The Sans-Papiers Movement in France

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Excerpt of J’y suis, j’y reste (Reflex, 2000), translated by Mogniss H. Abdallah himself.

Nowadays, the anti-racist movement in France aims at achieving an equality for all that tends to be predicated on citizenship. Consequently, the Sans-Papiers (“Without Papers,” i.e. undocumented people) movement has had to operate somewhat independently from anti-racist organizations mostly composed of French-born activists. In the 1970s–90s, however, the fight for foreigners’ rights was central to the “immigration struggle” and found one of its culminations in a historical sequence in the spring and summer of 1996. This is described in the following text by Mogniss H. Abdallah, republished for the first time in English, and containing amazing archival photographs from the Agence IM’média archive.

Im Media Sans Papiers Funambulist 1
After being expelled from the St. Ambroise church by the police on March 22, 1996, Sans-Papiers in the streets of Paris looking for new spaces to collectively occupy. / Photo by Laurent Le Piouff, archives of the Agence IM’média.

The Sans-Papiers of St. Bernard (March 18–August 23, 1996) ///

The Sans-Papiers lived in constant fear of police ID checks and harrasment, which increasingly dominated their everyday lives, with many of them being completely without material means. To end this insufferable situation of having no rights of any kind, a group of African men, women and children decided to emerge from the shadows.

On March 18, 1996, they occupied the St. Ambroise church in Paris, to the general amazement even of the advocacy groups specializing in immigrant issues.

The occupiers came from the African workers’ hostels in Montreuil, a Paris banlieue where immigrants have been practicing a form of self-determination for years. The initial group thus consisted of people who knew each other and gathered different sorts of statuses: parents of children with French citizenship, rejected asylum-seekers, single persons… After earlier failed attempts to reach results with the help of SOS Racisme, or through individual claims, they decided to grab the government’s attention by acting together. The group pinned their hopes on the fact that Jacques Chirac had been elected to the presidency in 1995 after making the “fracture sociale” (the social division in society) a major theme in his election campaign: perhaps he could do something for them.