The following is a translation of an article that first appeared on the French-language radical website, Révolution Permanente on July 23rd, 2019. This website is an organ of a certain current within the French New Anticapitalist Party, and while this translation is not an endorsement of their party politics (or any party politics), we value this piece since we get to hear first hand from some of the Gilets Noirs (Black Vests, a nod to the recent Yellow Vests mov’t)1A direct action collective of undocumented immigrants in France, largely of African origin.
The translation follows.
The July 12th occupation of the Panthéon by almost a thousand [Gilets Noirs] shone a spotlight on them. It’s been nearly six months since the Gilets Noirs movement began, a movement that brings together undocumented workers of State-run foyers 2In the 1950s, the French State set-up public housing for workers from North Africa. Current-day foyers are a continuation of this public housing. and other newcomers, and they have decided to take decisive action. From the occupation of the Comédie française, to the occupation of the Elior HQ3the 4th largest global catering & food service company which over-exploits the undocumented, the Gilets Noirs have decided to brave their fear to demand their right to life & dignity. Here is a meeting with Yacine* of La Chappelle Debout! and Kamara*, a 23 year-old Gilet Noir.
THE GILETS NOIRS ATTACK THE PANTHEON
It’s not just the State that we are attacking. Every time you hear that a Gilet Noir or an undocumented immigrant is suffering, we are capable of rising up 1000 fold to fuck some shit up. Because this is not normal4tr. note: in French, saying somethings is not normal means the situation is not tenable and not just unusual.” https://twitter.com/LeMediaTV/status/1151141939942584321
The occupation of the Panthéon was spectacular. On July 12th, with a meticulously organized action, a thousand Gilets Noirs peacefully occupied this symbolic site for three and a half hours. If they do not wish to negotiate with the Ministry of the Interior [of France], Christophe Castaner, it is because they wish to escape the “logic of case by case basis [of immigration proceedings] by prefectures.” “We want legal documentation in a collective way,” explains Yacine, a member of the collective La Chapelle Debout! which came about in 2015 in defense of new arrivals in exile, gathered in the north of Paris and which participate in the Gilets Noirs movement. The Gilets Noirs would like to negotiate with Edouard Philippe5the Prime Minister of France, to whom they have written a letter to demand the collective legal regularization of the undocumented. “Although it was the deputy Danièle Obono which was supposed to have given [Eduoard Philippe] the letter, the Prime Minister claims he never received it,” Yacine explains. A new mark of distrust and lies on behalf of the authorities. Which would not be the last…
“As the police demanded our removal from the Panthéon, we decided to hold an assembly and then negotiate our exit in a collective way.” But as they left, a part of the group of Gilets Noirs was chased after. “The police are pressing charges on three persons, specifically those who are Black.” A veritable ratonnade 6A French word, with no English cognate, for a racist attack, first used in 1937 for racist attacks against people from Northern Africa, during which racist epithets flew and and 30 people were injured, one person had their feet crushed and another, a victim of a cranial injury, was left in a coma for 24 hours. 37 people were detained, of which 21 were taken to the police station of the 5th arrondissement of Paris and 15 were taken to the Administrative Detention Center of Vincennes, from where they were to be deported. Due to legal procedural errors and a collective mobilization in front of the Palace of Justice, they will all be released.
Yacine is astonished by the morale and determination of the Gilets Noirs on that day despite the repression. “From the Panthéon to the police station cells to the detention centers, we chanted ‘Gilets Noirs’.” As though they had left fear completely behind them…
“After the action at the Panthéon, a dozen new foyers joined the Gilets Noirs.”
“It’s been a longtime since there has been a movement of the undocumented taking on the offensive,” begins Yacine. “So inevitably, a movement that proposes to go beyond the existing framework is something that piques people’s interest.” Since the high-profile occupation of the Panthéon by the Gilets Noirs, “a dozen new foyers have decided to join the movement,” which now counts more than 50 foyers in the Ile-de-France7Region surrounding Paris.
The novelty of this movement is its inclusion of not only the older generation of undocumented workers, many of whom are still waiting for permanent residency after more than 10 years of working in France, but also newcomers, often young people like Kamara*, who traveled through the Sahara, Morocco, the Mediterranean and Spain to arrive in France less than a year ago.
If the name of “Gilets Noirs” came to be on March 18th, the day of a march against police violence – “to make ourselves visible” explains Kamara – it is since November that the movement of the undocumented, of partisan foyers, the houseless and of the La Chappelle Debout colletive started to launch a series of offensive actions.
Museum of immigration, Comédie française, Panthéon: symbolic sites to demand collective legal regularization…
“The first action was a demonstration in front of the Museum of Immigration, in November, where we drew 300 people.” “Then there was the occupation of the Comédie française with 720 people on December 16th,” states Kamara. The prefecture then said it would provide legal documentation for 30 persons per month. A promise that has so far not been kept, since “only one person has been provided legal documentation.” Another lie from the prefecture authorities…
The Gilets Noirs do not only occupy symbolic sites to call on authorities. “We do not just demand papers. We struggle against this system which creates the undocumented.” Notably those companies that profit form the system of detentions and “deportations” – this is the term that the Gilets Noirs use to talk about these expulsions.
…denouncing the market of deportations and collaborative companies: AirFrance, Elior, Bouygues,…
This is the case with AirFrance which has deportation contracts with the French State. To protest against this collaboration, the Gilets Noirs occupied, on May 19th, the Charles de Gaulle airport8Parisian airport. “On that day,” Yacine recounts, “the Gilets Noirs knew how to demonstrate their courage and determination.” Proving this point is the fact that right next door to [the airport] is the Administrative Detention Center of Mesnil-Amelot where the undocumented are deported after being detained. The risk they undertook was enormous. The courage they had exceeded this risk.
The Gilets Noirs also denounce the market of deportations in which companies stand to profit two-fold: first by by taking on this new market and then exploiting and under-paying the undocumented which work for them. It’s a crass cynicism. Led by the Screg company, an affiliate of Bouygues, the construction of the detention center at Mesnil-Amelot had largely been realized by the labor of underpaid undocumented workers. As proof, in August 2008, on this site three undocumented workers were arrested. “Bouygues has them build their own prison” summarized [the French daily newspaper] L’Humanité in an article in 2015, denouncing this “market of imprisonment.”
On June 12, 2019, the Gilets Noirs occupied the Elior HQ, to denounce the docked pay for undocumented workers, which make up the bulk of their employees. Elior is the 4th largest catering & food service company in the world. Elior is also the company which had won the food distribution contract at the Mesnil-Amelot detention center. “Elior, like Onet, GEPSA (Engie, ex-EDF) and others, had forced us to sweep the cells and prepare meals for our imprisoned comrades within detention centers and prisons (…) It is Elior which operates the detention center at Plaisir where our comrade D. is kept as a prisoner,” states a communiqué by the Gilets Noirs.
Although the General Director-President, Phillipe Guilllemot, had not come down from his defensive tower that day, which the Gilets Noirs were occupying, the company had nonetheless opened up negotiations with a delegation of the Gilets Noirs showing that struggle pays!
“Our struggle is the struggle of all precarious workers, of all the exploited.”
Construction, cleaning and food service sectors massively employ the undocumented; all sectors that are indispensable for the extraction of surplus value and the reproduction of capital. “Without undocumented workers, Paris would be a big trash can,” summarizes Kamara. Vulnerable as they are, they are most often underpaid and at the mercy of their employers. “On a job site I work at the boss wanted to pay me 50 euros a day instead of the 90 euros other workers make. I refused. I simply was not paid…” recounted Kamara. “It’s modern-day slavery,” he adds. “And as soon as you ask for the Cerfa document 9A document which proves that your work has been completed and is also necessary for the legal documentation process, they throw you out.” These examples are wide-spread among the undocumented.
“Perhaps all of the undocumented need to stop working so that people realize what is happening, so that things change.” And as an example, there are the undocumented workers at Chronopost Alfortville which have “gone on strike.”
“The local office of the Ministry of Labor of Val de Marne refuses to meet the delegation of undocumented workers on strike at Chronopost Alfortville.”
— Son Altesse (@SonAltesse16) July 18th, 2019 (link to original tweet)
Kamara refuses to resign himself to the idea that he will have to “wait another 10 years,” as some of the older undocumented workers suggest he will have to do to become documented. “There are some who have been here for 15 years working, paying taxes & social security and they still are undocumented.” “But I cannot continue on like that. What I earn I eat. It’s impossible to not help out my family. This needs to change right now. And not just when it comes to legal documentation. But to have the right to live a dignified life from one’s work.” “We are above all, as a comrade said, Gilets made black by anger.”
“For me the fear is over. When you cross the Sahara, the Mediterranean, you have already lost everything.”
His determination has traveled far. From his home country of Mauritania, where “to get work, you have to known someone” in the higher echelons of power in the hands of the military dictatorship. Where the new presidency has been passed from the hands of the former general, Abdel Aziz, to his faithful right-hand, the general Ghazouni; where the recent masquerade of presidential elections, in June 2019, have recently been consecrated by France, too happy to protect its interests and its military bases.
His determination also traveled across the Sahara and the Mediterranean, which have become open-air cemeteries. “I saw young people like me die every day. I went through there. When you’ve lived through that you’ve already lost everything. So for me fear is over. Now, it’s time to struggle.”
*Names have been changed.
For more on the Gilets Noirs follow the social media accounts of La Chappelle Debout on Twitter and Facebook, and of Les Gilets Noirs on Facebook, though they often post in French. We also often translate posts by this collective into English on our Twitter account.