Who’s afraid of the Black Vests? The Gilets Noirs and the struggle for migrant rights in France

On the 23rd November 2018, the Immigration Museum in Paris was occupied by 300-400 people, convening a general assembly on the oppression faced by migrants in France. Out of this gathering emerged what is now known as the ‘Gilets Noirs’; a political movement which brings together undocumented migrants – many of whom are taking political action for the first time – and experienced campaigners involved in La Chapelle Debout and organising in the overpopulated foyers (hostels for migrant workers). News of this new group spread quickly, both on social media and through word-of-mouth in the foyers, and only a few weeks later, roughly 700 Gilets Noirs occupied the Comedie Francaise, demanding a meeting with the prefecture to obtain regularisation.

It’s worth reflecting on the situation faced by undocumented workers in France. Technically, employers can support someone’s application for regularisation, but this would require them to pay fair wages and make social security contributions. The situation isn’t helped by the monstrous French bureaucracy that seems purpose built as an homage to the film Brazil (although people who have dealt with the UK Home Office will doubtless have had similar dystopian experiences). Meetings to discuss regularisation are often postponed or cancelled at the last minute, corrupt officials will hint that they can speed up the processing of your file for a few hundred euros; bosses firing you as soon as you ask them for help in obtaining papers; being forced to live in a tent in the dead of winter or sleeping 4 or 5 to a bed in a single occupancy room rented out by Adoma (one of the companies which run the foyers), which profits from your misery; getting arrested after a “random” police stop and sent to a detention centre; poorly paid jobs on building sites with no safety regulations; receiving a deportation notice; getting sent to a detention centre again and finally the waiting room for deportees near Terminal 2 at Charles de Gaulle Airport, or the basement of the 4-star Ibis hotel next door.

In many ways, the Gilets Noirs are merely the latest incarnation of the struggle against this cycle of barbarity. It’s a movement that has a long history in France, which has adopted a wide variety of forms and tactics over the years. But many participants speak of having always felt like their struggle was artificially separated from other left-wing causes, despite its obvious links to struggles around housing and exploitation in the workpace, which also affect those with papers. The movement has also had to contend with the referential breadth of the category of ‘the migrant’, which can refer to people in a wide variety of administrative categories: documented, undocumented, those with right remain, those fleeing deportation, legally-recognised workers, undeclared workers etc. The establishment of the Gilets Noir gives the movement an identity without reducing it to that of the administrative status of its participants.

The name ‘Gilets Noirs’ was adopted by around the time of the Comedie Francaise occupation as a way of integrating the struggle of migrants with that of the nascent Gilets Jaunes. Although the Gilets Jaunes had not declared themselves to be acting in solidarity with migrants (indeed some early Gilets Jaunes actions were clearly supported by the far right), many of their (successful) efforts to blockade airports, motorways and roundabouts, helped migrants by temporarily shutting down the deportation machine.

Things moved quickly: after the occupation on the 16th December, the prefecture agreed to an initial meeting, to which some 1500 people turned up. The prefecture responded by closing its doors and calling in riot police. We’re all familiar with the stance taken by officials and bosses when dealing with collective movements and strikes: “we are happy to discuss with you all individually in order to find a solution”. In other words: “it’s easier to defeat you on a one-to-one basis because when you’re in front of us, without your mates and comrades it’s obvious where the power lies”. Migrant movements have seen similar responses from authorities. When these migrants finally came out into the open, the prefecture agreed to assist in the regularisation of 30 people each month (out of more than 1000 participating in the movement). But as of yet not a single case has been resolved.

Gilets Noirs actions attack the big businesses that profit from exploiting undocumented workers or participate in the wider deportation machine, including those involved in major public infrastructure. For example, GN staged an ‘invasion’ of Charles de Gaulle Airport, in which 500 or so migrants descended on the airport “not to clean but to fight!” The action was the first in a series of actions dubbed “Gilets Noirs hunt down the Prime Minister”, which sought to confront officials at the highest levels of government with the injustices of the immigration system. From here the GN went on to target businesses that actively profit from the continued precarity and oppression of undocumented migrants, including Elior, a catering and cleaning business that employs undocumented migrants to work as cleaners and cooks in detention centres (and who also hold catering contracts for the Ibrox stadium and St Alban’s Cathedral, among others!). On the 12th June 2019, Elior’s corporate offices were occupied by several hundred undocumented migrants demanding that the company assist its employees with regularisation. The occupation only ended when the occupiers were given a written assurance that a meeting would take place between company representatives and undocumented activists, to see how Elior can help regularise their immigration status. However, at the time of writing, Elior have half-heartedly helped only 10 of the 200 undocumented persons working for them obtain the CERFA documentation necessary for their regularisation, while a further 3 were fired. Failure to meet the GN’s demands led to another action the 3rd of December 2019 in collaboration with CNT-Workers Solidarity at the flagship Nespresso store in Paris-Opera.

A state crackdown was inevitable, and on 27th of November 2019, the police arrested GN activist, Diakité, who was (temporarily) held at a detention centre at an infamous detention centre in Vincennes, where another migrant, Mohammed, had died some three weeks earlier.

In spite of this, the Gilets Noir continue to push for the regularisation of all undocumented migrants in France. What’s more, they do so while maintaining a horizontal organisational structure that works with – rather than against – the political, cultural and linguistic diversity of its members. This is not without its challenges, but all members are expected to respect the group’s strategic decisions and the tactics decided upon in general assemblies. As a result, where once many undocumented migrants were afraid of participating in political action for fear of arrest and deportation, they are now coming out in their hundreds to confront the people responsible for their repression. Long may it continue.

For updates on the Gilets Noirs’ latest activities, check out their Facebook page (mostly in French).

Staz

Photo Credit: Gilles Klein on Flickr used under CC BY-SA 2.0