The Funambulist Correspondents 15 /// Saint-Bernard: A Parisian church at the heart of the struggle for “sans-papiers”



Dear reader, this text is published in the spirit of open-access as part of our new project entitled The Funambulist Correspondents. Every week for a bit over a year, we will publish a text written by one of our 28 commissioned correspondents in as many places of the world. The project is made possible through generous support from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts

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It is an imposing building located at 11 rue Affre, in the 18th arrondissement/district of Paris. In the center of a square, the church seems to be enclosed by the surrounding buildings. Equidistant from Barbès and La Chapelle metro stations, the neo-gothic building stands in this popular triangle of Paris, with its arches in brace and its 60-meter high arrow.

During the Paris Commune, the great figure of the revolution, Louise Michel, hosted the club of the Revolution inside the welcoming tranquility of the church, a place of popular expression. A short distance away, stands the Sacré-Coeur which overlooks Louise Michel Square. In the middle of the touristic and bohemian bourgeois district of Montmartre, if the imposing Basilica was not intended to “expiate the crimes of the Commune” according to the legend, it was built by a government opposed to the communards, on the very spot where, two years earlier, Parisians were shot at their request.

A place full of history of struggles

Saint-Bernard, as the inhabitants of the neighborhood familiarly call it, has also been an important place in the struggle for the protection and regularization of the so-called “undocumented”. This vocation is undoubtedly due to the fact that the church is placed under the aegis and responsibility of Scalabrinian missionaries. This clerical congregation, which originated in Italy in the 19th century, has the specific mission of accompanying migrants.

The birth of the term “undocumented migrants” in the early 1970s should not be seen as the appearance of new immigrants, free of the law. It is, rather, the evolution of the legislative framework that makes it more difficult to be legal. Until then, foreigners arrived in France without a visa and then had their situation regularized at the prefecture. It is the different legislations that gradually created the category of “undocumented”. As of 1973, legislation became increasingly restrictive in granting residency permits to foreigners in order to limit the flow of entries. This was the time of the first “sans-papiers” or undocumented, i.e. foreigners without a regular residency permit in France. In 1973, the first undocumented migrants to rally against the tightening of the legislation were foreigners already living in France who were unable to have their residency permits renewed.

One night at the end of August 1996, an axe wielded by the forces of law and order struck the heavy wooden door of the Saint-Bernard church. In the building, nearly 300 people considered by the authorities as “having illegal status” took refuge. This story began on June 28, 1996, when these people, mostly Malians and Senegalese, were welcomed by the church to request their regularization. The parish priest at the time, Henri Coindé, welcomed them without hesitation, while the archbishopric of Paris judged this occupation to be “irresponsible”. Jean-Louis Debré, then Minister of the Interior, and representing the government, explained: “the time had come to apply the law firmly but with concern for humanity and with heart.”

On August 23, 1996, at 7:30 a.m., following an emergency eviction order, 525 mobile guards, protected by 500 police officers from the surrounding police stations and 480 riot police, were deployed to open the door of the church and to evacuate the occupants with a battering ram and merlin. When the mobile guards smashed the front door, he was at the lectern reading “I Have a Dream” by Martin Luther King. One of the volunteers went to the big organs and began to play a Bach fugue. Henri Coindé began the prayer: “All beings will have the right to the earth and to life…” The doors were broken down.

In total, the evacuation of the church resulted in 220 arrests, including 210 undocumented migrants (98 men, 54 women, and 68 children) who were placed in the Vincennes detention center. Although all of them were, in principle, threatened with deportation, only eight people were actually deported. This day has emerged as an important date in the movement of illegal migrants in France.

“These are the images that pushed me to become a volunteer at Saint-Bernard. I am an atheist but I know the work that religious leaders and volunteers, whether religious or not, do to maintain this solidarity.”

Marie, a resident of the Goutte d’Or neighborhood

For the younger volunteers, this story illustrates the humanistic dimension of the struggle to help undocumented migrants. “This cause has many faces. For example, I see in it the illustration of inhuman capitalism, wars of predation, North-South relations, and the plundering of resources — political issues, in short. But other volunteers, believers, will see in this question an obligation of welcome, of charity, and of help to the most destitute.

“It doesn’t matter, as long as we unite our efforts.”

Pedro, a student and volunteer

The inclusion of the church in the life of the neighborhood: Synergistic solidarity

La Goutte d’Or is a cosmopolitan district, which counts more than 40 nationalities for a population of 24,000 inhabitants. A district which is lived and created almost in opposition with that of Montmartre located some 300 meters away. The Goutte d’Or carries an imaginary Zola-like atmosphere, whose novel L’Assommoir is based in this part of Paris. The washerwoman Gervaise carrying her load of clothes to be washed belongs to the picturesque image of the district. It is the working-class, popular, and refractory side of the northern heights of Paris when Montmartre cultivates its appearance of a bourgeois, artistic, and light village.

The church is located at the junction of the so-called “Maghrebian” neighborhoods of Barbès and the African neighborhood of Château-Rouge. A symbolic location. Around the church, other buildings, more discreet, host the literacy courses given to refugees and asylum seekers, the dormitory which offers shelter and food to a few dozen people each evening, and finally the checkroom which offers the distribution of clean and warm clothes, from various donations. Every weekend, before the pandemic, from 8:00 to 9:00 am, breakfast was distributed to a hundred refugees by a dozen volunteers. During the first lockdown, take-away meals were distributed every day, attracting long queues of diverse people on the church square: refugees, students, poor families from the neighborhood, homeless people… Saint-Bernard facilitated a network of solidarity from individuals and associations in the neighborhood.

The Funambulist Hassina
Distribution of food packages and meals on the church square during the first lockdown (April 2020).

Ibrahim is Sudanese and 29 years old. He arrived in France more than a year ago. “One year and 3 months,” he says with a big smile and in a still hesitant French. Ibrahim attends the literacy classes offered by Saint-Bernard each morning on Saturdays and Sundays. Led by volunteers, these classes offer beginner and advanced sessions to asylum seekers and newcomers. At Saint-Bernard, Ibrahim was also able to find a whole network of help to complete his asylum application, manage his appointments at the local authority, and navigate the administrative ocean to establish his various certificates, such as health insurance, transportation, and housing. When the first lockdown happened, Ibrahim was one of those who came to help with the distribution, every day. “It’s normal,” he says with a big smile, in front of the church.

The Funambulist Hassina 2
Distribution of food packages and meals on the church square during the first lockdown (April 2020).
The Funambulist Hassina 3
Distribution of food packages and meals on the church square during the first lockdown (April 2020).

One day during the lockdown, the blue bag was passed quickly from one hand to another. A “good luck” was added by the volunteer. 11 o’clock onwards, the lines were getting longer, at a prophylactic distance of one meter. At noon, the gate opened for a timed ballet. The police often patrolled the neighborhood and it was important to move quickly so as not to be accused of creating contagious outbreaks. In the bag, a piece of bread, a can of vegetables and another of tuna, a bottle of water. A carefully wrapped piece of cake donated by local residents or made by other volunteers every day in large quantities. Hygiene products too.

Michel Antoine, president of the association Solidarité Saint-Bernard, remembers this period: “We started with 50 meals, then it went up very quickly, from 150 to 400 today.”

“But we were supplying other local associations. In total, it went up to 600 meals a day. It’s amazing how the number has grown in such a short time. By comparison, before the pandemic, we were giving out 50 to 100 breakfasts every Saturday and Sunday. The crowd was also different. Up until then, people who came to these breakfasts were “newcomers, refugees waiting for their status to be legalized, or rejected asylum seekers.”

Michel Antoine, president of Solidarité Saint-Bernard

But he notes that they also had families living in social housing. “Perhaps they used to go to the NGOs whose activities have been suspended since the crisis,” he adds.

The Funambulist Hassina 4
Distribution of food packages and meals on the church square during the first lockdown (April 2020).

Saint-Bernard has also been able to facilitate and bring together other impulses of solidarity in the neighborhood. In the Goutte d’Or, associations were created quickly, between people of good will, without even waiting for legal approval from the authority. These declared or spontaneous associations have done a real work of public interest. A synergy of their actions is already noticeable. Social monitoring services are still organized in an informal way. People cook at home for three to ten people, then go out into the streets in small groups to distribute these meals to those who cannot move — or do not move because of lack of information or fear of controls. “Every day, we had in-kind donations from other associations, and we, ourselves prepared meals that we also gave to associations in other districts” remarks Michel Antoine.