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Who are the gilets noirs?

The gilets noir occupied the Pantheon in Paris, calling for regularization of undocumented workers. Credit: La Chapelle Debout

In the land of ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’, the gilets noirs have been calling out the countless injustices that undocumented migrants experience.

A nod to the gilets jaunes movement that has rocked the country since November 2018, the gilets noirs have pulled in crowds of hundreds to take part in high-profile, peaceful direct actions over recent months.

Last week, they occupied the Panthéon in the capital, a mausoleum for the country’s famous citizens that holds great significance in the French Republic.

Describing themselves as the largest collective of undocumented migrants in France, the gilets noirs are living proof of France’s troubled asylum and immigration system. France detains the most undocumented migrants in Europe. Groups fear that the systematic use of detention will only worsen this year, with the introduction of a new immigration and asylum law extending the maximum detention period from 45 to 90 days. A more accurate national motto, they tell me, would be ‘exploitation, humiliation, deportation’.

‘We need the Prime Minister to meet us’

International attention to the plight of ‘sans-papiers’ often starts and stops with Calais, where police have attacked adults and children, and confiscated the tents of those remaining after the ‘jungle’ camp was razed in 2016. Yet across the country’s cities, thousands of people live in makeshift camps, on the street or in shelters.

The situation has been criticized by UN, whose expert on housing said in April:

‘Many migrants and asylum seekers with whom I spoke explained that they fled to France in part because it is the birthplace of human rights, and yet after arrival in the country they struggle to have their fundamental rights recognized and implemented.’

The asylum and immigration bill, which was passed last year, limits the scope of cases and speeds up deportations, as well as extending the maximum duration of detention. 

In a country where xenophobia often finds cross-party consensus, the new law was extreme enough to have lawmakers rebel, including from President Emmanuel Macron’s own party.

‘We want to be as powerful as [the gilets jaunes],’ Kanoute, a member of the group, told me. ‘We didn’t want to be afraid anymore – to act in whatever way possible to fight for our legitimate rights.’

They have been organizing protests since November with a clear goal: for French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe to grant the gilets noirs ‘papers’ – short-hand for the legal right to residency in France.

The group first gained significant public attention in May, with an occupation of Charles de Gaulle airport. Hundreds of gilets noirs took over a terminal, demanding to meet with the Prime Minister and the CEO of Air France, ‘the official deporter of the French state’.

Despite being teargassed, they held their ground until a delegation was met by representatives from the airline, who they asked to ‘stop any financial, logistical or political participation in deportations’.

Ahmed Abdul Karem, a refugee from Sudan and gilets noir, said: ‘We just know one thing – we have rights and we are ready to do what it takes it to fulfill these rights. We need the Prime Minister to meet us and negotiate with us.’

The heart of imperialism

The group struck again a few weeks later. The new target was the multinational Elior, a food and catering company, situated in what they called ‘the heart of imperialism’ – known more commonly as Paris’ business district.

They occupied the lobby of the company’s headquarters for several hours, while members and supporters staged a rally outside, until securing a meeting with company management.

Elior, which has over a hundred thousand employees across 15 countries, was accused of employing and exploiting undocumented migrants. Activists claim the company withholds pay, uses migrants’ precarious legal situation against them if they complain, and won’t sign the necessary documents which would allow workers to regularize their immigration status.

Many gilets noirs work for cleaning and construction companies, Kanouté told me: ‘Lots of companies go for undocumented migrants over other workers... because they know they can exploit them.’

The group also said they targeted Elior group to highlight how the company provided cleaning, catering and laundry to several French detention centres; where migrants clean the very courts, detention facilities, and airports in which they are judged, detained and deported.

The gilets noirs also spoke about the water, oil and arms companies stationed in the business district and the role they play 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, a relationship known as françafrique.

‘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 down on our knees, and then they can exploit our resources and make profits,’ he said.

Extending solidarity

Solidarity has been extended from all corners of French society. Activist group La Chappelle Debout and dozens of French celebrities have come out in support of the gilets noirs, signing an open letter. And earlier this month, hundreds gathered to protest against the Air France float in the Paris Pride parade.

The gilets noirs in turn have offered solidarity elsewhere; by crashing a management meeting in unity with cleaners who have been on strike for months in Marseilles and rallying with gilets jaunes in support of 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 negotiated with the police to leave the building, and were promised they would be left alone. However, they quickly found themselves kettled by the officers, who eventually arrested members of the group. Footage from journalists on the scene show the police charging at protesters.

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

Activists, including some leftwing MPs, campaigned over the weekend for the release of the protesters. While 19 were subsequently released without charge, a group of 19 were taken to a detention centre and are at risk of deportation, some of whom were held under ‘potentially violating legislation on foreigners,’ according to France24.

At hearings held earlier this week, all prisoners, including those detained, were released. Speaking after the verdict, Diakité, a member of the gilets noirs, thanked everyone who gave moral, practical and financial support who made their release possible. He expressed mixed emotions.

‘We are very happy that everyone is freed, but at the same time we are angry about the situation of how they were arrested, humiliated, traumatized in the detention centre without justification.’

Diakité says that those arrested have been motivated further rather than intimidated. ‘They went into the centres as gilets noirs, and left it as gilets noirs. They are proud to be gilets noirs.’


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