Date: Mon, 7 Oct 1996 18:26:20 CDT
Sender: Activists Mailing List <ACTIV-L@MIZZOU1.MISSOURI.EDU>
From: Jim Davis <>
Subject: Undocumented in France

Undocumented in France fight against inhuman laws

By Allen Harris, People's Tribune (Online Edition), Vol.23 no.4, March 1996

Since last March, between 200 and 300 undocumented immigrants have fought the right-wing government's efforts to deny them residency and work permits and have them deported to North and West Africa. Those undocumented have come to be known as the sans-papiers, or the people without papers.

At the heart of the conflict is a series of harsh laws passed in the early 1990s. In spirit, these laws intend to do in France what Proposition 187 seeks in California: make it a crime to be foreign even in the land of one's birth. The Pasqua laws, named for their hardline right-wing author, former French interior minister Charles Pasqua, stripped documentation from thousands of immigrants.

The results have been shocking. Unmarried immigrants, immigrant spouses and immigrant parents became targets for deportation.

As of 1994, children under 16 born in France of immigrant parents lost their French citizenship, which had been their birthright. Those children will have to apply for it before they turn 21—or face deportation. Their parents lose the right to claim citizenship for their children, which also works to remove their claim to be there too.

The law assumes that if the immigrant parents are deported, their French-born children will have to leave with them. The suddenly undocumented must literally hide in order to remain in France, a land which for three centuries had been the universal refuge and place of asylum.

This is how the government says it will address France's high unemployment. It's a kind of legal racism worthy of the American grandfather clause of 100 years ago, which Southern states employed to deny African American citizens their voting rights.

The focus of the struggle was a two-month hunger strike by 10 of the undocumented Africans. They declared that they were ready to sacrifice their lives for the sake of all who share their plight.

After three months of a kind of public hide-and-seek in various parts of Paris between the Africans and the authorities, they took refuge on June 28 in Saint-Bernard Church, located in a poor neighborhood. There, they received the protection of its parish priest, Father Henri Coinde, who refused to sign papers authorizing the government to evict them. The hunger strike began in the church on July 4.

The Africans were joined by hundreds of sympathizers, some of whom camped out in the church while others formed a human shield in the streets surrounding it. Most of the sympathizers were ordinary French, but among them were a number of celebrities, including the actress Emmanuelle Beart, who co-starred in the movie Mission: Impossible.

The interior minister, Jean-Louis Debre, refused to re-document the Africans. He was backed by Prime Minister Alain Juppe and President Jacques Chirac. Early on Friday, August 23, six days after the government's deadline for the Africans to leave the country, the notoriously brutal riot police stormed the church. They kicked, beat, tear gassed and arrested the unarmed sympathizers.

The sympathizers chanted French and immigrant solidarity! and First, second and third generation—we are all the children of immigrants!

The riot police broke down the church's doors, forcing Father Coinde to stop saying Mass. Inside the church was Beart, who was holding an African baby in her arms when the police came in. The police took the baby from Beart and also arrested her. She was freed a short time later.

The Africans were taken out of Saint-Bernard Church—the hunger strikers on stretchers. They were put into police vans and driven to a detention center outside the city. One African shouted from a window of a police van: Papers for all!

The struggle of the sans-papiers has moved the nation. A majority in a poll taken after the raid expressed sympathy for the Saint- Bernard protesters.

Not only that, it galvanized the support of much of France's four million foreign residents—about a million of whom are undocumented—as well as anti-racist organizations, human rights groups and all of the nation's labor unions and left-wing political parties.

A very pointed show of solidarity came from the labor unions of Air France, the state-run airline. The unions, representing Air France's flight and ground crews, refused to work on any Air France plane the government chartered to deport the Africans.

Faced with this defiance, the government was forced to use military transport planes to deport the Africans. Within a week of the police raid, 145 of the Africans who had been in Saint-Bernard Church had been flown to various countries in West Africa.

Since the raid, the government has been sorting out the rest and striving to live down the scandal by nudging the story out of the media spotlight. As of early September, some of the Africans have been quietly regularized. They have resumed protesting from a theater outside the city.

There have also been other occupations of public buildings and also street clashes in poor Paris neighborhoods and suburbs between police and young sympathizers.

Those who haven't been deported or regularized remain in detention, their cases entangled in the courts where police, judges and lawyers are swamped in legal confusion and varying degrees of unease and shame.

There have been demonstrations in support of the Saint-Bernard struggle since the raid, in which marchers have carried banners reading: Papers for all!

As of now, the unjust laws remain. The response of so many people of good will in France in very active solidarity with the poorest and most powerless among them has won a moral victory for the immigrants of Saint-Bernard Church and for immigrants everywhere—including the United States—who are fighting to defend their human rights.