“They work here, they live here, they stay here!”
French immigrants strike for the right to work—and win.
France has an estimated half-million undocumented immigrants, including many from France’s former colonies in Africa. The sans-papiers (literally, “without papers”), as the French call them, lead a shadowy existence, much like their U.S. counterparts. And as U.S. immigrants did in 2006 with rousing mass demonstrations, the French undocumented have recently taken a dramatic step out of the shadows. But the sans-papiers did it in a particularly French way: hundreds of them occupied their workplaces.
The snowflake that led to this snowball of sit-in strikes was a November immigration law, sponsored by the arch-conservative government of President Nicolas Sarkozy, that cracked down on family reunification and ramped up expulsions of unauthorized immigrants. The law also added a pro-business provision permitting migration, and even “regularization” of undocumented workers, in occupations facing labor shortages. The French government followed up with a January notice to businesses in labor-starved sectors, opening the door for employers to apply to local authorities for work permits for workers with false papers whom they had “in good faith.” hired. However, for low-level jobs, this provision was limited to migrants from new European Union member countries. Africans could only qualify if they were working in highly skilled occupations such as science or engineering—but not surprisingly, most Africans in France are concentrated in low-wage service sector jobs.
At that point, African sans-papiers took matters into their own hands. On February 13, Fodie Konté of Mali and eight co-workers at the Grande Armée restaurant in Paris occupied their workplace to demand papers. All nine were members of the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT), France’s largest union federation, and the CGT backed them up. In less than a week, Parisian officials agreed to regularize seven of the nine, with Konté the first to get his papers.
The CGT and Droits Devant!! (Rights Ahead!!), an immigrant rights advocacy group, saw an opportunity and gave the snowball a push. They escorted Konté and his co-workers to meetings and rallies with other undocumented CGT workers, where they declared, “We’ve started it, it’s up to you to follow.” Small groups began to do just that. Then on April 15, fifteen new workplaces in Paris and the surrounding region sprouted red CGT flags as several hundred “irregular” workers held sit-ins. At France’s Labor Day parade on May 1st, a contingent of several thousand undocumented, most from West African countries such as Mali, Senegal, and Ivory Coast, were the stars.
But local governments were slow to move on their demands, so with only 70 workers regularized one month into the sit-ins, another 200 sans-papiers upped the ante on May 20 by taking over twenty more job sites. Still others have joined the strike since. As of early July, 400 former strikers have received papers (typically one-year permits), and the CGT estimates that 600 are still sitting tight at 41 workplaces.
Restaurants, with their visible locations on main boulevards, are the highest profile strike sites. But strikers are also camping out at businesses in construction, cleaning, security, personal services, and landscaping. Though the movement reportedly includes North Africans, Eastern Europeans, and even Filipinos, its public presence has consisted almost entirely of sub-Saharan Africans, a stunning indication of the degree of racial segregation in immigrant jobs. Strikers are overwhelmingly men, though the female employees of a contract cleaning business, Ma Net, made a splash when they joined the strike on May 26, and groups representing domestics and other women workers began to demonstrate around the same time.
“To go around freely…”
The sans-papiers came to France by different means. Some overstayed student or tourist visas. Others paid as much as 7,500 euros ($12,000) to a trafficker to travel to the North African coast, clandestinely cross by boat to Spain, and then find their way to France. Strike leader Konté arrived in Paris, his target, two long years after leaving Mali. A set of false papers for 200 euros, and he was ready to look for work.
But opportunities for the undocumented are, for the most part, limited to jobs with the worst pay and working conditions. The French minimum wage is 8.71 euros an hour (almost $13), but strikers tell of working for 3 euros or even less. “With papers, I would get 1,000 euros a month,” Issac, a Malian cleaner for the Quick restaurant chain who has been in France eleven years, told Dollars & Sense. “Without papers, I get 300.” Even so, he and many others send half their pay home to families who depend on them. Through paycheck withholding, the sans-papiers pay taxes and contribute to the French health care and retirement funds. But “if I get sick, I don’t have any right to reimbursement,” said Camara, a dishwasher from Mali. He told L’Humanité, the French Communist Party newspaper, how much he wished “to go around freely.” “In the evening I don’t go out,” he said. “When I leave home in the morning, I don’t even know if I will get home that night. I avoid some subway stations” that are closely monitored by the police.
When asked how he would reply to the claim that the undocumented are taking jobs from French workers, Issac replied simply, “We are French workers—just without any rights. Yes, we’re citizens, because France owned all of black Africa!”
The surprise allies in this guerrilla struggle for the right to work are many of the employers. When workers seized the Samsic contract cleaning agency in the Paris suburb of Massy, owner Mehdi Daïri first called the police. When they told him there was nothing they could do, he pragmatically decided to apply for permits for his 300-plus employees. “It’s in everybody’s best interest,” he told Le Monde, the French daily newspaper. “Their action is legitimate. They’ve been here for years, working, contributing to the social security system, paying taxes, and we’re satisfied with their work.” He even has his office staff make coffee for the strikers every morning.
Though some businesses have taken a harder line against the strikers, the major business associations have called for massive regularization of their workforces. According to L’Humanité, André Dauguin, president of the hotel operators association, is demanding that 50,000 to100,000 undocumented workers be given papers. Didier Chenet, president of another association of restaurant and hotel enterprises, declared that with 20,000 jobs going unfilled in these sectors, the sans-papiers “are not taking jobs away from other workers.”
For the CGT, busy with defensive battles against labor “reforms” such as cutbacks in public employees’ pensions, the strike wave represents a step in a new direction. The core of the CGT remains white, native-born French workers. As recently as the 1980s, the Communist Party, to which the CGT was then closely linked, took some controversial anti-immigrant stands. Raymond Chauveau, the general secretary of the CGT’s Massy local, acknowledged to Le Monde that some union members still have trouble understanding why the organization has taken up this issue. But he added, “Today, these people are recognized for what they are: workers. They are developing class consciousness. Our role as a union is to show that these people are not outside the world of work.” While some immigrant rights groups are critical of the CGT for suddenly stepping into the leadership of a fight other groups had been pursuing for years, it is hard to deny the importance of the labor organization’s clout.
Half empty or half full?
With only 400 of 1,400 applications for work permits granted four months into the struggle, the CGT is publicly voicing its impatience at the national government’s insistence that local authorities make each decision on a case-by-case basis rather than offering broader guidelines. But Chauveau said he is proud that they have compelled the government to accept regularization of Africans in low-end jobs, broadening the opening beyond the intent of the 2007 law. And on its website, the CGT boasted that the sans-papiers “have compelled the government to take its first steps back, when that had seemed impossible since the [May 2007] election of Nicolas Sarkozy.” Perhaps even more important for the long term is that class consciousness Chauveau mentioned. This is “a struggle that has changed my life,” stated Mamadou Dembia Thiam of Senegal, a security guard who won his work authorization in June. “Before the struggle, I was really very timid. I’ve changed!” Changes like that seem likely to bring a new burst of energy to the struggling French labor movement.
Marie Kennedy is professor emerita of Community Planning at the University of Massachusetts Boston and visiting professor of Urban Planning at UCLA. Chris Tilly is director of the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment and professor of Urban Planning at UCLA . In addition, Kennedy is a board member of Grassroots International, and Tilly is a Dollars & Sense Associate.