France’s Undocumented Migrants Are Fighting for Their Rights

France’s Undocumented Migrants Are Fighting for Their Rights

France’s Undocumented Migrants Are Fighting for Their Rights

In the face of Macron’s intensified repression, the sans-papiers are marching in the streets and organizing in the workplace.


On the evening of December 18, migrant collectives and their allies gathered at Place de la République in Paris to commemorate the 19th annual International Migrants Day. Car traffic thronged the roundabout as well as the avenues and streets leading to and from the square. A transport strike in response to President Emmanuel Macron’s proposed tightening of the pension system was into its second week, effectively closing the metro and regional transit network. The crowd of roughly 2,000 protesters carved a path to the busy intersection of boulevards Sebastopol and Saint-Martin before continuing up to Gare de l’Est. Against the drone of car horns from frustrated commuters, speakers demanded an end to incarceration and deportations, access to decent jobs, affordable housing, and the regularization of the sans-papiers, the over 300,000 undocumented people in France.

The scene captured something of the artificial silence surrounding the migrant struggle in this country. As memories of the 2015 refugee crisis dissolve into the murky waters of recent history, the political consensus on migration has hardened. The harangues of right-wing nationalists like Viktor Orbán and Marine Le Pen—for a Judeo-Christian Europe, against multiculturalism, Islam, and the “great replacement”—have become so banal that it is nearly impossible to imagine that a consequential leader with actual power would welcome some 2 million refugees into the continent, as Germany’s Angela Merkel did in 2015. As a revolt driven by anti-migrant sentiment has destabilized Merkel within her own party, Macron has emerged as the figurehead for European liberalism. Perfectly expressing the shifting lines of the European debate on migration, Macron apologized in September for the enlightened blindness of wealthy progressives like him who don’t know what it’s like to be “lower class” and have to “live with” immigration.

This political redefinition of the “migrant crisis,” as a deficit in European firmness, has been accompanied by an important shift in its geography. European nations have created a web of partnerships and semi-alliances to stop the flow of migrants from the Middle East and Africa. In Expanding the Fortress, a 2018 report from the Transnational Institute, Mark Akkerman describes this process in detail as the “externalization” of the old continent’s borders. Outsourcing the control of their frontiers, European nations are enlisting states and power-holders from Turkey to Niger, conditioning development aid, and offering money and weapons in exchange for their service as auxiliaries in the battle against illegal migration.

Those who have made it to French soil, or those who will continue to brave the Mediterranean route via Spain, Italy, and Greece to join their ranks, find themselves up against a bolstered legal apparatus that has streamlined deportation, increased police detention powers, and reduced access to basic public services. Put forth by Macron’s then–interior minister Gérard Collomb, a new Asylum and Immigration law entered the books in the summer of 2018. Criticized by immigrant rights groups at the time, the legislation also provoked a series of defections from within Macron’s own party, in objection to the government’s yielding to anti-migrant sentiment. The law limits the time that undocumented migrants have to make an official request for asylum, cuts to 15 days the deadline for appealing a deportation order, and increases from 45 to 90 days the amount of time that an undocumented migrant can be held in an administrative detention center.

This past November 6, Prime Minister Édouard Philippe announced a new set of measures intended to complete the state’s asylum policy and fine-tune efforts to “master” clandestine immigration. Among the changes, Philippe pledged that access to health care services would be tightened and capped—so as to limit one of France’s supposed attractions and end the scourge of what has been termed “medical tourism.” Alongside the construction of new migrant detention facilities, where individuals are housed before they are either arbitrarily released or deported, Philippe announced that the requisite French-speaking level would be increased and heralded a shift toward a system of immigration quotas relative to economic needs on a sector-by-sector basis.

Philippe’s speech coincided with a series of raids by police forces on migrant street encampments and shelters, which are often run by associations or aided by local governments. The following day, on November 7, the over 1,600 migrants living around northern Paris’s Porte de la Chapelle neighborhood were forced out in an early morning raid, in line with the government’s policy of pushing migrants farther and farther from the city center. The limited beds that have been proposed by state services means that the task of caring for those who don’t qualify or are too afraid to seek help will again fall to an already overstretched network of nonprofit organizations, to say nothing of the camps that will simply reappear elsewhere. Days earlier, the violence of these summary expulsions was made undeniably clear when video evidence surfaced of a June police raid at a squat in Bagnolet, on the eastern edge of Paris. As other squatters are forced to look on, one man is taken aside, beaten, and smothered by a squad of officers.

Moussa left Mali in the summer of 2016. After passing through Burkina Faso and Niger, he boarded an inflatable boat from Libya to Italy. In August 2016 he arrived by train in Marseille before taking a bus north to Paris. He’s lived for the better part of the past three years in a shelter in Montreuil, a suburb of Paris. Moussa (he requested that I use only his first name) works under the table for 550 euros per month as a window cleaner for a subcontractor hired by McDonald’s. Not having an official residency, his checks come unaddressed and he has them endorsed over to a friend with legal working status.

His first contact with French authorities came in May 2018, when, walking down the main street in Montreuil, he was approached by police officers for a random search. Not having papers, he was taken to the police station for the night and spent the next several weeks in a detention center near Charles de Gaulle airport where undocumented migrants are held before possible deportation. This happens on an entirely arbitrary basis, Moussa recalls, and several of the friends that he made in the center were ultimately sent back to Mali. After being released in August 2018, however, he gained at least a cushion of protection thanks to a doctor who signed papers indicating that he needed medical treatment for an eye condition developed since arriving in France.

Over a year later, Moussa was still living in the shelter in Montreuil when police officers staged an early morning raid on October 29. Some of the residents were moved to another, nearby location, but many were left to fend for themselves. Thanks to a friend who has official work authorization—and therefore has a proper paycheck needed to sign a lease on an apartment—Moussa has been living in Trappes, a bedroom community southeast of Paris.

The police raid in late October pushed Moussa to get involved with the growing sans-papiers movement in France. He is now one of the spokespersons for his fellow residents expelled from the shelter in Montreuil, but he has also joined several actions under the auspices of the so-called Gilets Noirs, or Black Vests. The group, under which several migrant collectives from the Paris area have been staging flash protests at work sites known to hire undocumented workers, and in front of detention centers and courthouses, first gained major attention last summer. On July 12, as many as 700 migrant activists stormed the Panthéon in central Paris—the symbolic burying place of some of country’s greatest intellectuals and writers, thanks to many of whom France considers itself to be “the land of human rights.” Demanding official residency permits, the Gilets Noirs occupied the Panthéon for several hours and demanded that the prime minister take measures to end the abuse and exploitation of the sans-papiers.

Quite apart from the limited coverage these events have received in the French press—Le Monde contented itself with a simple brief from Agence France-Presse on the July 12 occupation—Moussa suggested that there are many obstacles facing the expansion of movements like the Gilets Noirs, and the struggle for migrant rights more broadly. Like many in his situation, Moussa’s plan is simply to wait it out until he’s passed the mark of five years spent in France, after which it is possible to gain official residency status by default. But this consideration also leads others to shy away from political organizing. He regretted that many of the former residents at the shelter in Montreuil “are not motivated to join protests or actions. Afraid of police repression, they tell themselves, ‘If we protest we’ll be arrested and deported.’”

The bind that Moussa was describing is closer to reality than the nightmare scenario of a mass roundup and deportation of migrants might suggest—however much the political winds in France, and Europe, are turning in favor of hard borders and a clampdown on migration. La Chapelle Debout, one of Paris’s major sans-papiers collectives, said tellingly in a communiqué in the leadup to the Panthéon occupation that they were revolting against “a system that creates undocumented people.” Indeed, the new legal architecture, the pushing of undocumented people farther and farther from city centers, and the ever-present threat of random police harassment suggest that a more complicated, and equally unjust, situation is emerging: Migrants are tolerated, if only as individuals shorn of rights, exposed to the reign of arbitrary rule, and hidden on the margins of public life.

Dismissing the idea that these combined measures might preempt people from risking the journey to countries like France, Moussa said, “People are going to keep coming. In Africa, things haven’t changed. People will always want to come. In Mali, the conditions in the country have not improved. It’s sad to see.”

One other factor is also showing few signs of changing: France’s economic dependency on the cheap and fluid labor that can only be provided by unofficial work. This, however, is a point of leverage that undocumented migrants are exploiting in order to revolt against an unofficial but regularized form of economic oppression, and their limbo status as semi-tolerated but rightless individuals.

Amadou Fofana, 24 years old and also from Mali, is the spokesman of a group of nearly 30 undocumented workers in Alfortville, a suburb southeast of Paris, who are now over six months into a strike at a distribution facility run by Chronopost, a sub-branch of the postal service. More than 156 undocumented migrants, including the striking workers, now live in a tent and tarpaulin camp along the metal fence lining the perimeter of the mailing facility, where, Amadou told me, “The police drive by once a day, and often the anti-terrorist squad.”

“We worked under aliases, with the papers of someone who has managed to get an official work permit,” Amadou continued. “Our manager told us to do this, to find someone else’s papers.” He sees it as nothing other than a form of “slavery…. we’re making 500, 600 euros a month, work six days a week for more than 10 hours a day. You can’t live like that.” Noting that Chronopost is a subsidiary of the government’s postal company, Amadou remarked that it’s “the state itself that exploits us.” Despite support from unions such as Solidaires, the ministry of labor refused to recognize the striking workers when they requested a meeting this past October. “The sans-papiers are exhausted, it’s as if we’re not human beings,” Amadou said, “but our bosses love us. They can make us work seven days a week, for all they care.”

Thanks to the combination of economic pressure and lobbying from local officials, however, the workers at Chronopost were finally able to secure appointments at the prefecture in Alfortville’s departmental seat in Créteil. Our interview on December 4 came to a sudden conclusion when cries of enthusiasm suddenly rang out from the center of the camp. The first five residency permits had been granted.

Victories like this have the potential to snowball. They are making crucial dents in a political culture that muzzles the anger of undocumented workers. They also expose the lie of France’s anti-immigrant turn. What all the talk about Judeo-Christian Europe or the impossibility of multiracial democracies is really about is the perfection of a system that needs and creates marginal individuals and strips them of their rights.

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