and the effect will be to step up the repression a notch – against everyone. It’s a question of strategy.
“The risk taken at the Pantheon was disproportionate – there’s a suicidal aspect to it,” worries one long-standing participant in sans-papiers struggles. “And even looking at public opinion, I think in the current context, we’d do better to choose targets that underscore what unites all of us, around work or around schools, like RESF does” (referring to the Réseau Éducation Sans Frontières – Education Without Borders Network).
As for the unions, they remain principally attached to a strategy of strikes and picket lines – the CGT (France’s largest union federation) had put pressure on Elior long before the gilets noirs occupation. “[The gilets noirs] handed us 23 case files, which are still being analysed,” a representative of the catering firm reports. “We are working [to facilitate regularisations that meet the necessary criteria] with tried and tested methods – we’re already working on that with the CGT. Now, we’ve had another actor come and attach themselves to things.”
As for the risks the gilets noirs ran at the Panthéon, one member of La Chapelle Debout replies: “Yes, the sans-papiers are taking risks, but that’s not something we’ve imposed – it’s discussed collectively. And police harassment is an everyday affair: they can be arrested at any moment. Every day, far more people are thrown into detention centers than engage in political activity. And then we also take ‘anti-repressive’ measures: the participants have lawyers’ names in advance and are much better defended than they would be by a court-appointed!”
Houssam, a member of La Chapelle Debout and a “son of an immigrant”, refuses to consider migrants “as fragile types”. “The goal is precisely that migrants should speak for themselves as political subjects.” And he remembers how often the right spreads suspicions that the sans-papiers are being “instrumentalised” politically. Such arguments were also pulled out by former socialist Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve regarding the clashes between migrants and police in Calais. “For us it’s worrying to see arguments of that type being made on the left.”
“We need to break the sans-papiers struggle out of the logic of a tug-of-war with the interior minister alone – and do that permanently,” argues Jean-Claude Amara. He put it bluntly: “If we don’t, we remain within the framework of colonial administration.”
This “decolonial” dimension of the struggle has irritated some on the left who identify as “universalists”. They take issue with the choice of the name gilets noirs – a reference to the dark fury (colère noire) of the sans-papiers, of course, but also to a certain skin color. This irritation only intensified in June after one of the gilets’ petitions was signed by the Parti des Indigènes de la République (PIR) (a decolonial group critical of “colourblind” secularism, accused by others on the left of promoting identitarian “Islamo-leftist” and even anti-Semitic ideas).
“Some put up barriers – it made things difficult for some associations,” reports Jean-Claude Amara, who is “not overly committed” to the choice of name (“perhaps not the best label to widen our ranks”). “But we haven’t given in. Even if Droits devant!! isn’t necessarily on the same page as the PIR comrades on everything, we don’t want to give in to the blackmail that says, ‘If they’re signing, then we won’t.’ That’s also been the great failing of the sans-papiers movement in recent years: forgetting what the anti-colonial and anti-racist struggle is really about.”
“Do some people really want to deny us legitimacy by saying we’re decolonial?” asks an annoyed Houssam. “That’s not our problem. But do we think that the fate imposed on migrants is a case of state racism? Yes.”
One trade unionist asks, “Is the point to show that the state is racist or to win rights? Can you even still negotiate with an actor you characterise as racist?”
It’s not certain that the gilets noirs are going to be a magnet for a lot of trade unionists in the months to come. And still less clear that that’s what they’re aiming for.