The Marche des solidarités (March of Solidarities) in Paris on Saturday, 17 October, 2020 brought together tens of thousands of people. This self-organized mobilization by undocumented migrants was a resounding success, the result of a long-term activist dynamic.
The “undocumented”, precarious among the precarious
Undocumented migrants in France number between 300,000 and 400,000, according to estimates because there are no official statistics, that is to say a small number, representing between 0.5 and 1% of the adult population. Without any income, threatened with deportation, they can be sent to the CRA (administrative detention centre), the antechamber for deportation, where detention can last up to 90 days. Without the right to housing except for saturated emergency accommodation, many are condemned to live on the streets. Without any rights, they are exploited in the worst conditions. Employers large and small alike are happy to use this workforce at their beck and call, in construction, catering, garbage disposal, cleaning, or care for the elderly. During the COVID epidemic, they have continued to work for fear of losing their jobs and their small incomes. In France, those called “sans-papiers” have no resources. The only protection they have is the A.M.E. (state medical aid), health coverage for people in an irregular situation that the state has repeatedly wanted to remove. Apart from that, they are not entitled to any help. Asylum seekers are provided with temporary accommodation and a low allowance while their application is under consideration. As soon as they are unsuccessful, they no longer have any rights, all assistance is withdrawn and they are dismissed from the accommodation that had been allocated to them. 70% of asylum applications are refused. France holds one of the European records! Since the beginning of the 2000s, the laws have become tougher, reducing the possibilities of regularization and leading to massive expulsions from France.
After a period of decline, a revival of struggles
Undocumented struggles have erupted several times in history: a massive movement in the 80s/90s as well as strikes by undocumented workers in 2006/2008. But in recent years, the undocumented movement had weakened considerably as a result of repression and demoralization. Associations of solidarity and support for undocumented migrants have developed, but a self-organized movement, led by collectives of undocumented migrants as we saw in the 80s/90s no longer existed.
18 December, 2018 was a turning point: faced with the ignoble policy of the rulers, it became clear to all the volunteers, the refugee and migrant defence activists that humanitarian action, although necessary, was no longer enough. It was necessary to unite, to coordinate in order to stimulate a strong national movement, on the political terrain. On 18 December, the Marche des solidarités (a grouping of several solidarity associations) and the CGT trade union confederation called for an International Migrants Day. This time, unity between unions, collectives of undocumented migrants and associations was achieved, even if the call to participate from the CGT leadership was little followed by the grassroots union sections. The March which emerged at this time has continued and it is this which has been at the origin of recent movements.
Act 1: to everyone’s surprise, on 30 May, 2020, shortly after the lifting of lockdown, a call to demonstrate for the “regularization of undocumented migrants”, launched by the Marche des Solidarités, was followed in several cities of the country . In the days and weeks that followed, tens of thousands of people demonstrated against racism and police violence following the murder of George Floyd in the United States.
Act 2: On 20 June, a new appeal was launched: tens of thousands of undocumented migrants and supporters demonstrated in Paris, Lyon, Lille, Rennes, Montpellier, Strasbourg, Rouen and in many other cities.
Act 3: But President Macron had not a word, not the smallest sign of recognition for the undocumented migrants who demonstrated. He remained deaf to their demands: regularization, housing, the closure of the CRAs. So it was decided to strike harder by organizing Act 3. This time it was a question of organizing, from mid-September to 17 October, marches from several cities of the country which were to converge on Paris, for a national demonstration on 17 October. It was a pretty crazy bet, in the midst of COVID and authoritarian measures banning gatherings, demonstrations and so on. And yet it worked in every sense of the word. The marches started along four geographic axes and covered 92 stopover towns: South: departure from Marseille on 19 September, Valence, Montpellier, Grenoble, Annecy, Lyon; The far West: Rennes, Alençon…; The North: Lille, Beauvais, Rouen …
The appeal was supported by 270 organizations, local or national, including 20 collectives of undocumented migrants, associations or NGOs, unions and many local collectives throughout the territory. Beyond the demands put forward, what played out around these marches was the construction of a movement over time. The condition was that the marchers were the main stakeholders, the undocumented. But this would not have been possible if there had not been in the cities and villages a formidable mobilization of support, of volunteers competing for ideas and generosity to accommodate, supply, support the marchers.
How to explain this mobilization?
The work of the Marche des solidarités over several years has borne fruit. Since the protests in May and June, momentum has built up. In addition to the historic collectives of undocumented migrants, we have seen the emergence of new collectives open to a greater diversity of nationalities. This is not without difficulties, whether in old or new collectives. Self-organization is difficult, undermined by rivalries, power conflicts, conservatism, low politicization for some, fear of repression. On the support side, there is the political radicalization of a wide fabric of solidarity with migrants who have experienced the impasse of humanitarian logic alone; the anger of migrants who can no longer wait for their regularization and who have nothing more to lose.
But there are also the objective factors: paradoxically the destruction of migrant camps in 2016 led to the spread throughout France of the presence of migrants and the birth of solidarity collectives. The ambiguity and hypocrisy of the policy of lockdown that confined on one side and left migrants on the streets, leaving them to increased misery. Finally, the hope aroused among undocumented migrants by the new massive regularizations in Italy and Portugal (despite all their limits)
The 17 October demonstration in Paris
On 17 October the National March for the Sans-Papiers arrived in Paris. Despite the ban on demonstrations throughout western Paris that was targeted at it, despite the curfew. The organizers’ negotiations with the Paris Police Prefecture were laborious, but the latter finally authorized the route from the Place de la République to the north of Paris. It was an impressive march with tens of thousands of demonstrators, dozens of buses from the provinces, a diversity of processions, the determination of undocumented migrants, unwavering solidarity, in the face of the power of the collectives of undocumented migrants, supporters, unions, associations and NGOs, a national movement for solidarity and equal rights.
Unfortunately, following the assassination of a teacher by a young person of Chechen origin identified as radical Islamist, there was a total blackout of the media, especially national media, and a rise in all kind of racist discourse. But the facts are there: it will have been the biggest manifestation of the social movement for months. The government has heard but wants to remain deaf.
On the Sunday following the demonstration, the collectives of Sans-Papiers and Marchers and the supporters who remained in Paris met in assembly to lay the groundwork for the future. Because despite this real demonstration, a movement in progress, nothing is moving on the side of the government.
The undocumented movement still needs to take a step forward, building on the links built, to amplify the relationship of forces. It is clear that this is an issue for the whole social movement and, beyond that, for all of society. To accept breaches of equality, especially when they target foreigners, is to condemn us all. The flood of Islamophobic and liberticidal words and measures is proof of this. As is the explosion of poverty and inequality not only for undocumented migrants but for all popular layers.
Act 4 is about to begin for the Sans-papiers. It will have to be harder but also and above all to involve more directly and even more strongly the social and political movement which fights for the emancipation of the exploited.
CNIA (National Commission on Immigration and Anti-Racism) of the NPA