According to the National Coordination of Sans Papiers, the movement of undocumented workers, ‘This struggle is becoming a central issue in French politics and life.’
Thousands of sans papiers from 40 different countries have joined the movement with protests in Lille, Versailles, Toulouse, Essone, Brittany and Nantes. Twenty-four collectives have formed across France, the most prominent being the Paris-based Third Collective, which embraces 30 nationalities. The sans papiers are the subject of an exciting new documentary, have their own web page on the Internet (translated into many languages, including English), a 24-hour telephone information line, and are planning a European-wide meeting for June.
In February, intellectuals, film and theatre directors, writers, journalists, lawyers, actors, comedians, singers, statisticians, scientists and cartoonists signed a series of pledges in national newspapers promising to ignore a controversial clause in new immigration legislation (the Debré laws) which would have forced people to report the departure of ‘certain foreigners’ (mostly from the Third World, who require a visa to enter France) to their local town hall. But even as the civil disobedience campaign staged an impressive 150,000-strong demonstration in Paris, forcing the government to withdraw its controversial clause, there was a strong feeling among campaigners that a galvanised anti-racist movement now needs to channel its energies back into the everyday campaigns of the sans papiers, for residence permits, dignity and basic human rights.
For it was the sans papiers’ fifty-day hunger strike at St Bernard’s that pricked the consciences of intellectuals and celebrities and inspired action. Famous personalities were photographed alongside the hunger strikers; intellectuals joined the picket lines. Actress Emmanuelle Béart and theatre director Ariane Mnouchkine were allocated a hunger striker to whom they would be handcuffed in the event of another police incursion. When the late president’s widow Danielle Mitterand visited, photographers trampled over the weakened bodies of the hunger-strikers in an effort to get a photo.
Once the police broke up the strike, cutting through iron gates and hacking down doors, those not deported or detained were forced back into a clandestine existence. Long-established anti-racist groups complain of the arbitrary way in which their cases have been decided. Administrative incompetence is widespread. Families have been split up and asylum claims treated as residence claims.
While deportations (many on specially chartered flights) are an everyday reality, living a clandestine existence continues to get ever harsher. Three out of every five Chinese living in Paris are illegals, working under cover of false documents and treated like slaves. It was the Chinese who were central to another sans papiers Paris occupation, at St John the Baptist. Two hundred immigrants demanding residence permits and a halt to deportations, were evicted by 500 riot police in February. But this police brutality hardly merited a footnote in the international press, which seemed transfixed by the ’60s-style battle between intellectuals and the state playing itself out on Parisian streets.
The sans papiers’ struggles serve as an inspiration for other movements across Europe. When 60 immigrants occupied Milan’s San Barnardino church, the newspapers imported the term ‘sans papiers’ to describe their actions. In the Netherlands, Iranians and Sri Lankan Tamils have been at the forefront of hunger strikes in detention centres against appalling conditions and the threat of deportation. In the UK, at the detention centre in Haslar, Hampshire, a collective of 90 detainees (out of a total of 130) have issued a statement protesting at conditions there and the fear of deportation. ‘We are not looking for special favourable or privileged treatment,’ they write, ‘but only the rights which the conventions require. We are now in such a state of psychological and physical saturation, seeing not the slightest glimmer of hope for the future, that we must now take action in such a way that everyone will come to know the injustices we are suffering.’
The National Coordination of Sans Papiers sees the only way forward in ‘international solidarity and contact with other groups and movements across the world. Immigrants in many European countriesÉcan all benefit from sharing information and support. They also need the active support of organisations, groups and individuals who are willing to show their commitment to freedom.’