"They are scared of immigrants who fight for their dignity, who inspire others to do the same - so here we are! ….Our strength is in our unity, that's why they try everything to divide us" Gilets Noirs statement
On Wednesday, June 12, several hundred undocumented migrants occupied the office of the French multinational catering company Elior. Based in the La Défense business district of Paris, Elior has over a hundred thousand employees across 15 countries. And according to the activists, they have been exploiting undocumented migrants.
Activists held the occupied lobby for several hours, demanding to speak with the company’s CEO, while members and supporters held a rally outside. In their speeches they accused the company of withholding wages from undocumented workers, and holding workers precarious migration status over their heads – if they complain about their working conditions, they will get handed over to the police.
The gilets noirs are a collective of undocumented migrants living in Paris, who have been engaged in high profile actions in the French capital to expose the conditions under which they are forced to live – including precarious employment, homelessness and poor housing conditions, and police repression.
In a statement handed out to press and onlookers, they claimed that "When you confront the boss [over your pay, work conditions], they say 'we can’t keep you, you’re undocumented'. But when you work in silence, they don't care at all whether you have papers or not!"
The group’s militancy paid off, and after several hours they were granted a meeting with management. Campaigners left with a written agreement to a meeting next month between company representatives and undocumented activists, where they will work through a list of undocumented employees and see how Elior can help regularise their immigration status through the ‘regularisation through work’ scheme.
I recently spoke with Kanouté, Mamadou, and Marina, all members of the gilets noirs and the solidarity group La Chapelle Debout. They said they spent the first 30 minutes of the meeting arguing with management whether the company even employed undocumented people – with Elior maintaining they didn’t. Eventually however, the management brought in someone working in the company, whose role is to work specifically on the matter of undocumented employees in the company.
Kanouté told me that Elior, “like many companies, they want to keep it secret to keep exploiting people, not paying them overtime, and if they ask for anything they can fire them.”
They explained that migrant workers in France can work their way to getting secure immigration status, but your employer must sign certain documents. Without these, even if you have a contract, payslips and so on, the authorities will turn down your application. However, companies are reluctant to sign this document – not least, in the activists’ view, because it will decrease their ability to exploit their staff.
“Basically everyone knows [about this catch-22]” Kanouté said. “So that’s why we say the French state and the companies are working hand in hand to exploit undocumented people.”
For the gilets noirs, Elior was targeted for another important reason: the company provide cleaning, catering and other services to different parts of France’s immigration system.
Thus, migrants are made to work against themselves by cleaning the very detention centres, court rooms, and airports that migrants are detained in, judged in, and deported from.
The gilets noirs sought to use this situation to their advantage, and demanded that Elior use their influence to secure their release of ‘comrade D’, a member of their movement currently detained in a centre that is serviced by Eloir.
Air France – ‘official deporter of the French state’
This is the second time the gilets noirs have made the headlines in as many months. In late May, several hundred activists occupied a terminal in Charles De Gualle, France’s largest airport.
There they demanded a meeting with the CEO of Air France – the ‘official deporter of the French state’, and called on the airline to “stop any financial, logistical or political participation in deportations”.
Again, the activists sought to highlight the contradictions of their situation – it is normally only as baggage handlers, cleaners or security guards that they are allowed access to this terminal, which is reserved for internal EU flights and thus generally passengers who travel the world with ease.
This contrasts to the situation of gilets noirs and undocumented people across Europe, where the European Union’s ‘Dublin regulations’ means people are either stuck in a country in which they don’t want to be, or are being forced back to a country which they are desperately trying to avoid.
At their airport action, as with the demonstrations at Elior, they called for a meeting with the French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe, demanding he grant them residency to live and work in the country.
As the activists held the lobby, waiting for their delegation to be received, people played music over a loud speaker. One song was ‘Africain à Paris’, from the award-winning artist Tiken Jah Fakoly, who details life in the capital as an African migrant.
As well as migration and the difficulties people face, another recurring theme in Fakoly’s music is the neocolonial relationship between France and its former colonies (known as ‘Françafrique’).
They sell us weapons,
While we fight,
They loot our riches,
And say they are surprised to see Africa still at war.
Françafrique by Tiken Jah Fakoly (2007)
This theme is also clear in the gilets noirs statements: they say they targeted Paris’ business district because it is “the heart of imperialism”, and list the complicity of the companies headquartered there:
...Total and Areva who plunder Africa, Suez who steals his water, Societe Generale who steals his money and who finances the pollution from Africa with coal-fired power plants, from Thales building the weapons with which they wage war. [...] The same people who destroy our lives over there are waging war here!
Kanouté said it was important to make the link explicit between the exploitation of migrants in France, and the exploitation of African countries by French companies.
“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. And so it was very important to talk about this as well while we are in La Défense, because a lot of companies there are exploiting resources and selling arms in Africa. They are dividing people in Africa, so they can control them,” Mamadou added.
They are dividing people in Africa, so they can control them.
On France’s relationship with Africa, Pape Samba Kane, a Senegalese journalist, has written that – as with much else domestically – France’s new president Emmanuel Macron has represented no change or break, but an acceleration of past injustices.
"...the reality is more than disappointing. So far, Macron not only insisted on the continuity of France's economic dominance in the region as a former colonial power, but he also signalled his support for French military presence in the continent. Within the first weeks of his presidency, he has also clearly demonstrated that his assumptions about Africa and Africans are just as racist and colonialist as his predecessors'.”
“The boss is a cop like any other"
In their statements at the time of the protest, the gilets noirs expressed solidarity with their “comrades, cleaning women courageously on strike right now in Marseilles”. They claim, as do the trade union CNT-Solidarité Ouvrière, that Elior has been using the police to break their strike through unprecedented harassment.
“If there is someone fighting anywhere, in Paris, in Marseilles, or anywhere else, we will support it. It is important to support each other, against the state, and the companies who are exploiting undocumented people”, Kanouté said.
Just this morning, gilets noirs activists joined the striking cleaning women to gate-crash an Elior board meeting in Paris, to force the company to hear the demands of both groups.
“The fight of the undocumented is the same fight. The whole point of the [gilets noirs] movement is to act for every undocumented person in France and the world, not just our own situation”, he added.
For the activists, it is far from a coincidence that they chose the name gilets noirs for their movement. They were inspired by how the yellow vests – many of whom are living in poor conditions themselves – were fighting every week for their rights.
They were inspired by how the yellow vests were fighting every week for their rights.
“They represent a powerful force in France right now, because they are protesting every week, and they are not giving up. And this is what we related to when we chose our name – the fact we want to be as powerful as they are, and that we didn’t want to be afraid any more – to act in whatever way possible to fight for our legitimate rights,” Kanouté said.
Marina said that they are currently working on building relationships with yellow vest groups in Paris, trying to connect with workers and others in similar situation.
Another inspiration for their name was in reference ‘colère noire’ (unprecedented rage, literally ‘black anger’).
“It represents the anger….What happens to them every day, at work, in their daily life, with the police, the racist system,” Kanouté added.
The group says there have not been any consequences from the actions, other than those they deal with on a daily basis as undocumented people living in Paris. Engaging in an illegal protest is no riskier than simply taking the metro to work – both can see you arrested by the police and locked up in a detention centre.
Indeed, the consequences of these actions have been positive – people who were afraid to speak about their situation, or to confront their boss over work conditions, have been emboldened.
“It’s a daily threat. Some people were afraid [of protesting], but when you do it and get answers, you’re not afraid any more”, Marina said.
A statement handed out at Elior’s office last week, read:
"Yesterday, the bosses told Mamadou, a gilets noirs, when refusing him his overtime 'Listen - you work, you keep your mouth shut and your head down, and it's win-win.' Today, more than 400 of us came for the boss and occupied the lobby, demanding the end of our exploitation."
The gilets noirs say if the agreed promises are not kept, they will be back - and they'll be staying.