How France oppresses its migrant population

Demonstration against the Post Office exploitation of the Sans Papiers workers

– A review of Saïd’s Bouamama’s book, ‘Manuel de l’immigration’, in the light of current events

By Najete Michell

At a time when President Macron is proposing yet another bill on immigration (the 29th since the 80s), it is worth reviewing Saïd Bouamama’s 2019 book, which explains why capital needs migrants to come and provide cheap labour, whilst the journey to France puts their lives at risk as they cross borders and the Mediterranean sea.

Migration has never only been from abroad. Bouamama explains how in France at the start of capitalism there was at first internal migration in order to fulfil its growing need for labour. People from Brittany, Auvergne or other poor rural areas migrated to cities. In the beginning, it was on a seasonal basis as many workers returned to their farms to plant crops or harvest them. Increasingly, such migrants came for longer periods, subsequently, many stayed, as is shown by the enormous growth of towns from the 1850s onwards. Later, workers came from other countries near France, like Belgium, and Italy, then Poland, and Portugal to work in the mines or factories. With the development of productive forces, immigration became a structural feature to such an extent that it can be said that the working class is in large part a class of migrants. As with black migrants today, many migrants moving to France, and within France, also suffered discrimination. Considered “uncivilized’, they were rejected because of their local language (Breton), or their different customs. They were packed in overcrowded and unfit accommodation. Some workers endured racist violence, as in the famous massacre of Aigues Mortes in the south of France in August 1893, where within a space of two days dozens of Italian workers were killed.

After the second world war, capitalism had an urgent and massive need for labour. Not only to reconstruct France but also because of the decline in the population due to the war. The French state helped by organising forced immigration from its colonies. The latter were judged by capital to be more “submissive” than Italian activists escaping Mussolini’s fascism. But what matters for capitalism as regards migrants is purely their labour, not the reproduction of the migrant labour force ie no housing, no health, no education. They were packed in to shanty towns around Paris while they were doing the most difficult jobs (building, mining, mechanical, automobile and textile industries). They built 90% of the motorways, half of the housing and 1/7th of the machines, but they had no heating, no houses, no proper clothing and other necessities of life.

The so-called wave of “decolonisations” in the French Empire did not much change the lot of the colonised. French imperialism while giving formal independence to its colonies, carried on the looting of their raw materials. Furthermore, imperialism combined the over-exploitation of the workforce in the colonies with organising the transfer of sections of the ‘ex-colonial’ workforce to France.

The post-war boom was in no small part due to the overexploitation of migrants as Bouamama puts it. This was acknowledged by le secretaire d’Etat aux travailleurs immigrés in 1975: “sans leur présence, l’objectif d’industrialisation fixé par le 6ème plan n’aurait pu être attaint” (without their presence (the migrants), the set targets of industrialisation in the 6th plan would not have been achieved ) The living standard of the French working class increased enormously in the thirty years after WWII (called “les 30 glorieuses”), but the gap with that of the migrant population widened.

The creation of Sans Papiers (undocumented workers)

At the end of the 80s, the fall of the Soviet Union opened a new period of even more intense capitalist exploitation all over the world, called neoliberalism. Exploitation increased while workers’ protections, including those provided by the welfare state and labour legislation, were attacked and often removed. Privatisations were also implemented. Instead of resorting to forced immigration, it became more profitable to establish production in the global South where reserves of extremely cheap labour existed. But capital still needed cheap labour from migrants in France in sectors that require a physical presence like care, catering, agriculture, building, and transport. A new status was created by the state, une clandestinité officielle (an official illegality), les Sans Papiers, as a structural feature to deepen the capitalist exploitation of the working class.

While officially immigration was to be stopped, (following the racist rhetoric of the National Front’s talk of “zero immigration”), in reality, capital needed the migrant workforce. Governments have organised a legal impasse for undocumented workers. In order to have a resident permit they have to prove they have been working in France, but they are not allowed to work as they are illegal. A whole system of laws and contradictory regulations called the CESEDA (Code de l’entrée et du séjour des étrangers en France et du droit d’asile) has been set up and has been changed over the years. This code resembles Le code de l’indigénat (1875) which regulated how to treat the colonised during colonisation, or the Code Noir (1685) during slavery. All of them are racist, contrary to equal rights in a country supposed to be “the country of human rights” since its 1789 French revolution and its motto “egalité, liberté, fraternité”. But in reality in France there is no equality between people; the CESEDA is a racist code which sets up different legal statuses for people according to the country they come from. Basically, black people are treated as less than human.

This state discrimination makes migrants lives miserable if they come from ex-colonies. They live in constant fear of being deported, the police arresting them and giving them an OQTF (obligation to leave French territory), or being put in “detention camps”. Therefore, they are more likely to accept any job, and the bosses are happy with this very cheap labour, underpaid, or sometimes not paid at all. If the Sans Papiers are ill or in dispute because their overtime has not been paid, they are immediately sacked. Many Sans Papiers have been in France for decades. They work and pay taxes but do not benefit from the welfare state, ie the indirect wage (housing, social benefits for children, pension). In 1975 the trade union of Senegalese workers in France (UGTSF) calculated the amount of money sub-Saharan African workers were paying in their wages in France but not using: 8 billions francs per year. (in Sally N’Dongo ‘Cooperation’ and neocolonialism, 1976 Maspero).

In his book, Saïd Bouamama draws out how France’s undocumented migrant labour is paid significantly less than the prevailing rate in the rest of society.

Sans Papiers struggles

1996 saw the first huge revolt of hundreds of migrants who decided to call themselves “Sans Papiers”. All at once French people, humanitarians, MPs, leftists, artists, and celebrities discovered these “invisible” persons who were building the economy day by day but were without any rights. The movement of solidarity was proportionate to this impressive long struggle which took the name of les Sans Papiers de Saint Bernard, after the church in which they were doing a hunger strike: infamous because its doors were broken by the police to expel the hunger strikers, women and children, from inside.

August 23, 1996, the expulsion of undocumented immigrants from Saint-Bernard (Image here)

This was the beginning of the Mouvement des Sans Papiers which has had many mobilisations and some victories: for example, 80 000 regularisations in 1998 as a result of the Saint Bernard fight. See film here.

It is estimated that 500 000 or more migrants are living this way.

Since then the movement of les Sans Papiers has not stopped. In 2020 during the very restrictive lockdown 40 000 Sans Papiers participated in a forbidden demonstration as they were either made redundant or did those “essential works” like cleaning, delivery, care so necessary during the pandemic but without any respect for their rights: unlike in Portugal and Italy which had proceeded to massive regularisations.

There have also been exemplary strikes of Sans Papiers. The latest are the more than one-year-long strike  of undocumented workers. Two of the firms are subcontractors of the national Post Office. This is typical of how precarious work is organised. These two firms are subsidiary companies of the Post Office: Chronopost and DPD. They have themselves a subcontractor, previously Derichebourg, but with the strike they changed to Onet, pretending it was Derichebourg who was to blame. In reality, Derichebourg or Onet call on temporary employment agencies who hire Sans Papiers workers. These agency workers are hired for a day or a week without any of the usual workers rights.

This series of subcontractors (in French : cascade de sous traitants, subcontracting cascade) means that no company is accountable and pretends they did not know the workers were “illegal”. In fact they are completely aware of it. Multinationals use this system but in this particular case, it should be noted that the Post Office is the French state.

Demonstration against the Post Office exploitation of the Sans Papiers workers
For further information follow the CTSPV (Collectif des Travailleurs Sans Papiers de Vitry-sur-Seine) here and here.

This system of exploitation through a series of subcontractors prevents workers from having the same rights and divides the working class between the French workers and those coming from abroad, generally black workers. As Marx explained racism is a tool of the ruling class aimed at dividing the working class into two hostile camps, in order to weaken it and impose the most terrible conditions of work and life. In a letter (here) in 1870 Marx wrote:

“Every industrial and commercial centre in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude towards him is much the same as that of the “poor whites” to the Negroes in the former slave states of the U.S.A.. The Irishman pays him back with interest in his own money. He sees in the English worker both the accomplice and the stupid tool of the English rulers in Ireland.”

Neoliberalism found a new way to get the maximum profit from black people. As the Sans Papiers say, it is “modern slavery”. The entire working class would benefit from a rise in the Sans Papiers’ wages and the rejection of the racism the ruling class promotes to sow division within the working class.

As Marx added, “this antagonism artificially kept alive (…) is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power.” And the latter is quite aware of this.

Indeed as many of the struggles of these precarious jobs where migrants or black people are involved show when one starts to question this division it benefits the whole working class.