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Workers storming the Panthéon

Workers storming the Panthéon, Paris. Photo: Facebook/Collectif La Chapelle Debout

Through their occupation of an iconic Paris monument, the Gilets Noirs have placed before the world the atrocious situation of France’s vast hidden ranks of undocumented workers, writes Susan Ram

On Friday July 12, 700 undocumented workers wearing black safety vests (gilets noirs) occupied for several hours an iconic Paris building called the Panthéon. Inside the former church, transformed during the French Revolution into a temple to liberty and a resting place for the great, the protestors set out their demands against a backdrop of vivid, classically inspired murals invoking revolutionary ideals and epic moments of republican struggle. 

“Let the dead rise up! Today, we’re here, occupying the Panthéon, as undocumented immigrants, hostel inmates and tenants of the street”, begins the declaration of the Gilets Noirs. “We’re the undocumented, the voiceless, the people without faces as far as the French Republic is concerned. We’ve come to the mausoleum of your great men to denounce your profanation of the memory of our comrades, fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters lying in the Mediterranean, or surviving on the streets of Paris, in hostels and prisons!” 

Chanting slogans, the multinational protestors, many of them originating from Africa, assembled in front of the Panthéon’s central installation: a great marble altar, surrounded by dramatic sculpted figures, dedicated to the National Convention, the assembly that governed France during the most critical period of the Revolution. Spokespersons read out their demands: as the top priority, an immediate meeting with French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe to resolve, once and for all, the issue of regularisation. 

“We demand papers for everyone,” said Boubou, an undocumented worker of Mauritanian origin who has lived in France for the past three years. “We’re also demanding housing for everyone living on the street.” “If we’re denied housing, we’re going to requisition property ourselves”, said Houssam, originally from Morocco but resident and working in France for the past 10 years. “We know that in Paris alone there are about 200,000 empty accommodations.”   

Racist state violence

The Gilets Noirs also demanded an end to the systematic racist violence rained down on undocumented workers, refuges and asylum seekers by the shock troops of the French state. Predictably, more of this awaited the protestors when, following negotiations, they agreed to leave the building -- on the understanding they would suffer no reprisals. But after leaving, as agreed, by the Panthéon’s rear door -- out of sight of supporters and journalists gathered at the main entrance -- the Gilets Noirs found themselves kettled and unable to disperse. Police, including baton-wielding thugs of the CRS riot squad, then set about beating them up, swooping periodically to drag victims away and arrest them. By early evening, the area was strewn with abandoned shoes and backpacks; 40 demonstrators had been injured, some of them seriously; and there had been 37 arrests.  

Persistent follow-up action on the streets by the Gilets Noirs and allied organisations has resulted in the release of some of those held. But 19 workers remain incarcerated in the notorious Vincennes detention centre, facing possible deportation. 

The occupation of the Panthéon, and the savage response of the French state, have highlighted as never before the atrocious situation of undocumented workers in France. Constituting a vast hidden army of labour, the sans-papiers (‘without papers’) are compelled live precariously at the margins of French society, unable to access housing, medical care, social services, and everything else that goes with a documented status in society. They work (illegally) in a twilight zone of insecurity, criminally low pay, dangerous conditions and constant threat of exposure and arrest. 

French law requires asylum seekers to wait nine months before they can apply for the right to work. But even after the waiting period is over, obtaining a work permit remains a long, confusing and formidably bureaucratic process. “Most of the time, the police take their own sweet time to process work permits,” reports Heloise Mary, a lawyer working with migrants and asylum seekers. “Migrants quite simply don’t get any response from their applications, which encourages unethical people to exploit undocumented workers.” 

Rather than speed up the process, successive French governments have intervened to further tighten the screw. Back in 2007, one of the tough new anti-immigration laws backed by the then president, Nicolas Sarkozy, required employers to systematically verify the papers of all foreign workers. This forced migrants who had earlier worked under their own names to ‘borrow or rent’ the real papers of other workers – often at huge expense, given the need of the lender to recoup the additional tax and social charges incurred on income from two jobs. 

In 2012, with François Hollande now in the Elysée Palace, a new administrative regulation, the ‘Circulaire Valls’ (the initiative of Manuel Valls, at that time Hollande’s Interior Minister) required undocumented workers seeking to regularise their status to present salary receipts, in their name, for the previous five years. 

“We ask for pay slips from people who don’t have the right to work,” notes Françoise Carrasse, a volunteer with the International Coalition of Undocumented Migrants. “It makes no sense and the government knows it.”

Matters have been made worse by the crackdown on immigrants and asylum seekers pushed through last year by the Macron government. The new law, rubberstamped by the National Assembly in August 2018, has shortened asylum application deadlines (from120 to 90 days), doubled the time for which illegal migrants can be detained (from 45 to 90 days), and imposed a one-year prison sentence for entering France illegally. Macron sought to stave off criticism of the law from human rights groups, the left and even members of his own party by claiming it would speed things up for ‘genuine’ asylum seekers applying for papers. 

Back in the real world, meanwhile, those at the receiving end of France’s draconian anti-immigrant regime, geared to making the country as inhospitable to migrants as conceivably possible, have had enough. Beginning in November 2018, there has been a major amplification of street protest by the sans-papiers.  

Yellow Vests and Black Vests 

The first mobilisation of the Gilets Noirs took place just six days after the nationwide eruption of the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) on November 17, 2018. In this context, inmates of a number of hostels (‘foyers’) for undocumented workers in and around Paris decided to stage a protest against detention centres on Friday November 23.  They joined forces with two pre-existing Paris-based collectives of sans-papiers and supporting activists: La Chapelle Debout and L’association Droit Devant. And by opting to don black safety jackets they gave themselves a name that immediately resonated.    

By mid-December, the Gilets Noirs were clear on their strategy: attracting maximum media coverage through the selection of high-visibility targets. First off was the Comédie Française, the iconic state-owned ‘theatre of the Republic’ dating back to 1680.  On December 16, during a run of Victor Hugo’s play Lucretia Borgia,  750 Gilets Noirs assembled outside the theatre, sought to enter it and shouted slogans demanding a meeting with the Interior Minister (one senses that Hugo, had he been able, would have donned a black jacket and joined forces with Les Misérables of a later century). 

Two weeks later, it was the turn of the Paris Préfecture (the departmental administrative headquarters of Paris and Île de France): 1,500 Gilets Noirs demonstrated outside as delegates entered the building to present demands. 

On May 19, an escalation of the movement: a well-planned occupation of an entire terminal at Roissy-Charles-de-Gaulle airport, just outside Paris, by 500 Gilets Noirs protesting against the complicity of Air France in the French state’s deportation policy. 

Next, the targeting of a particularly notorious exploiter of undocumented labour: the Elior Group, number four globally in contract catering and “food service solutions.” On June 12, Gilets Noirs occupied the group’s glitzy head office, located in a tower in the La Défense business district of Paris. 

In early July, Gilets Noirs joined forces with Yellow Vests and striking workers at the Gennevilliers distribution hub of Geodis, the privatised division of French railways (SNCF) responsible for freight transport and logistics. Workers at the massive ‘parcel factory’, which handles 80,000 items daily, have been striking for better working conditions, more pay – and an end to ambient racism – since late December. Significantly, Gennevilliers (located on the outskirts of Paris) is one of a handful of transit depots where the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) has managed to put down roots. 

This coming together of trade unionists, Yellow Vests and Gilets Noirs, this convergence of struggle in the most degrading and dehumanised of workplaces, points to something important afoot. Speaking to journalists, Diakité, a spokesperson for the Gilets Noirs offering solidarity at Gennevilliers, emphasised the vital support Yellow Vests had given the group’s recent actions at Roissy airport and at the Elior Group’s head office. “Their struggle is our struggle,” he said. “It’s the same thing.”

Susan Ram

Susan Ram

Susan Ram is a writer, editor and journalist based in south-west France. She's currently at work on a book about the French Left, for publication in India, where she lived for many years.

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