Aino Korvensyrjä
Translator’s note: What Do We Owe to the Sans-papiers Movement?

In March of 1996, a group of African migrants occupied the church of St. Ambroise in Paris. The occupation lasted only four days, yet sparked an expansive movement which opposed new limitations on migrants’ rights and deportations. The movement called itself Sans-papiers, those without papers. The central demand was “Papers for all”. Groups were created in different parts of the country and the movement quickly gathered a sizeable network of supporters. Both well-known advocates and thousands of ordinary citizens offered their help. When negotiations with the authorities didn’t progress, a group of 300 migrants occupied the church of Saint-Bernard in June of 1996. A portion of those occupying the church went on hunger strike.

A 1990s campaign against “illegal” migration in France formed the background for the protest of the Sans-papiers. A series of new repressive laws (the Pasqua laws,of 1986 and 1993) made it possible to revoke valid residency permits of people who had worked for years and raised families in France, and whose children were French citizens. They also weakened the legal status of foreigners and their positioning in the labour market in a number of other ways.

The Sans-papiers surprised everyone with the openness with which they refused the new status of “illegality”. Saint-Bernard became a media sensation, visitors flooded the church, and a significant percentage of French people supported the demands of the group. Still the government and even some support groups held on to the claim that “Papers for all” was an irrational claim.

The occupation ended on August 23rd with a massive police operation. However, acts of solidarity continued – among these was the short speech “What we owe to the Sans-papiers” by the philosopher Etienne Balibar, held in March of 1997 in Paris at an event organized by the French Filmmakers’ Union.

When we now, almost 20 years later, publish a Finnish translation of the French philosopher’s coeval text, let us keep in mind that the Sans-papiers persistently took care to guard their autonomy. Radical democracy was constructed in general assemblies, spokespersons were elected, and could also be changed quickly by vote. They communicated the demands of the group in the media and to the authorities. The role of women, and the level of participation that they acceded to in the movement was remarkable, as Madjiguène Cissé, the central spokeswoman of the movement, herself of Senegalese origin, has underlined.

Thus Balibar’s speech scan be understood as a further amplification of a signal or a message which the migrants themselves formulated most clearly. A similar function, though on a greater scale, was realized in the campaign kein mensch ist illegal (no one is illegal), launched by German anti-racist groups in the summer of 1997 at the Documenta X art exhibition in Kassel.

All in all, the Sans-papiers protests gave a central stimulus to the emergence in Europe of (undocumented) migration as a political struggle. They have served as a central reference point of many movements which followed in advocating for the rights of asylum seekers and migrants. No Border network, or demonstrations against “Fortress Europe” during EU summits are just some examples, and of course the independent protests of refugees and migrants themselves.

In France migrant-lead militancy has its roots in early 1970s when the government began to restrict immigration. It became clear that the postwar economic boom and full employment were over. Migrants were at this time also made into scapegoats elsewhere in Europe. New controls were imposed on immigration and new forms of racism spread. In the late 1990s, the EU created common guidelines for immigration and asylum policies based on this stricter line.

Refugee and asylum seeker protests have once again strongly questioned this European system in recent years. Their demands crystallize on the one hand around the precariousness of work, and on the other around the status of rightlessness and the insecurity of stay produced by the current European asylum system. In this, as well as in the forms of action chosen – church occupations, hungers strikes, caravans to city centres – the precedent set by the Sans-papiers of the 1990s is clear. Though as is always the case, local conditions and the particularity of actors within each movement have also been important to these protests.

The Viennese journal Transversal published the German and English translations of Balibar’s text in February 2013 in a thematic issue which was a show of support to ongoing refugee protests taking place in Vienna. A couple of hundred asylum seekers marched in December of 2012 to the capital from a nearby reception centre. They had set up a protest camp in Sigmund Freud park and moved into the adjunct Votiv church. Some of the group went on hunger strike.

At the same time, in the fall of 2012, in Finland an asylum seeker protest took place. Three Afghan men started a hunger strike next to the Parliament in Helsinki.

Refugee protests in Vienna, Helsinki, and Berlin received a lot of media attention and many acts of support. Yet authorities and politicians rejected their demands concerning freedom of movement for all as “unrealistic”. At most, it was agreed to negotiate on the basis of individual cases.

But as these movements have tirelessly underlined, the individual cases or particular group interests are not at heart of the matter. This has also been formulated by Balibar, in his own distinctive manner: It is a persistent question concerning the political collective, which is the very crux of the issue, at a moment when as capital, goods, and information move freely around the world. Who today can participate in public life, and under what conditions?


The issue of transversal on Viennese refugee protests:

Information on Viennese refugee protests since 2012:

VA: Without papers in Europe. Making migration illegal – Self-organization and support projects in Europe (1999).

Bojadzijev, Manuela: Die windige Internationale. Rassismus und Kämpfe der Migration (2007).

Cissé Madjiguène: Parole des Sans-Papiers (1999).