[This piece was written in August 1996; I post it to suggest how easy it should have been to predict the recent social unrest in France.]
The summer exodus from Paris is famous. Parisians set out for everywhere to forget, well, Paris. That is the myth, and an evening walk in the near empty streets of wealthy central arrondissements could lead you to believe it. But follow the thirteen lines of the subway's circling web towards the edge of the city and another story begins to unfold. These trains, like the "A" Train in New York immortalized by Ellington, are vectors of class and race. At each station northwards they darken with Arabs and West Africans. Pass the Gare du Nord and step out into the life of the night at Barbès-Rochechouart.
The myth has an official form. Thanks to the brief administration of socialist Léon Blum in the 1930's, every legal French worker has the right to a paid vacation. In early August the newspapers celebrated the sixtieth anniversary of this tenacious right in a country with thirteen percent unemployment. The right persists because, so far, the French resist "restructuring." Last Winter much of the country shut down for more than a month in support of a transportation strike. From all walks of life commuters made their way to work on foot, not so much to defend railroad workers but to block the erosion of a range of established social entitlements similar to the paid vacation. Some observers took this revival of broadly-based protest politics as the last gasp of the sense of social justice in France. The French, they said, will soon follow their neighbors and lay down in the path of an increasingly exigent commitment to "Europe" and "the Global Economy." The next decade will tell if the denunciation of injustice, a central theme in French political culture since the Revolution, is headed for the history books. For the moment, however, it seems to be making a comeback.
The August myth tells you it is the height of vacation. The newspapers sing the right to leave both work and home behind. Yet even at midnight the streets of the Goutte d'Or district are full. This is because on these sloping streets near Montmartre the residents are often neither French and nor working legally. The neighborhood resonates with the languages of Mali, Senegal, and the Ivory Coast. One of those languages is French. Follow the lines of decayed and demolished buildings and the promise of public housing; old Paris is coming down and something new is growing. Two policemen with their blue pillbox hats and a radio watch over the perimeter of this battleground for the new France.
Not far beyond is St. Bernard de la Chapelle. In this sober catholic church hundreds of undocumented aliens from francophone Africa form the latest front-line. They do not have the right to a paid vacation. How, indeed, can you go on vacation when you are nowhere at home? There is slight chance that they could ever return to their lives in France if they crossed a national boundary. The summer, for them, is a time to stay put and live out the accelerating nightmare of France's turn to the right. While the French at the mediterranean coast frolic in the sea, the Africans in Paris struggle not to be forgotten.
Like the beginnings of the sanctuary movement in the United States at the time of the war in El Salvador, churches in France may be becoming an important site of political conflict. It happened a bit by chance. Three hundred Africans at St. Bernard, mainly from Mali, occupied the church when forced from a series of other locations in the City of Lights. They have now been squatting there for more than a month. Many are refusing to eat; the hunger strike is in its forty-sixth day. They demand recognition that they belong to and in France.
Although surprised by the occupation of his church, Father Henri Coindé insists that civil laws are subject to a moral test. He evokes the Natural Law tradition so familiar to readers of Martin Luther King. To this he adds an acute sense of political sociology, insisting that "this situation has been created by the government and they should take responsibility for it." It is the political shift to the right that has caused this new crisis. New immigration laws pushed over the edge a lot of people who for years have managed to scrape by. Thus, Coindé has refused to sign official papers authorizing expulsion of his refugees. Every morning at sunrise those inside the church and a greater number of supporters outside brace for an assault by the police.
It might be said that the battle is against the harsh immigration controls put in place by former and present Ministers of Interior Charles Pasqua and Jean-Louis Debré. These laws aim to stem the natural tides of population which renew all vital cultures and make great cities like Paris organisms of human creativity. They serve the same ends as some laws proposed and some enacted in the United States. The lois Pasqua are, for the moment at least, more effective than what we have seen in the United States for four reasons. First, the actual proportion of illegal immigrants living in France is very much lower than in the United States, amounting to about 0.15% of the total population. Second, this relatively small number can be located easily because dark skin color and immigrant status are more likely to come together. Third, the highly centralized administrative apparatus which covers the relatively small territory of France makes for a tight net of social control. Finally, in a country where public justification is so important it clearly helps the government that no political stand-off here is yet the subject of twenty-four hour media surveillance.
Since the baton was passed from Pasqua to Debré last year, the immigration hardliners have brought one especially pernicious element of the law to the foreground. The reform of the Code de la Nationalité denies automatic citizenship to children born on French soil. This is a radical break from the French republican tradition. It incorporates the dreams of Le Pen and the Front National into the core of the political program of President Jacques Chirac's "center" right government.
The attempt to impose this new form of control over the livelihood of human beings has produced, not surprisingly, a panoply of unintended consequences and new points of conflict. Since early this year, the movement responding to the increasingly offensive immigration policy has been growing. Alluding at once to the bureaucratic state and the revolutionary tradition, the name that has stuck to the movement is les sans-papiers. It is as though les sans-culottes were missing documentation instead of pants.
The new laws seek to sustain the public order by shifting responsibility for demographic chaos squarely onto the shoulders of the weak. Americans will recognize this strategy and its consequences from recent efforts in California to prohibit the delivery of basic services to non-citizens. Such policies in fact disrupt social practices which respond to irrepressible long-term human needs and which are the results of decades of bricollage and mutual accommodation. Networks of human interdependence cannot be smashed without destroying the beings which make them up. So no one should be surprised when this type of immigration law creates just what it aims to avoid: disorder and violence in the lives of citizens and immigrants alike, and an increasingly misplaced assertion of state power.
Such disorder is now erupting from the parisian cityscape and seeping into the lives of neighbors and friends, parishioners and priests, co-workers and bosses. Thus, the battle is not really against the immigration laws but for work, for families, for a moderately stable life. In the long run, it is for all children born on French soil. This includes the children born in the sanctuary of St. Bernard during the continuing occupation and hunger strike, who unlike their little brothers or sisters born before the first day of 1994 do not have the automatic right of citizenship.
It is after midnight now. A sleepless buzz is in the streets. Camping is a vacation favorite in France, and around the church tired campers await the dawn. In their midst, the high and the low, the drunks and the Derridas. A young student from Mali, alone in Paris for four years, working her way up the ladder to the exalted position of secretary, has recently finished her classes. School's out and this, she says, gives her more time to come to the church. More time to fight for a vacation. Maybe tomorrow this battle will be about the beloved right to a paid vacation. For now, it is against forced repatriation and the wrenching apart of families. It is a most emphatic assertion of residence and the longing to be at home. It is the battle for the new France. It is a battle that is coming soon to your neighborhood.
Written from Paris, August 1996