The Sans-Papiers – A Woman Draws the First Lessons
Where do we come from, we Sans-Papiers of Saint-Bernard? It is a question we are often asked, and a pertinent one. We didn’t immediately realise ourselves how relevant this question was. But, as soon as we tried to carry out a “site inspection”, the answer was very illuminating: we are all from former French colonies, most of us from West-African countries, Mali, Senegal, Guinea and Mauritania. But there are also among us several Mahgreb people (Tunisians, Moroccans and Algerians); there is one man from Zaire and a couple who are Haitians.
So it’s not an accident that we all find ourselves in France: our countries have had a relationship with France for centuries. There are among us many Soninké1 and it is often said that the Soninké “are a travelling people”. They are a great people who come together in the Empire of Mali and who were scattered across five or six different countries: that might also explain why they always feel the need to go beyond national borders. And of course, as soon as there is any question of leaving our country, most of the time in order to find work, it’s natural that we turn to France. It’s the country we know, the one whose language we have learned, whose culture we have integrated a little.
The time of neo-colonialism
We hear, including from French government sources, that the solution would be to eradicate the causes of immigration; that is to say, to help developing countries in such a way that the people of these countries can find the jobs they need where they are. It’s a good idea. But it is not at all what France is doing in Africa. French governments have never really aimed at their former colonies becoming truly independent. On the contrary, France has put in place more subtle forms of domination and exploitation. In Senegal, French investments are not made in the sectors which should be promoted and developed but in those which are already profitable: TATAR tinned fish is French-owned; France Telecom, EDF-GDF (French Electricity and Gas), also invest in those sectors with a high rate of profit.
Structural adjustment policies which are little by little strangling our countries provide the background: we are lent money on condition that we fit into the Western, neo-liberal model of “development”. Of course this doesn’t work; thus, little by little our countries find themselves in considerable debt. And the governments cannot repay the interest of the debt and at the same time finance a policy of development, even if they wanted to.
I say even if they wanted to. Clearly there are corrupt African leaders who divert the aid money and fill their own pockets. Quite simply, we must add that they do this before the eyes and with the full knowledge of their French advisers, even with their collusion. In a way, it’s a small tip for “good and loyal services”.
For France has never stopped being there, advising African leaders and suggesting to them which policies they should implement. For decades now we have been living in a neo-colonial situation while passing for “independent countries”.
It is not for nothing that there is still a French military base in Dakar (and another one in Gabon). It was the French army which quelled the Bangui riot a few months ago. It must be said that even after the colonial period, they have had a solid tradition in these matters. It is they who took charge of repressing the movement of the youth and of the trade unions in May 1968. That’s an episode little known in France: but our May movement in Senegal lasted five months, from February to June. And if the French army hadn’t intervened, it is probable that power would have been overturned under the combined pressure of the National Union of Senegalese Workers and the youth movement. The French army doesn’t care in the least about “eradicating the causes of immigration”. They are there to protect the very real economic interests which are at the same time the interests of French neo-colonialism and of the African bourgeoisies..
Democracy and autonomy
The struggle has taught us many, many things. It has taught us first of all to be autonomous. That has not always been easy. There were organizations which came to support us and which were used to helping immigrants in struggle. They were also used to acting as the relay between immigrants in struggle and the authorities, and therefore more or less to manage the struggle. They would tell us, “Right, we the organizations have made an appointment to explain this or that;” and we had to say, “But we can explain it very well ourselves.” Their automatic response is not to get people to be autonomous, but to speak for them.
If we had not taken our autonomy, we would not be here today. Because there really have been many organizations telling us that we could never win, that we could not win over public opinion because people were not ready to hear what we had to say.
We can see the results today: from Act UP to the Festival of Cinema in Douarnenez, we’ve won a wide range of support, including in the most remote parts of France. Little by little masses of people have understood that our struggle was raising questions which go beyond the regularization of the Sans-Papiers. New questions have gradually emerged: “Do you agree to live in a France where fundamental human rights are trampled on? Do you agree to live in a France where democratic liberties are not respected?” And we have also learned that if we really wanted to be autonomous, we had to learn about democracy. We had to make our own decisions, get them acknowledged as truly representative of us, not allow them to be called into question from the outside, respect them ourselves, and therefore learn to make others respect them, and to implement them ourselves. We have learned that in six months. Without the struggle we would not have learned it in 10 years.
It has not been easy. It was not obvious at the beginning that we needed general meetings; it was not obvious that women had to take part in them; it was not obvious that delegates had to be chosen. Let’s take, for example, the role of the families, which the press has helped to highlight. At the beginning, when the “families” got together, it was mainly the “heads of the families” who tended to express their views. There was an “esprit de chef”,* like the head of a region or the village headman in Africa*.
Now the reference to families has become more a reference to the family, the African family, very extended, flexible, boy cousin-girl cousin…
Even at this stage, problems still remained. For example, at a certain point there was a proposal to elect a president. In fact, the idea was that we give ourselves a “head of the family” (a man of course) who would be above the college of delegates, and who would eventually have all powers bestowed on him. Fortunately, this did not happen.
So we elected delegates. At first, we elected 10 of them. Today we are no more than five. Each time there is a problem there is in effect a general meeting, and it happens that some Sans-Papiers say: we don’t want such and such a delegate any more; he’s not doing his job. Thus of the 10 delegates elected at the beginning of the movement, only two of us are left: all the others have been replaced as we’ve gone along, and at the last general meeting people thought that they wanted five delegates, that that was enough since in any case these were the only ones who did the work.
The role of women
Women have played an extremely important role in this struggle. And it was not obvious that this was going to happen. At the beginning it seemed to be taken for granted that women would not participate in general meetings: it wasn’t necessary, since the husbands were there! Not only did women not have the right to speak; they didn’t even have the right to listen to what was being said at general meetings.
Two or three women began by imposing their presence at general meetings. Then they spoke. The third stage was to have women’s meetings. Then the men were really puzzled; they saw us as scheming, plotting, up to no good; they used to hang around our meetings to try and find out what we were saying. In fact, these meetings gave great strength to the women, and enabled them to play an important role in the direction of the struggle. When we were in the 15th arrondissement, at Catholic Aid, and the priest of SOS-Racisme suggested that we submit our case files to the Ministry and that we go home, the men were ready to do that, because they trusted the priest. It was the women who didn’t want to. They decided that they were not going home and they gave me the job of finding premises. I managed to find an offer of shelter at the Women’s Centre2 but it was not mixed; it was only for women. The women didn’t need long to think about it. Since you want to go home, they said to the men, we’ll take the belongings, we’ll take the children, and we’ll move into the Women’s Centre. Then the men told us that meanwhile they had been thinking, that we should all stay together and that they would find a place big enough for everybody. In fact, each time the movement ran out of steam, the women met and worked out initiatives which relaunched the struggle. Thus, there was the women’s march on 11 May, at the time when we were in Pajol3, and when the media were no longer reporting about the struggle. The march unblocked the situation in relation to the press. On 25 June there was the occupation of the town hall of the 18th arrondissement by the women who hadn’t “warned anyone”: it is no accident that the next day the Ministry gave us the first results on the cases we had submitted.
It has to be said that the fighting spirit of women has a long history in Senegal. You often hear of the struggle of the wives of the railwaymen from Thies. In 1947 a conflict arose between the railwaymen of the Dakar-Niger Line4 and the colonial administration. The strike was brutally suppressed, and many strikers were imprisoned in the civil prison in Dakar. The railwaymen’s wives, of Malian and Senegalese origin, then organized a march from Thies to Dakar to demand the release of the imprisoned workers. In the same way, it was mainly the Senegalese women who spearheaded the protests against the rigging of elections in 1988. For three months, again from February to June, there were demonstrations almost every day. A National Co-ordination of women of the opposition was set up, and it was this Co-ordination which took the initiative most of the time, and organized most of the demonstrations.
In fact, the Senegalese women don’t only have a tradition of struggle; they also have a tradition of self-organization. It is in some way linked to our education: as women, we are used to managing on our own from a very early age. Because back home, it is the woman who is in charge of the home, who is in charge of the compound.5 Little girls from the age of eight look after their younger brothers, go to market, cook. And they have a very important role in forging links with the other families in the compound.
The spokeswoman and the mobile phone
When I was arrested after the police had invaded Saint-Bernard, two events seemed significant to me.
The first is the way I was stripped by policewomen in front of my daughter. It was obvious that their aim was to humiliate me, to break me. So I stripped amid sarcastic comments and questionable jokes. “She’s not being that clever any more, the spokeswoman”, or “You’re not supposed to wear a bra inside out.” (A man wouldn’t have thought of that.) But the nature of the mocking, the sarcastic comments and the gibes also said much about the state of mind of the police: “Aha! the spokeswoman doesn’t have her mobile phone any more.” The mobile phone had become the symbol of the modernity to which as a foreigner, as an African, as a Black woman, as a Negro, I had no right: “They’ve hardly come down from the trees, and they already have mobiles in their hands.”
The second one was that I was immediately taken to court, even though I had a perfectly valid leave to stay. It was obviously another attempt to break the symbol represented by an African woman chosen to be the spokeswoman of her comrades in struggle. And for this, they were prepared to commit many illegalities: they did not themselves respect the laws which they praised so much.
During that whole period, we had many identities to re-establish. For example, our identity as workers. So after Saint-Bernard we insisted on holding our press conference at the Bourse du Travail [footnote: trade union office] to make people understand that we are not only “foreigners”, but that we’re also workers, men and women who work in France. The purpose of the attacks against us is of course to casualize us. But we’re not the only ones threatened with casualization: many French workers are in this position. Therefore we were keen to signal this “shared social fate” by where we held our press conference. I must add that our relations with trade unions are now very good. A system of sponsorship has been set up: the Sans-Papiers of Saint-Bernard have been shared out among the various trade unions which take care of them, and invite them to speak in their workplaces. For us, the involvement of the trade unions is fundamental to our struggle.
We have also become aware of the importance of our struggle through the support that we immediately found in our home countries (at least from the people; the governments were in less of a hurry). We believe that the struggle, in Senegal and elsewhere, against structural adjustment programmes, and our struggle here, is one and the same struggle. Co-ordination is not easy from 7,000 kilometres away, but we must constantly ensure that we are making the connections between our different battles.
Integration and respect
In France up till now our fate as immigrants was: either take part in the Republic’s process of integration, or be deported like cattle. At the heart of this approach was the notion that we are “underground”, which has a very strong negative charge. A person who is underground is someone who hides, who conceals himself, and if you conceal yourself it must be because after all you have something to hide. The French person who thinks that he must oppose people who are underground, illegal immigration, etc. always has at his side an immigrant friend he’s known for a long time. The immigrant you reject is always the one you don’t know. We have made ourselves visible to say that we are here, to say that we are not in hiding but we’re just human beings. We are here and we have been here a long time. We have been living and working in this country for many years and we pay our taxes. In the files of the Saint-Bernard people you will find wage slips, income tax declarations, old documents giving leave to stay. There are also passports and visas issued by the consulates of our countries of origin.
At the beginning of our struggle, they tried to label us as people who are underground. But they couldn’t: the authorities of this country have known us for a long time. Now we feel that we have taken a step forward: even the media no longer talks about people who are underground, but of Sans-Papiers. The fact that we’ve been seen on TV, that we’ve been interviewed in the press, I think that that has helped people to understand that we’ve been here for years, that we haven’t killed anyone, and that we are simply demanding the piece of paper which is our right, so that we can live decent lives.
In my view, our struggle also says a number of things about the difference between the model of integration in the Republic and the model which prioritizes respecting our founding cultures. I think that we have understood, and maybe helped others to understand, that it isn’t a question of one model or the other, but of finding a balance between the two. I have understood this by also thinking about my origins, about the culture of my ethnic group. I am from the Serere ethnic group. My first name is typically Wolof, and it’s a Tiado first name. In Africa, the majority of first names are either Christian or Muslim. When you are a Christian, you are called either Paul or John, and when you are a Muslim, you are called Ali or Mohammed. A Tiado first name is the first name of someone who is neither Christian nor Muslim. We have resisted all attempts to convert us, whether to Christianity or to Islam. Our resistance is so legendary that if a Serere says he is a Muslim to a Peul or to a Toucouleur, it will provoke a sceptical response: “Oh my, the Islam of Sereres. Hm… In short, we are non-conformist. But our experience has also taught us to live in a pluralist society.
When you want to live in a country there is a basic minimum not only of rules to abide by but also of effort to make: to learn the language, to fit into the social and institutional fabric of the society, and not to be satisfied with community education structures for the children but for them to go to the State schools of the country in which their parents live and work. On the other hand, there must be in this country a minimum of respect for our cultures of origin. Nobody forces French people who have lived in Senegal for a long time to dress like the Senegalese. And it is not because we live in a country where women are keen to wear trousers that we must decree that women who put on their African cloth and who wear the scarf cannot intregrate. A bottom line must be firmly established on both sides: a minimum of will to integrate, a minimum of respect for our cultures of origin. As soon as these two pillars are firmly established, everyone can find their own balance: it will not necessarily be the same for each person. But balance will be found along this middle way which can be reached largely by consensus.
1 The Soninké live in the east of Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Guinea, the Ivory Coast
and Burkina Fasso.
2 The Women's Centre – La Maison des Femmes – in Paris is a women-only meeting
place which came out of the women's movement. It has just celebrated its tenth
3 These are disused railway sites made available to the Sans-Papiers by the rail
workers' trade union CFDT.
4 This is now the train that runs between Dakar and Bamako.
5 The plot of land on which several families live together.
Original French version published in
Politique, la revue, n°2
The Sans-Papiers – A Woman Draws the First Lessons
The New Movement of Asylum Seekers and Immigrants without papers in France English translation ©1997 Crossroads Books
Translation: Selma James, Nina Lopez-Jones, Helen West