"We will go until the end, on lachera rien!": Interview with Gilets Noirs
At 4 a.m on Tuesday the 29th November, riot police evicted the roughly 200 residents of the Foyer Bara. The hostel (foyer) system in France emerged during the Algerian War as a means of lodging immigrant workers in the Hexagon, and Bara was a symbolic centre of resistance – against rent, carceral surveillance, and indecent conditions – since its creation in 1962. The Bara hostel had already been evicted in September 2018, when the local mayor triggered an arcane repossession order on a block of abandoned offices next door. For the last 13 Months, many old Bara residents (those who did not, for fear of their security, continue to occupy the Bara hostel and pay rent to Coallia, its managing company) had been living in these repossessed AFPA office blocks. This Tuesday, the Prefecture – responsible to the State and outweighing mayoral decision – proceeded to evict its residents, after a week of intimidation and coercion. Water was cut, and a single toilet in use for 200 residents, while all visits, even by family members, were prohibited, until the residents themselves found their residence cards refused. The building is planned to reopen in 2024 to house a new administrative tribunal and the national court of asylum rights. Of the 200 residents evicted, only those with regularized situations have been temporarily relodged. The large majority of those without papers (sans-papiers) find themselves on the street.
These practises of separation – in French, le trie – between those migrants with and without papers, with and without work, with and without housing, have in this past year been continually brought to light by the Gilets Noirs movement, in force since November last year. For these are three sides of the same impossible coin: you need a job to get papers, papers to get a job, or both of those to get housing, and so on. The Gilets Noirs have mixed offensive strategies in symbolic spaces with targeted attacks on the public and private bodies that conspire in producing and perpetuating their condition, with all of this is underwritten by the organisation of meetings and development of networks within the hostels themselves. Actions have gone from the occupation of the principal Parisian airport to contest AirFrance’s collaboration with deportation, to the invasion of the Pantheon in central Paris to highlight the erasures of the Rights of Man, or the targeting of Elior, a catering company who systematically employ sans-papier in order to facilitate wage and workplace insecurity, while systematically reneging on their promises to support their workers’ applications for regularisation through work. All of these and other actions have highlighted the triple bind of homelessness, joblessness, and paperlessness that define the legal fate of sans-papiers. But they have also worked to highlight the fact that this fate is continually reproduced and contested.
In this interview, conducted by the collective Plateforme Enquête Militante in the summer of 2019, members of the Gilets Noirs and the supporting collective La Chapelle Debout go back over the origins of the movement, its practical modes of organisation, and its horizons.
PEM: Could you go back over the origins of this Gilets Noirs movement?
V.: In November 2018, at the beginning, nobody knew that the Gilets Noirs existed but it took off quickly. We began to mobilise with the idea of
B.: This action showed us that this was something that could catch on. We created groups within hostels and chose delegates to enlarge and structure the mobilisation. Delegates went from hostel to hostel to speak to people. This kind of communication is important because when you are sans-papiers [without immigration papers] here you don’t know your rights. We’re now at least 1500 people. During the meeting that we obtained in December 2018, the prefecture agreed to accept thirty applications for regularisation every month. But these thirty applications are still pending, and we haven’t even got a declaration of their receipt [récépissé – proof that an asylum process has begun]. The prefecture is playing with us, saying that we’ll meet every month, then every three months, and they delay the meeting every time we get to the date. So the struggle continues.
After all that, we went back to the hostels to mobilise more people, and we did the Solidarity March on the 16th March. Personally, I hadn’t organized before because I was scared, given my situation, and I didn’t trust people. But since I met La Chapelle Debout and thanks to these mobilisations, we’re not scared anymore and we aren’t going to lose anymore! We always kept losing, but not anymore and the hostel residents now trust us. So we won’t give in. We can also make demands but we are starting to understand our rights. Before this, as a sans-papiers, I didn’t even know if I had the right to medical aid
D.: After this first meeting at the prefecture, we held general assemblies, including at the Parole Errante in Montreuil [a parisian banlieue] where there were 700 of us. The assembly was held in five languages and sought to make decisions about strategy. We had more meetings in all the hostels so that the applications would be considered all together, not according to criteria set by the prefecture, but by collective decision making. We wanted, for example, an application that was put in two months to be processed in the same way as those that have been there for 22 years. To support the delegation at the prefecture on the 31st January, which was made up of two Gilets Noirs and one member of La Chapelle Debout, we organised a big demonstration which went from the Comédie Française to the prefecture. There were 1500 of us, and we ran all the way to the prefecture where there was a line of CRS [riot police] waiting who freaked out and closed the door from 3 until 7pm. So on the 31st January 1500 people ran towards the police prefecture and managed to shut it down for four hours. During this meeting, we also wrote texts which denounced State racism and the conditions of reception for migrants more generally. This was to get out of a merely bureaucratic framework and bring in some politics.
K.: My first engagement with La Chapelle Debout was on the 31st January, when the prefecture gave the collective a meeting to honour the promise that they had made us: to regularize thirty people per month. This didn’t happen. La Chapelle Debout told us that that we would have to ‘fasten our seatbelts’ and multiply our actions, demonstrations, and occupations, in order to force the prefecture to respect their promise. It was at this moment that I started to work with the collective La Chapelle Debout and I became a delegate in my hostel. I had noticed before that there were collectives who supported sans-papiers, I had seen a few posters in the hostel, and there was an office opened on Saturdays, but I never really got into it. When people contacted me to organise meetings and mobilise the hostel I knew that I could be useful for the movement. The first time I really participated was when we went to the airport to prevent the deportation of a Sudanese man: when we succeeded, it seemed clear to me that we would need to ‘fasten our seatbelts.’ I didn’t have any prior (political) experience, not even outside France. I’ve always hated politics, because in my country the politicians are always racist, and the good leaders go to prison. Either you shut up and follow the politicos, or you go to prison. The leader of Mauritania is currently accused of corruption. But here, it’s different: in the country of the rights of man, even if they don’t do what they say, they’ll be ashamed of what they do. With freedom of expression, I might well go to the Elysée palace and tell Macron what I think and I wouldn’t even be arrested (laughs). Where I’m from, you get tortured if you open your mouth, so I’m not going to become an opponent when I risk losing everything. Nobody listens to you and you lose in the end. Here, if you learn about your rights and make demands, you might win what you have a right to.
V.: After the first round of applications were given to the prefecture, only one application was accepted, that of a comrade who has been in France for 22 years and whose applications had already been rejected three times at the asylum office. We then decided to target higher places, which demanded a more developed internal organisation. Over the course of a few months, we learned to trust each other by linking up ‘small’ actions like anti-deportation actions, participation in the demonstration against State racism of the 16th March, and the demonstration in front of the prison for foreigners at Mesnil-Amelot near Roissy airport. This was all required to build a capacity to carry out massive, illegal, and offensive actions discretely – we could even say violent actions, because political antagonism is not reducible to breaking shop-windows, and 500 sans-papiers occupying the headquarters of those who exploit them is certainly antagonistic. We started a campaign called ‘The Gilets Noirs are looking for the Prime Minister’. The first public action of this campaign on the 19th May 2019 at the Roissy-Charles-de-Gaulles airport in Paris circulated a lot. It was powerful to see 500 sans-papiers in an airport in order to fight rather than to do the cleaning. We spoke about this a lot, and it gave courage to all those people who see the airport as the shadow of the border and who appropriated this space with determination. Fear starts to disappear: no arrests, and a successful blockade of the airport. Internally, the question of work also started to come up, so we decided to target those who enact State racism, such as the companies who work in detention centres and prisons.
PEM: How did you organise yourselves at the beginning? And how have these forms of organisation evolved?
The Gilets Noirs is a movement not a collective. You can be in another collective and still be part of the movement: the idea is simply to respect the strategic orientation and decisions established in the General Assembly. For example, during the assembly at the Bourse du Travail in January 2019, we decided to stop speaking directly to the prefectures, and because we felt we needed to target further up, we had the idea of calling on the Prime Minister. We were 700 in the Assembly, there was no more place at the Bourse, and lots of people couldn’t get in!
Short-term decisions regarding tactics and organisation are made in smaller meetings among delegates – 50-60 people – with two or three delegates per hostel who relay the information: a delegate organises a meeting in his hostel to talk about strategy, then he goes to the meeting of delegates where tactical decisions are further discussed, then he goes back to the hostels to inform everyone. We can’t do General Assemblies with everyone very often.
D.: Everything changed very quickly. The Gilets Noirs was a sort of accident. At the beginning , La Chapelle Debout simply wanted to help build some capacity to win negotiations or collective regularisation with other sans-papiers collectives. Members of La Chapelle Debout began to go into hostels to organise meetings and prepare for the march in November against the imprisonment of foreigners. At that point, we had a single assembly, but the form of the mobilisation meant that very quickly lots of people came, and it went beyond the existing framework of sans-papiers collectives and turned into a movement. So now we also have meetings by hostel or by group of hostels.
B.: We are more than a thousand now, so we need a delegate for each hostel, and when these delegates go into the hostels, it’s not only to talk to the militants there. They try to talk to all sans-papiers, by door-knocking and sending messages to announce meetings in advance. In our hostel, there are even people who have papers but who want to support us because they are impressed by our struggle.
K.: After the 31st January, I met people from La Chapelle Debout and became a delegate. From that moment on I said to myself that I had to assume my responsibilities. So we organised other hostels, and when we go to the General Assembly we give each other instructions. We try to remain very discrete: meeting-points for actions are always kept secret until the final moment. And then it begins! For anybody who loses courage, we try to explain that when we struggle we don’t win every time and that we have to be able to resist and bear some difficult things.
PEM: The hostel then has a central role in the organisation of the struggle?
D.: We try to focus on hostels as places where people live, since according to the dealers in sleep like Coallia, Adoma, ADF and all the others, the hostel is merely a place where, after having worked all day, we come back and squeeze into a room with four or even seven people merely to get some sleep before leaving the next morning to get exploited again. The aim then is to maintain these as bases of organisation in order to make them political spaces, or rather to make clear what is political about them. Obviously all the managers of hostels are now trying to break the movement, mainly by authorising the police to enter the hostels and make arrests. This is a serious issue and one that happens a lot: there was a comrade arrested in his bedroom who is currently in a detention centre set to be deported to Senegal. They have also begun getting rid of all the communal spaces within the hostels, whether that be the kitchens, meeting rooms or prayer rooms; certain hostels received a letter from Coallia [who run the hostl] which threatened to call the police if the exchanges at the entrance to the hostels didn’t stop. So holding assemblies in these places is a form of direct resistance.
K.: At times they forbid us from choosing who we live with, under the pretext that we shouldn’t be more than one per room. I told these people: imagine if I prevented you from living with your child. I pay rent and I have the right to live with a parent! And no more prayer room!
V.: The hostel is a unifying base of organisation but we don’t forget those who are sleeping on the street, or people from other communities. Very quickly the slogan ‘Neither street nor prison’ [Ni rue ni prison] emerged to say that this was a struggle for decent housing, but also to denounce the fact that these hostels are managed according to a carceral logic.
PEM: You have suggested that the form of organisation has become increasingly complex as the movement gains strength. How do you manage to maintain the need for efficiency and horizontality? How, concretely, is the autonomy of the movement being built?
B.: Those who have been chosen as delegates are not worth more than the others in our meetings in the hostel. If a proposition is not agreed upon, we decide collectively how to do it differently. Certain people still think that people are fighting for the delegate, so that only he gets papers, but I make clear that no-one is paying me and that I work for everybody. We explained this and now people are starting to trust us; trust is crucial in this kind of organisation. I have said “We don’t lie to you, I just report back on exactly what was said in the delegate’s meeting and then I bring back to the delegates exactly what I hear in the foyer.” That’s how the trust develops. You have to be courageous to be a delegate, there’s work in it. Some people in my hostel could be my parents, and yet they give me recognition for my efforts.
V.: The autonomy of the Gilets Noirs is developing. We have a principle that whenever there is a delegation it is not French people who go to negotiate. The sans-papier must understand that they too can declare a demonstration (all you need is a name and a telephone number), that they can negotiate directly with the bosses, that they can do their own dossier to hand into the prefecture. What we hope for is that everybody learns how to put together the dossier necessary for regularisation and that they can go on to explain it to others. It’s about building knowledge and collective practices.
K.: How does it work?
D.: Led? [Laughs]
K.: No, but before January I didn’t know anything, so I have to listen to what is being said. I found people over there and since I’ve got the time I took part in all the meetings and demonstrations. There are people with more experience than me, but because I’m always around people get in contact with me.
D.: In the collective La Chapelle Debout there have always been sans-papier and people who used to be sans-papier, French people and non-French people, sons and daughters of immigrants.
PEM: Rather than defining yourselves relative to your administrative situations or, for example, as residents of hostels, you chose the name Gilets Noirs, a name which resonates with the Gilets Jaunes movement. Why?
B.: We actually created the Gilets Noirs on the 16th March, I mean the formula ‘Gilets Noirs.’ K., who chose the name, said, well, if there are Gilets Jaunes we must be the Gilets Noirs. It was on the 19th May, at the Airport, that the name really stuck: everyone was chanting ‘Gilets Noirs! Gilets Noirs’ That was when we started recieving emails and texts asking us: ‘So, the Gilets Noirs, what is your struggle about?’
K.: The Gilets Jaunes is a really powerful movement: every Saturday, there was even the army against the GJ. We wanted to give this same power to the sans-papier movement, so we adopted the symbol of the vest [gilet], but ours had been blackened by rage, because we live in a prison! We’re prisoners here: to not have access to housing is to be in a prison, and the hostels are prisons. Because we’ve got so few rights, they take all of them away: no more prayer rooms, no more meeting rooms. They restrict us to our rooms and our solitude. So Gilets Noirs to stay powerful and angry. As famous people say, what’s difficult is keeping the fame. It’s not difficult to be Gilets Noirs, but to remain so we must maintain the movement, frighten the state and the French police, give them things to preoccupy them. Once we did our action at the airport, people began talking about us in England, Germany, Portugal, and America. We felt we needed to make the most of that moment, so we did a series of actions to hit higher up. So for example, when the chief of police lied to us we aimed for his big brother, the Prime Minister.
D.: We made the link with the Gilets Jaune from a very simple observation: in the left’s imaginary, the sans-papier struggle is seen as a little bit apart, a particular section of people who struggle only for access to an administrative status with purely individual motivations. For a long time the left has thought of solidarity as amounting to chanting ‘So-So-Solidarity with sans-papiers’ once a year. We want to take this struggle out of the ghetto within which it has been enclosed, and reinscribe it in a social movement, to show that the immigrant’s cause can be anyone’s cause, sans-papiers or not, immigrant or not. It’s a struggle as general as any for the dignity of workers or against unaffordable life…The idea is to bring together all available forces, not in a simple gesture of solidarity but as part of a common cause, with common objectives. This is a social movement which is not exempt from repression. Since we started, many comrades have been shut up in detention centres, some have been deported to Italy, Spain, Senegal, Ivory Coast, and others have managed to come back thanks to international political networks. People in the prisons for foreigners are political prisoners in the same way as the Gilets Jaunes, they are militants who are attacked by the state because they are defending a cause. And it’s not by chance that this affects the category of the people the most attacked by the state, because immigrants who organise politically really bother those in power.
V.: It’s striking how some French militants decried the Gilets Jaunes movement as being racist, whereas the Gilets Noirs immediately saw in it a powerful and popular movement from which they ought to take inspiration.
K.: I don’t see racism in the Gilets Jaunes, racism is the State…The Gilest Jaunes are fighting the State, so they can’t be racist, and we copy the Gilets Jaunes.
D.: At the beginning of the Gilets Jaunes movement, we had just done our action at the Comédie Française, and we said to each other: ‘It’s striking that these people who are attacking airports in Nantes and burning police stations at Puy have practises of support for sans-papiers which are ten times more radical than all of our solidarity collectives.’ [Laughs] In the text we read at the Comédie Francaise, we wrote ‘Thank you to all those who are occupying roundabouts, attacking the airports where they deport us, and the police stations where they hand-cuff us.’ And we continue to say thank you to them. We have links to some Gilets Jaunes assemblies and regional committees that are still strong. We have a role to play there to emphasise the centrality of our struggle. We’ll be part of any movement which practically attacks the racist state. There is between the Gilets Jaunes and the Gilets Noirs a shared intelligence for collective action: this is clear in the targets we choose, these are two struggles for dignity within which we have common enemies.
PEM: How and why did you choose the second target of the campaign, the Elior group?
V.: We were also posing the question of work. So we decided to go for the actors of State racism: the companies who work in the detention centres and prisons…
K.: Once we won at the airport, people started to know about us and we felt that it was the time to go out and attack a company which exploits sans-papiers, because if the first struggle is for papers, there are other things: people murdered, badly housed, and fired. When we attack a company and we are victorious, we win ground, because other companies will be scared to employ or mistreat sans-papiers, and similarly sans-papiers gain confidence in their power. I receive more than ten calls a day from people who work for Elior and who say ‘I didn’t know there was a struggle but I’d like to be on the list for regularisations,’ people who want to fight with us.
D.: The point of the campaign is to show that it is the sans-papiers condition which must be brought to light through every target, while demonstrating that to be sans-papier is more than just an administrative injustice. Our targets illustrate what constitutes this oppression and the business that surrounds it: Air France, for example, make millions by forcefully deporting people, drugging and mistreating them, like the Algerian who died in Sweden during his deportation, victim to the same technique of immobilisation which killed Adama Traoré at Beaumont. But there is also the question of work, the deplorable conditions, the companies who employ sans-papiers to clean detention centres: Elior, Onet, Gepsa, Engie (the old GdF), a public enterprise which makes sans-papiers work in the cells of detention centres! During our meetings the questions of work-place conflicts and regularisation through work weren’t coming up that much, but we chose Elior because everybody agreed on one thing: that Elior is a company which makes sans-papiers work against sans-papiers and that’s un
B.: If they need you, they keep you, but if you ask for a Cerfa, they fire you. Then you come back and they claim that it’s a win-win: you need money and we employ you even if you don’t have papers, provided that you work and keep your mouth shut. It’s always like that!
K.: Sans-papiers are for the most part scared of being fired. During the campaign, for example, we asked people where they worked but they didn’t always have the confidence to say for fear of being fired; but with the movement and the attack of Elior some people are waking up, even if others still lack confidence. The prefecture has not kept its promise and, what’s more, the official appointments to submit a dossier are being sold! Certain employees are made to pay cash. They make you pay 700€ to have a meeting more quickly. There’s an entire market where appointments at the prefecture are sold on the black market. There have even been articles in the press about this. This has to stop. Even if the prefecture does not organise this directly, it is responsible for the behaviour of its dishonest employees. This adds to our struggles.
D.: The movement is also a way to make connections between France and our countries of origin, mainly old French colonies. In our communiqué for the action at Elior, we wrote that La Défense represents the heart of imperialism, in which Elior participates, just like Thalès and Safran who sell arms for wars in Africa and elsewhere. To act politically in France against these enemies helps to create links with the struggles in our countries of origin, like Sudan. We have done anti-deportation actions with Sudanese people to prevent comrades being deported to Sudan. The Iftar was also organised predominantly by Sudanese comrades, through the association Ila al-Amam, and collectives from Chad who struggle against French interference in their country. We try to show how every immigration movement must take account of the fact that fighting racism here is always also to attack enemies we have in common with the revolutionaries in all these countries. Solidarity is there to say that people are no longer alone. To say that we know our rights is also to say that, now, when a person in a hostel has an OQTF, they are no longer ashamed to say so, and don’t hide it any longer. They talk about it and then we contact lawyers who work for us for free. We’ve managed to get rid of dozens of OQTF
PEM: How did the negotiations with Elior pan out? What were you trying to obtain?
B.: They tried to take us for a ride: the heads of the company tried to make us believe that there were no sans-papiers working for them, but we know there are fake papers, subsitutiuons, and exchanges. Lots of people work either with someone else’s papers or with fakes.
D.: We didn’t approach them within the framework of a workplace conflict, but from the perspective of a demand for the right to dignity, against the exploitation of sans-papiers by other sans-papiers, and against the participation of some in the imprisonment of others. This is what came out of the text that we wrote together. But when we went to negotiate, they immediately cornered us into a workplace conflict, like a union negotiation, by giving us the Cerfa, which we took of course, because our goal was also to obtain these things. What’s interesting is that people see the sans-papiers as only being able to demand
V.: Autonomous struggles often tend to reconcile struggles over everyday life with those against an entire system. Demanding papers for everybody and collective regularisations must go hand in hand with a struggle against the system that produces sans-papiers. It’s a struggle for the freedom of movement and residence, a phrase which was created in sans-papiers struggles over time. A delegate from a foyer criticized the term sans-papiers, saying that ‘They call us sans-papiers when they see our struggles, and they call us sans-papiers as if it was a matter of shame to not have papers, but we’ve got lots of papers, just not the right ones.’ La Chapelle Debout, at its anti-racist root, also takes inspiration from the history of autonomous sans-papiers struggles, for example in 1996 at the churches Saint-Ambroise and Saint-Bernard, and before that the struggles against the double penalty [in which a foreigner could be deported for a crime committed in France], as well as in the banlieue, such as the Mouvement de l’Immigration et des Banlieues (MIB). The collectif started out in struggles agains
D.: What always struck me is that in the history of immigration and neighbourhood struggles, the struggle was always over immigration in the broad sense. So for example when there was a struggle against police violence, committees were immediately mounted against evictions and there would be anti-deportation actions to prevent residents of the neighbourhood from getting deported. In the first papers of the MIB, L’écho des cités, three-quarters of the texts and demands are about questions of housing and eviction; everyone was an ‘immigrant’ in the 1980s. But today, when we talk about police violence, for example, we talk about the struggles of ‘residents of working class neighbourhood’ and no longer about immigrants. And to talk about immigrants who arrive today, we say migrant, sans-papiers, asylum seeker or refugee according to your level of leftism and whatever term is in fashion. We say ‘immigrant’: between the parents who arrived thirty years ago and those who arrive today
V.: There is another aspect of the way in which struggles are thought about and organised today that we would like to combat: the idea that if you are a militant with papers then the only things that you can do for sans-papiers are social things, like accompanying them to the prefecture and in their individual procedures, and that we can’t struggle together collectively. Today, there are two ways of breaking immigrant sans-papiers struggles. First, there is always this question: are the migrants manipulated by the militants? It’s racist to imagine that the migrants are necessarily manipulable. It’s an argument of fascists, the police, and the bosses! Would we say to workers on strike that they were manipulated by the union or by the militants? And yet it always happens with migrants. They don’t have the right to a political opinion or to make strategic choices. Second, there’s the idea that if we aren’t concerned, then we can’t get involved, because we will ‘endanger the sans-papiers.’ There is always a reproach after an action that sans-papiers were put in a dangerous situation, as if the sans-papiers themselves didn’t know what they were doing when they struggled, and as if they weren’t in danger every day when they leave work or take the metro. On the contrary, participating in political struggle helps to overcome this isolation, organising together helps to develop practices of self-defence. These two arguments are ways of rejecting immigrant sans-papiers struggles which are not sexy enough, because there are things to lose for those who have papers, class and race interests in particular. We must go beyond these two reflexes which take us back to humanitarian paternalism.
D.: For all of these reasons, we call on all those in struggle to support the movement, because all struggles are embodied in this Gilets Noirs movement: the struggle against State racism and imperialism, against wage exploitation, the anti-carceral and antifascist struggles. This struggle must be supported because it concerns everybody. Regarding the question of the proper position to be adopted by militants with papers, we say: ‘Neither behind, for, nor in front, but together amongst comrades.’ The immigrant is not either a victim to be helped or a savage to be hunted, but a political subject struggling for dignity! Militants who have the right papers in the movement are not humanitarians or saviours but comrades who struggle against racism side by side with the comrades who have the wrong papers. We have launched the ‘Gilets Noirs are looking for the Prime Minister’; there is a petition, and it must be stated clearly that the aim is to go and talk and negotiate with the Prime Minister. We don’t want to talk with the Minister of the Interior, because we want to get out of the policing framework that is imposed on these struggles, and affirm a political dimension to our struggle and go negotiate the regularisation of all sans-papiers present in France with the Prime Minister.
B.: In any case, we now have lots of support, everyone wants to work with us! There is an old man in my hostel, who is in France since 1963, and who recognizes the specificity and courage of our movement. We will go until the end, on lachera rien!
Translated and introduced by Hector Uniacke.
. The Prefecture de Police de Paris is the headquarters of the Parisian Police. As a unit of the Ministry of the Interior, it administrates and polices immigration matters.