The struggle of the "sans-papiers": realities and perspectives

by Ababacar DIOP
spokesman for the Sans Papiers of St. Bernard

April 4th, 1997. Translated by Iain Nappier. français / english

On March 18th, 1996, three hundred foreigners "without papers" ("sans papiers" in French) occupied the Church of St. Ambroise in Paris (France). Women, children and men together, refusing the label of "illegals", had decided to live in dignity and in the open in France.
Initially, the aims of our movement were modest, because our personal cases were both absurd and dramatic.

"Absurd", in that we love this country - France - and came here naturally because we had been vaunted its merits and tradition of hospitality. But whenever we go out, to work, we are hunted down like animals and denied our dignity: we are stopped by police, often simply for the color of our face, although we have committed no crime.
"Dramatic" because the lives of millions of people here and elsewhere depend on our presence in France. The vast sums of money sent monthly to our families are the real motors of development in our countries of origin. To deprive these people of our aid would be to condemn them to a slow and inevitable death, given the current state of development of these countries.

However, our original intention at St. Ambroise was not political, at least not consciously. We wanted to remind people that we existed and wished to be free of the illegality that French laws had thrust upon us. There was something extraordinarily simple in this vision. We were humans confronted with immense difficulties. What could be more natural than to make known our distress and to ask for a framework of negotiation with the authorities so that we could see an end to the tunnel, without animosity? I recall that the Sans Papiers themselves did not wish to raise the political aspects of this problem, because everyone knew that the reason for our predicament was the legislation voted by French representatives over the last decades, depriving immigrants of certain rights and consigning them to the apparently irrevocable status of administrative pariahs.

We made two urgent demands on the second day of the occupation: the appointment of a mediator and a moratorium on deportations.
The only tangible answer we received was eviction by force from St. Ambroise church by the police, with the complicity of the clergy. We then moved from place to place, including Japy gymnasium in Paris and the "Cartoucherie" theater in Vincennes.

As the saga progressed, political maturity took over from purely administrative concerns. In other words, our delegates were authorized to argue our case politically, firstly by explaining the drastic situations endured by undocumented immigrants and secondly by demanding the repeal of the laws authored by Mr. Pasqua and others (restricting foreigners' rights of admission and residence).

During the nineteenth century, with the industrial revolution in full swing, distant countries became accessible to Europeans with the invention of the steam engine and derived new means of transport. Pressed by the need for raw materials and the quest for new markets, Europeans in general, and the French in particular, began to emigrate, starting a migratory movement that continues to this day. Yes, westerners were the first immigrants.

We also feel that those who now consider immigrants as intruders have a very short memory. We believe it is the duty of Africans to help the French government refresh the national memory on the following points:

Whenever the motherland was threatened, France called on her colonies to save her. Millions of foreigners perished so that the French could live in liberty. This sacrifice, willingly undertaken by foreigners to defend the land of the "rights of man and of the citizen", must be remembered. To those tempted to blame us for all the degradation of suburban public housing projects, we answer that our grandparents lived in much worse socio-economic conditions when they helped fight and defeat France's enemies.

During the thirty years of full employment after World War II, immigrants assisted in the development of Europe in general and France in particular. They worked in agriculture and industry, very often for lower wages than French workers. France, exhausted after the war, not only needed labor for the economy but also new blood to revitalize its declining birth rate. General de Gaulle himself announced on March 2nd, 1945 that France would resort to immigration to reverse the fall in population.

Throughout the struggle of the Sans Papiers, we have been stunned by the silence of African governments. We are aware that they cannot legislate for France, but they can at least take a stand for the respect of human rights. Above all, they can refuse that their fellow citizens be deported under inhuman conditions.

Recently, on January 10th, 1997, three former hunger strikers were deported handcuffed, bound with sticky tape and drugged with chloroform, on a plane chartered from airline company Air France. This is no way to treat human beings who have committed no crime. But there was no protest from the consular authorities of our countries, despite widespread condemnations of the behavior of the French police. The French press gave wide coverage to this scandalous procedure for deporting foreign nationals. An incident on a plane chartered from a subsidiary of Air France on February 27th, 1997, when 77 undocumented Malian deportees revolted violently on arrival in Bamako (Mali), illustrates the increasing exasperation of immigrants, sick of being treated as scapegoats by a society in crisis. Inside these planes, deportees are depicted as rapists and murderers to deceive ordinary passengers. France, the land of human rights.


The Sans Papiers refuse to be assimilated with "illegals", even though we do not have legal papers. In fact, most of us lived here entirely legally for several years and only became illegal as a result of new legislation. I argued that it was important to continue the fight even after our eviction from St. Ambroise church, even if we all obtained our papers: we needed to reaffirm not only our attachment to France as the fabled land of refuge and human rights, but also our determination that the authorities should take account of our aspiration to live in France in dignity and equality.


The authorities remained deaf to our pleas. With no initiative for talks, there was a risk of stalemate. At this point, with the help of Ariane Mnouchkine, director of the Cartoucherie theater in Vincennes, we established a committee of eminent personalities (jurists, scientists, clergymen, etc.) to act as intermediaries between the authorities and ourselves.

From the outset these personalities made clear that they wished to operate in absolute calm, and that the ideal of "papers for all" was impossible. We disagreed, because we felt it was important not to wave a white flag before the battle. This "de facto" College of Mediators was recognized by the government, and talks were accepted. Finally, a "regularization process" was initiated in May 1996.


Civic associations were accustomed to helping individual foreigners sort out their administrative problems. I should add that each of us had already applied for regularization, in vain. Alone, we met with discourteous rebuttal from the authorities. Civic associations often managed to obtain regularization on a case-by-case basis, but there was no dependable rule.

By coming out into the open, we surprised most of these associations. Immigrants were coming out of the dark to say they wanted to live in dignity, to take responsibility for their own affairs and to conduct their own fight for legality. It was not easy. Initially, we were unable to control the movement, because certain associations insisted on carrying out various actions on our behalf.


The "regularization process" did not bring the results expected by the mediators. The government had promised that the cases of the Sans Papiers would be examined favorably in the light of ten criteria we had proposed. We had underestimated the deviousness of the authorities. On June 26th, 1996, the Mediators were invited to a meeting with the Prime Minister. While they were still in his office, French press agency AFP was receiving a press release from the government, stating that 22 Sans Papiers had been granted temporary residence "acknowledgments" for 3 months. The timing of the announcement was scandalous enough, but there was worse. The government publicly proclaimed that the only foreigners authorized to stay were parents of French children.

This was an outright lie. Those "regularized" included foreign parents of children who were "not yet French" because born in France after 1993, unmarried adults who had been refused political asylum, spouses of French citizens and spouses of "legal" foreigners. These settlements applied to a very small group, but what shocked us most was that the people left "unregularized" were in exactly the same situations.

Since then, we have constantly denounced the government's arbitrary treatment of the Sans Papiers of St. Ambroise. The unjust decision of June 26th provoked us into an organized riposte: on June 28th, we occupied the Church of St. Bernard in Paris.


The priest of St. Bernard's had not been warned, but he helped us considerably during the entire occupation of his parish. His public appeals called for a peaceful settlement. His hierarchy, not wishing to repeat the experience of St. Ambroise church, supported him. We organized meetings with parishioners and local associations, who were very receptive to our problems. This episode of the struggle left a deep impression, as ten Sans Papiers went on hunger strike for more than fifty days. When the hunger strike was approaching its fortieth day, and the ten were weakening, the atmosphere in the church was extremely tense. But the church was always full, welcoming more than two thousand visitors a day. We were forced to establish a guard system to give the occupiers space to breathe. From the authorities came only silence. They were clearly taken aback by the level of support for us in the August holiday season. I was approached by someone claiming to be a friend of the immigration authority. The deal was simple: a dozen or so residence permits in return for an end to our campaign. The answer was a categorical no. Back to square one.

The Sans Papiers debate had reached a turning-point. Voices were raised to decry our plight and demand our regularization. Political leaders, such as Robert Hue (French Communist Party) and personalities such as Danielle Mitterand, widow of the former French President, visited us to pledge support. The media flocked incessantly to the altar of St. Bernard. Then came macabre silence. On August 23rd, 1996, for the first time in France, the State gave the order to invade a church, breaking down the doors with axes and throwing tear-gas canisters on babies no more than a few days old.


Before our eviction from St. Bernard's, the government asked the Council of State to determine whether the Sans Papiers had a "right" to regularization. No, replied France's supreme constitutional authority, but the State was free to grant regularization if it chose (contradicting the government's claim that it had no other option).

Today, we can prove that the government has not respected its declared undertakings. In direct contradiction to the Prime Minister's promises:

These contradictions have fueled our determination. How can we accept such arbitrary handling of our cases in a State governed by law?

We were 314 at the start, including 24 "legals". Since then, 99 of us have been granted temporary "acknowledgment" of residence. 24 have been deported.

During our struggle we have shown that French legislation has created the very illegals it was supposed to be removing. Our main aim is to denounce this fact. However, our cause also raises the question of what type of society will prevail in France.

We are now at a crossroads. Immigrants have been designated as scapegoats for every crisis in France and in the rest of Europe. By attacking immigrants, the French government is drawing closer to the policy of the National Front (extreme right-wing party) against a background of racism and xenophobia. On the other hand, victories by the National Front in four city council elections have prompted a civic awakening, reflected in massive demonstrations in Paris in February 1997 against the Debré Bill (new laws restricting the rights of foreigners in France) and more recently in Strasbourg against the National Front's 10th annual convention. And we are only just starting. We have to stand and fight, not for a circumstantial revolution that would only last as long as the media care to speak about it, but for a profound change, answering the question of what type of society we want:

Egalitarian or inegalitarian?

The struggle of the Sans Papiers has to go beyond obtaining our papers and must address the underlying questions not only in France but also, especially, in our countries of origin. What immigration policy? Should there be quotas? What is the purpose of migration policies? Should frontiers be open? Etc. These questions need calm answers.

The new Debré laws on immigration cannot resolve the problem of undocumented immigrants in France but will only create new dramas.

More gravely, the new laws undermine the rights of legal immigrants by making the renewal of their 10-year residence permit conditional on "the absence of disturbance to public order". How will this notion of "disturbance to public order" be interpreted? This clause is a real threat to the rights of settled immigrants.

The new laws also violate the civil rights of French people, by establishing police files on people who accommodate foreigners, as was the case in 1940 for the Jews.

I end this presentation of the Sans Papiers by calling on African heads of state to remind Western governments of the contribution of immigrants, both with and without papers, to Western development. I call for talks between these states, so that immigrants in France, and elsewhere in Europe, can enjoy a stable status in society.

You can follow the struggle of the Sans Papiers on our Internet site based in... San Francisco, USA (e-mail: Please also spread the appeal to boycott Air France.

Ababacar Diop
translated by Iain Nappier