The Black Vests: Inside France's Undocumented Movement
On the 12th of July, 2019, the Gilets Noirs movement shot to international headlines after occupying the Pantheon, one of Paris' most historic buildings, demanding to speak with the Prime Minster, Edouard Philippe. “Our mission is clear. France deports us, France which colonised us.” A Gilets Noirs activist said in during the occupation. The Pantheon, a building where many notable French people are buried, including famous chemist Marie Curie and author Voltaire.
The Gilets Noirs – which translates into English as the “Black Vests” - a nod to the “Gilets Jaunes” protest movement that has engulfed France since December 2018, have been involved in organising a string of high profile actions that have targeted companies and locations, linked to their demands. Their first action was an occupation of France’s largest airport, Charles De Gaulle, and was was aimed at bringing attention to the increase of deportation of migrants from France. The second action targeted one of the world’s largest catering companies, Elior, which activists say was chosen not only because it employs undocumented migrants, also known in France as the “sans-papier” but because it also caters to various parts of France’s immigration infrastructure, including immigration courts, the French Foreign ministry and even deportation centres. Bakary, an activist with the Gilets Noirs, explained: “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.”
One of their key demands, the end to deportations, is one that is a threat for all of France’s sans-papier. At a deportation centre just outside of Paris, within ear shot of the busiest airport, we spoke to Ala Addin, an electrical engineer and his pregnant wife, Tibyan a dentist. Both were detained in the centre for weeks and threatened with imminent deportation. That’s despite a medical letter certifying Tibyan not being fit to fly and the government of France acknowledging the risk for both people, who were involved in street protests in the country, and who say they face torture and death if returned, Ala Addin spoke to us by phone: “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.”
Although the Gilets Noirs are a new movement, the struggle of the ‘sans-papier’ in France has a long and rich history. 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 undocumented workers:
“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 could not, you know, barge in. And it created big support for the people who were just asking for their administrative papers.”
But like with the Yellow Vests, the French state was quick to respond to their action at the Pantheon with violence, where police brutally kettled, then charged a group of peaceful protesters. Redfish was the only international media that was there for the entire protest, we asked Gilets Noirs activist, Hussam, why the police responded with violence: “Because they are afraid. Because the black vests are now a big movement. Who just are ready to go out in public space and say: “we want to exist!”. They want to kill this hope.”