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The Black Vests: Inside France’s Undocumented Movement

The Black Vests: Inside France’s Undocumented Movement


The police just charged a kettled in – a blocked group – of protesters. Solidarity! Solidarity! The most racist country in the world is France. The black people who died for France. The Gilets Noirs continue the legend. Since October 2018, Yellow Vest or Gilets Jaunes protests have engulfed France, a grassroots fight for economic justice in reaction to President Emanuel Macron’s neo-Liberal policies. But alongside his economic reform, Macron has also been quietly changing France’s immigration laws, doubling detention periods, speeding up deportations and limiting asylum applications. In response, another movement has been making itself heard, the Black Vests or the Gilets Noirs. What do we want? Papers! The black people who died for France. The gilets noirs continue the legend. Our mission is clear. France deports us, France which colonised us. So-so-solidarity! With the ‘sans-papiers’! On July 12th, 2019, activists from the Gilets Noirs, a movement that’s led and organised by undocumented workers, known in France as the ‘sans-papiers’ staged a sit-in at one of France’s most historic buildings, the Pantheon and from there they caught the world’s attention. But this wasn’t their first action. On May 19, 2019, they occupied the Charles De Gaulle airport, demanding to speak to the CEO of Air France who they say collaborates in the state deportation of the ‘sans-papiers’. And on June 13, 2019, they occupied the HQ of one of the world’s largest catering companies, Elior. We caught up with them in Paris. So we’re at a protest organised by the Gilets Noirs movement and they’re here to put pressure on a meeting that’s happening in this stadium behind me. The idea is that they want this company, Elior, to legalise its workers and all the rights that come with that. But really what’s quite incredible is that a group of people that occupy such a precarious position in this society, have managed to come together, organise and get a company as powerful as this to the negotiating table. Elior – we started with them because they are crooks. They are crooks. And we have only just started. Bakary is a ‘sans-papiers’ and a member of the Gilets Noirs, his name has been changed and his identity hidden, as he faces deportation if singled out by the French state. He told us that Elior was not only exploiting ‘sans-papiers’ labour, but also using that labour to cater to different parts of France’s immigration infrastructure. Elior’s ‘sans-papiers’ workers cater and clean the court rooms and deportation centres to which they themselves could later fall victim. The detention centres – you work there when you are undocumented, you help build the detention centre for other undocumented migrants. So, we went there to attack, to tell them to stop the exploitation. We are not slaves. Although there are legal pathways for French companies to normalise the status of ‘sans-papiers’ workers, normalisation comes with labour rights, which companies like Elior would rather avoid. But through their actions, the Gilets Noirs have forced a commitment from Elior to provide paperwork that will begin the process of normalisation for over 200 of its ‘sans-papiers’ workers. Even the term itself ‘sans-papiers’ is a word for a lower class. If you do not have documents, and the boss knows you do not have documents, he will exploit you. I used to be afraid to even go out and buy bread. Because, as an undocumented migrant, you see them deporting people all the time. France detains more undocumented migrants than any other EU country and is one of its biggest deporters. Ala Addin and his pregnant wife Tibyan are from Sudan, they were detained in the Mesnil-Amelot deportation centre and were due to be deported imminently. We visited Ala Addin but we weren’t allowed to bring in any recording equipment, so we interviewed him after by phone, it soon became clear why the centre didn’t want cameras inside. My wife is pregnant. You know, it’s about eight days, she didn’t eat. I told them this. They said: OK, no problem, but you must give her some water with sugar. They are joking. Pregnant woman, all can she eat? Nothing. She can drink water with sugar. This place is horrible, you know? No one can live in this place. We received a doctor’s letter from activists that confirmed that Tibyan was sick, that she was not fit to remain in the deportation centre and that she should not be deported in her current state of health. Still, the deportation was set to go ahead. I’m wanted and also my wife, because they arrested us several times. And we have been tortured in Sudan. And they threatened us… they will kill us. They booked for us a flight, to return us to Sudan. That means they are killing us. Since the introduction of the new immigration laws, deportations have increased by at least 20 per cent and many of these are carried out by force. If they want to put you on the plane, they tie you up like a criminal. You cannot speak, you cannot shout, nothing at all. Often, they even drug you. Our comrade, he is in Senegal at the moment. He has been deported there, but he is not Senegalese, he is Mauritanian. CIMADE, is an organisation that works with detainees in France’s euphemistically named “retention centres”. Activists Hortense and Marco have been working in these centres for two years. I am not in the head of Mr President Macron but what is sure is that this law is really authoritarian, really repressive. The liberal face of Macron is one thing, but there is a repressive strategy against foreign people, which was installed before, but worsened by the current government. It is also a question of social justice. There are people in the world who can travel with their passport, without having obstacles to move from one country to another, from one continent to another. And there are a lot of people who don’t have that opportunity. From village residents banding together to block police access to migrants, to activists grounding planes by refusing to sit down: solidarity has come from all corners of French society, upholding that very French heritage of resistance and protest. Daniele Obono, is a French MP with the left-wing “France Insoumise” party and is one of the most active advocates of the rights of the ‘sans-papiers’, she told us about the history of this struggle. In France it started in 1995 as a social movement because at the time those ‘sans-papiers’ and their supporters stayed in a church in St. Bernard. And it’s a very famous occupation. Because the government at the time entered the church which used to be a sacred place which the police couldn’t, you know, barge in. And it created a big wave of protest and support for the people who were just asking for their administrative papers. The Gilets Noirs are a dynamic new chapter in this story, but across France multiple struggles are being fought by undocumented workers in parallel. In Paris, ‘sans-papiers’ workers have organised a strike at one of the country’s biggest delivery companies: Chronopost. There we talked to a striking worker. It’s total misery! Because we work there from three in the morning. They give you thirty minutes, twenty-five minutes, for one person to unload a lorry by themselves. It’s just not possible. Worker exploitation, harsher immigration laws and pregnant women forcibly deported. Daniele Obono says, that this is all part of a ‘tough on immigration image’ that the French government wants to cultivate. Why do they want that image? Because they’re pandering to the right wing and the far-right electorate. Obviously. To win votes. I think unfortunately part of them do believe in that idea that there’s some threat from migrants. It’s not just France that is reacting to the perceived threat of migrants in this way, it’s a trend across the whole of the EU. Anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe and the resulting increase in support for far-right parties have left centrist politicians like Macron desperately trying to play catch up, implementing policies that get those votes back. Just outside of Paris, we were faced with the result. Whole communities, living in tents on the sides of highways, in conditions of neglect. A family we met, told us their story. We’ve been living here for one week, we haven’t see any state or police or anyone to help. We’re Somalis, and Somalia is difficult there’s war there are problems. We fled to Europe because we thought maybe here it’s better. But now we see that it’s difficult, it’s really difficult. We are scared, maybe people will kill us at night. I’m scared everyday about my children too. How long have you been living in France? For one week. One week? And what do you think of it? I like it that we go in a house. What do you want to do when you grow up? Do you want to go to school? Yes, I want to go to school and I want to be a teacher. What do you want to teach? English and Maths. How does it feel to live here with your family? To be here? It’s good, but some days it’s cold in the night… It’s out of these precarious conditions, that movements like the Gilets Noirs were born. They say that their movement encompasses the struggles of everyone who is undocumented and one of their strengths lie, in how they’re organised. What’s really fascinating about the Gilets Noir movement is that they’re organised through their housing. There’s a complex of social housing across Paris, they’re called foyers and through these foyers, they meet, they organise and then they carry out direct actions. These foyers are spread like a web, across the capital, within them the activists meet – usually in the prayer or common rooms – and plan their actions. It’s from these Foyers that the Gilets Noirs organised their action at the Pantheon. We were the only international media that was present for the entire action, including its aftermath. We are the ‘sans-papiers’ – the ones without voices, the ones without faces. A woman and her husband are going to be deported to Sudan despite the fact that the woman was taking part in the revolution and her husband was taking part in the revolution and France knows that there’s a revolution. The woman is called Tibyan, the man is called Ala Addin. Free them! Free them! All the undocumented gilets noirs women. We are here to claim what is owed to us! OK, so at first, they said no one’s allowed to use the toilet – they’ve closed all the toilets and now more police have come and they’re just telling everyone to sit down. It looks like the police have called in the reinforcements… So they’ve been negotiating with police and they said that they will only leave if they all get to leave together because there’s fear of reprisals and also fear that some of them will get arrested and taken to detention centres. So, now, they’re moving out but they’re moving out altogether. But once they were cleared from the building, they weren’t allowed to stay together for very long. I can’t really believe what we’ve just witnessed. The police just charged a kettled-in – a blocked group – of protesters. There’s a line of police behind them, there’s a line of police in front of them and they charged at them, of course the only thing that will happen is everyone is gonna get crushed. We were planning to leave all together; but actually they want to take us one by one. So either, they let us all go or they arrest all of us. They are taking advantage of the fact they are ‘sans-papiers’. They are left out, treated like animals. Why do you think they reacted in this way? Because they are afraid. Because the black vests are now a big movement. Who just are ready to go out in public spaces and say we want to exist. They want to kill this hope. After the fourth charge by the police, it seemed like they would continue until everyone was injured or detained. But just as we were expecting a new charge, MP Daniele Obono arrived. Soon after the police left, finally allowing the solidarity demonstrators outside, to join them. The most racist country in the world is France. In the past, our grandparents and our great-grandparents were killed by France, but today France is still the biggest enemy of Africa. It is France which is destroying Africa. All the wars that are underway in Africa right now – it is France. Since the so-called end of French colonialism in Africa, France has militarily intervened on the continent over 30 times and has had a role in deposing multiple sitting Heads of State. Including the killing of Libya’s President Muammar Gaddafi and the assassination of Burkina Faso’s Thomas Sankara. Through its military presence in Africa, France secures and maintains access to strategic raw materials – among them oil, gas, uranium and gold. Through its CFA currency France holds 50 per cent of the foreign reserves of 14 African nations and wields huge influence over their economies. It’s this backdrop of neo-colonial military intervention and extraction that backgrounds the struggle of the ‘sans-papiers’, many of whom hail from France’s former colonies. It dates back to colonial, slavery times when institutional racism started. The systemic nature of it was, you know, just reproduced and helped maintain colonialism after slavery. And then after colonialism, it took another form. Here we have no life, at home we have no life. Even if you do not like black people, stop the wars in our countries. We will stay in our countries. All of the problems happening in our countries, all the things because of which we are dying in the Mediterranean, to come here – all of that is France.


Reader Comments

  1. "White man racist and bad but we want to live with you. Please make us live with you". I'm not white but its ridiculous how many coloured people calls them racist but are dying to go live in their countries. Have some standard and self-respect.

  2. Only the beginning, France must pay for the continued colonization of African countries but still treat Africans as second class citizens in Europe after all the people of African have done France, the France should be ashamed of themselves, thieves!

  3. I wonder (((who))) could be behind this mass migration of africans?
    its almost like (((they))) want to flood europe with non white, non christians to change europe.
    hmmm, wonder why???

  4. "Even if you don't like black people, just stop the war in our countries and we will go back home."
    "We can't live in France and can't live in our country"
    Damn, this something the mainstream media doesn't mention at all. They just paint migrants like hungry parasites, meanwhile the Western states are the real parasites.

  5. Put em back in Africa. Europe can't have these people. I don't fucking care if your offended but white people had a good thing going on in europe and ''diversity'' is destroying it

  6. Put them on a boat straight to Africa, along with every other African and Arabic migrant that came to France in the last 50 years.

    Citizenship should be revoked immediately.

  7. Peaceful people just ready for a coup d'état. I'm sure french people will welcome the new overlords who will enlighten them both spiritually and racially. Media will celebrate their seizure of power, and the still-un-black frenchmen, they will feel sorry for all the evil done against africans, they will feel so sorry that they will build their own concentration camps when time will come.
    Reading some of the comments, to my surprise, I can see how close we are to our multicoloured goals. Yes. Let's roll out the red carpet for all those people, who just want a better life in Europe…

  8. Stupid black minded people come back to your country and protest for your Government to change your corupt African leaders and stop Diss gracing us stupid minded people if not you should be dealt with at any cost

  9. The bankers want us divided and fighting each other. Our attention needs to be focused with precision on the Bankers. All wars are bankers' wars. Not in my name. I do not give my consent.

  10. I like how theres always more nazi's in the comments that anything else when someone shines some light on just how fucked in the head you nazi shits are.

  11. Europe made the first world into the third world. Europeans have no problem destroying African kingdoms, enslaving/sexual exploitation African women, men & children across the "western world" on the bases of racial superiority, assassinating African leaders & have no issue capturing African land/resources. Yet, Europeans treat Blacks like strangers that don't belong, rubbish.

  12. Do all those former Empires still believe that they can really continue their despicable ways of exploiting the world for ever?! their own hypocritical humanitarian lies will eventually nibble away at themselves.

  13. Lol… Yes, it's the fault of French average Joe. Kick em out and get it over with. The French government used them ( a long time ago) but without France they would have even less than before. Their colonisation was a blessing in disguise.

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