Who are the gilets noirs?

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Who are the gilets noirs?

Luke Butterly writes about why undocumented migrants in France are getting organized.


The gilets noirs occupied the Pantheon in Paris, calling for undocumented workers to be legal. Credit: La Chapelle Debout

In the land of ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’, the gilets noirs are protesting about the many injustices for undocumented migrants.

After the gilets jaunes movement that has protested since November 2018, the gilets noirs have had crowds of hundreds in peaceful direct action in 2019.

In Paris in July 2019, they occupied the Panthéon, a building important for the French Republic.

The gilets noirs say they are the biggest group of undocumented migrants in France and this shows there are problems in France’s asylum and immigration system. France detains the most undocumented migrants in Europe. Groups fear that the detention system will only be worse this year, with a new immigration and asylum law. The law makes the maximum detention period longer, from 45 to 90 days. They tell me there is ‘exploitation, humiliation, deportation’ and not ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’.

‘We need the Prime Minister to meet us’

International attention to the problems of undocumented migrants often starts and stops in Calais. There police attacked adults and children, and take the tents of the migrants who stayed after the ‘jungle’ camp in 2016. But in the country’s cities, thousands of people live in camps, on the street, or in shelters.

In April 2017 an expert on housing at the UN said, ‘I spoke to many migrants and asylum seekers and they said that they went to France because it is the birthplace of human rights. But after they arrive in the country, they find it very difficult to have their rights.’

The asylum and immigration law from 2018 makes it more difficult to claim asylum, makes deportations faster, and makes the maximum detention period longer.

In a country where there is xenophobia in all political parties, the new law was bad enough that lawmakers protested, including from President Emmanuel Macron’s party.

‘We want to be as powerful as the gilets jaune,’ Kanoute, a member of the group, told me. ‘We don’t want to be afraid anymore to act in any way possible to fight for our rights.’

They have organized protests since November 2018. They want French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe to allow the gilets noirs ‘papers’, the right to live in France.

The group first came to public attention in May 2019 when they occupied Charles de Gaulle airport. Hundreds of gilets noirs occupied a terminal and asked to meet the Prime Minister and the CEO of Air France.

The police used teargas but the gilets noirs stayed until they met representatives from the airline. They asked them to ‘stop any financial, logistical, or political help with deportations’. Ahmed Abdul Karem is a refugee from Sudan and he is from gilets noirs. He said: ‘We just know one thing – we have rights and we are ready to do everything to get these rights. We need the Prime Minister to meet us and talk with us.’

The heart of imperialism

The group occupied the multinational Elior a few weeks later. The Elior is a food and catering company, in what they called ‘the heart of imperialism’, Paris’s business district.

They occupied the company’s headquarters for many hours, while members and supporters had a rally outside, until they had a meeting with company management.

Elior has over a hundred thousand employees in15 countries. They accused it of employing and exploiting undocumented migrants. Activists say the company holds back pay, uses migrants’ legal situation against them if they complain, and won’t sign the necessary documents which allow workers to be legal immigrants.

Many gilets noirs work for cleaning and construction companies. Kanouté told me, ‘Lots of companies want undocumented migrants and not other workers... because they know they can exploit them.’

The group also said they occupied the Elior group to show how the company provided cleaning, catering, and laundry to many French detention centres. Migrants clean the courts, detention facilities, and airports where they are judged, detained, and deported.

The gilets noirs also spoke about the water, oil, and arms companies in the business district and how they play a part in the neocolonial plunder of Africa.

Gilets noirs member Mamadou explained that it was important to make these connections about France exploiting resources and selling arms in Africa.

‘They don’t want countries in Africa to be independent, because then they can’t make a profit from us. They just want us to stay weak and then they can exploit our resources and make profits,’ he said.

Giving support

People from all parts of French society are giving support. Activist group La Chappelle Debout and many French celebrities are supporting the gilets noirs and signed an open letter. And earlier in July 2019, hundreds came together to protest against the Air France float in the Paris Pride parade.

The gilets noirs are supporting others. They went to a management meeting with cleaners on strike for months in Marseilles and helped gilets jaunes to support striking transport workers. ‘If there is someone fighting anywhere, in Paris, in Marseilles, or anywhere else, we will support it,’ Kanouté said.

At the Pantheon, the gilets noirs said they talked with the police about leaving the building, and the policed promised to leave them alone. But very quickly the police arrested members of the group. Film footage from journalists show the police charging at protesters.

When the police finally let the crowd go, 37 gilets noirs were arrested, dozens were injured, including a photographer for the Liberation newspaper, and they took some to hospital for treatment.

Activists, including some leftwing MPs, protested over the weekend for the release of the protesters. They released 19 without charge but they took a group of 19 to a detention centre and they risk deportation.

In the end they released all the prisoners. Diakité, a member of the gilets noirs, thanked everyone who gave support to make their release possible. He said, ‘We are very happy that everyone is free, but at the same time we are angry about how they were arrested, humiliated, and suffered badly in the detention centre with no reason.’

Diakité says, ‘They went into the centres as gilets noirs, and left it as gilets noirs. They are proud to be gilets noirs.’ They will still protest.



(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)