The French government aims to deport 25,000 illegal immigrants by the end of the year.
Wednesday October 3, 2007
The French government aims to deport 25,000 illegal immigrants by the end of the year. But the police snatch squads aren't having it all their own way. A new 'resistance' has sprung up, inspired by memories of wartime deportations and shame at the way France treats its ethnic minorities. Angelique Chrisafis reports
Like most illegal immigrants working in Paris's textile sweat shops, nail bars or restaurants, Chulan Liu kept her head down. A 51-year-old divorcee who left her only son in northern China this summer, she spoke no French. But she knew the name Nicolas Sarkozy and his order for police to round up thousands of France's “sans papiers” – immigrants with no papers and no right to stay.
When, a fortnight ago, officers knocked at the Paris flat Liu shared with four Chinese sans papiers, she panicked. She leaped from a window and hung from an awning by her fingertips, like a scene from a bad Hollywood film. She hit the pavement awkwardly and died.
Ivan Demsky, 12, was a popular pupil at his French secondary school, but his Chechen and Russian parents were failed asylum seekers. When police came to their flat in the northern town of Amiens in August, Ivan followed his father in escaping via the balcony. He fell four floors to the street below and into a coma. He has regained consciousness but is still being treated by doctors.
The faces of Liu and “le petit Ivan” have been broadcast all over France in recent days and displayed at demonstrations against what the left call France's “foreigner-hunt”.
As police struggle to pick up and deport President Sarkozy's target of 25,000 illegal immigrants by the end of this year, France is searching its soul. The right says the nation must be firm with its 200,000-400,000 illegal immigrants, many who have been in France for years. Others on the left say the police swoops on street corners, metro stations, outside schools and workplaces bring back uncomfortable memories of the wartime occupation, when a collaborationist government helped deport more than 75,000 French citizens and Jewish refugees to the Nazi concentration camps. More than 22,000 people have joined protest movements and underground networks to hide immigrant children and prevent their parents' deportation. They call themselves a new Resistance.
Marie-Pascale describes herself as a typical thirtysomething bourgeois Parisian. She is proud of her aristocratic roots and Catholic beliefs. She wears expensive gold jewellery, has three small children and a good career, but she has a secret life defying the French state. She and her husband recently hid two children of sans papiers in their apartment in gentrified east Paris.
“I'm not an expert in clandestine activity. I had to learn quickly,” she says. Two west African teenage brothers came to live with them from a provincial town in rural France. It was easier to hide them in multiracial eastern Paris, where they could be anonymous. They were enrolled in a local secondary school and cover stories were invented. To the neighbours, a missionary had asked the family to look after the boys. To the boys' classmates, they were relatives of Marie-Pascale, who had supposedly been adopted as a child by Africans. The boys were allowed to leave the apartment only to go to school. “They were banned from using instant messaging systems online in case they could be traced, but often when I turned on the computer I would see they had been on. There had to be give and take, they were under so much pressure,” she says. “I couldn't tell my parents-in-law what we were doing because they are Sarkozy supporters.”
She says she was inspired by the French people who hid Jewish children during the occupation. “What you are doing would have changed our lives in 1942,” one French Holocaust survivor told her. Marie-Pascale's own conservative family was probably “on the side of collaboration” during the war, she says. “I fear a sad period of our history is coming back. But these children, when they feel excluded in the future, will have learned from us that French society isn't monolithic or monocultural. They will remember people were prepared to defend their place in France.” If the children who are being sheltered can't be deported, French law makes it impossible to expel their parents.
What it takes to be accepted in France is a central question as the country struggles to keep up with the frenetic first months of Sarkozy's presidency. The nation that once openly welcomed foreigners – and in the 1930s had proportionally more immigrants than the US – is facing awkward questions not just about its sans papiers, but about its colonial history and the place of French citizens descended from immigrants.
Sarkozy, the most popular president since Charles de Gaulle, has gone further than anyone – including the Socialists – in opening up the government, appointing what he terms “visible minorities” to senior positions. For the first time France has a key minister descended from north Africans – the justice minister Rachida Dati, who grew up on one of the poor, multiracial housing estates in Chalon-sur-Sane in Burgundy. Rama Yade, the daughter of a Senegalese diplomat, was appointed to the foreign office as Sarkozy's “Condi Rice”. A leftwing women's rights campaigner of Algerian origin, Fadela Amara, who still lives in a council flat, has been appointed to help solve the crisis on suburban estates.
But campaigners still wonder if this means France is prepared to accept its black or Muslim citizens. It is nearly 10 years since the country's multiracial football team was hailed as a symbol of a rainbow nation, after Zindine Zidane and the “bleus” won the 1998 World Cup. But it's not just the far-right Jean-Marie Le Pen who complains there are too many black people in the team. A leading Socialist regional head was kicked out of the party this year for making the same observation.
Sarkozy believes France is in the grip of an “identity crisis” and must learn to love itself again. His first step in his quest to reunite France behind its traditions and erase what he calls the “I hate France” graffiti on multiracial housing estates was to create a controversial new government department: the ministry for immigration and national identity. It was described by the left-leaning newspaper Libration as the defining moment of a new era.
After concerns from even those close to him, such as the Auschwitz survivor Simone Veil, Sarkozy lengthened the name of his ministry to “immigration, integration, national identity and co-development”. But more than 200 historians, academics and intellectuals from around the world, including Britain and the US, signed a petition protesting against it. Eight French historians opposed to the ministry walked out of a project to create France's first museum of immigration, which opens next week.
They did not object to the separate concepts of immigration or national identity, but felt that linking the two suggested that anyone whose foreign ancestors settled in France – be they African, Chinese or Portuguese – was a threat to the very notion of France.
“How do you define national characteristics?” asked the historian Grard Noiriel. “You can always say France is the Eiffel Tower, or the flag. But that's pointless.” The concept of “national identity”, he said, was always an excuse to define yourself “against” someone else, “the dangerous other”.
To the rapper Rost, one of 10 children of Togolese parents, the ministry for immigration and national identity means “striking fear into the average French person who can be made to believe that all France's problems stem from immigrants.” He fears “two Frances pitted against each other”.
“All French people with foreign roots, even a few generations back, should go on strike for a day,” he suggests. “The whole country would shut down, even the president couldn't work.”
The ministry is headed by one of Sarkozy's best friends, Brice Hortefeux, who says his mission is to help citizens “live together better”. He has enforced the round-ups of illegal immigrants, however, insisting that France cannot be seen as a soft touch: “They must know that coming here is a dead end.” With Sarkozy, he has presented France's fifth new immigration law in five years, limiting families' rights to join immigrants and introducing requirements for French language and culture lessons. But as the senate debated the bill last night, Hortefeux faced rebellion in his own ranks. Some politicians, including on the right, objected to proposed DNA tests to prove links between immigrants and relatives they want to bring to France. One senator in Sarkozy's own party yesterday warned “we know the use Nazis made of genetics”. Church leaders cautioned against distinguishing between “good and bad migrants”.
Meanwhile, public protests over deportations have multiplied. Unions at Air France disagree with immigrants being bundled on to planes, occasionally with the use of force. Two passengers who put themselves between police and immigrants being deported on a flight to Mali last month were pursued in court for “inciting a rebellion” but were cleared. The sans papiers themselves have marched in demonstrations all over France. Some have gone on hunger strike. One group squatted in the car park of the steakhouse chain Buffalo Grill to highlight the extent to which the restaurant trade relies on illegal workers.
Sarkozy points out that he is the first French president to be “the mere son of an immigrant”, as he puts it. His father is a minor Hungarian aristocrat who left for France in the 1940s before the iron curtain closed, and later became an advertising guru. Sarkozy's maternal grandfather was a Jewish doctor from the Greek city of Salonica. The president has complained about the burden of a foreign-sounding name. His wife Ccilia is Paris-born but boasts that she has not a drop of French blood: she is half-Spanish, half Russian-Romanian.
In a sense, France's first couple represent their country's strong history of accepting immigrants of all kinds. Around one third of people in France have a foreign relative in their close family tree. For centuries, the country prided itself on giving asylum to foreigners from across the world. It still attracts the highest number of asylum applications of any OECD country. It was not until recent decades that immigration came to be seen as a problem, bound up with unemployment, poor housing, and issues of Islam in a secular state.
During his election campaign, however, Sarkozy tapped into unease about foreigners coming into France and not abiding by the customs of the republic. He was unashamed about adopting certain rhetoric from the extreme right. Le Pen's National Front may have been defeated at the election, but his ideas live on.
When it was first mooted, Sarkozy's department of immigration and national identity won the support of the majority of French people in polls, although the left now dismisses it as “the ministry of the round-up and the flag”. The number of immigrants legally settling in France fell in 2005, but a survey by the National Human Rights Commission that year found that 55% of French people still thought there were too many foreigners in the country. One in three admitted they were racist, an increase of 8% from the previous year. Last year, 51% of French people in a Le Figaro survey felt foreigners who didn't love France should get out – an old Le Pen slogan, which Sarkozy paraphrased in his campaign.
Sarkozy's racially diverse cabinet members look brilliant on the endless magazine covers devoted to them. But campaigners insist the appointments mean nothing unless the lives of ethnic minorities change. What, they ask, will stop the discrimination against French citizens who are non-white or have a foreign-sounding name?
In theory, at least, France follows the republican model of integration: once a person becomes a French citizen, they are equal before a state that is blind to colour, race and religion. Multiculturalism along the British model is, to many, a dangerous taboo. It is illegal to count the number of black people, north Africans and other minorities in France, or classify people according to ethnicity – all people should be equally French with no differentiation, the theory goes.
But in practice, the nation is not colour-blind. When France's black associations held their first annual meeting last year, American civil rights activists toured the run-down suburban housing estates and said discrimination reminded them of life in the US in the 1950s. One survey this summer found that three out of four companies preferred white to non-white workers. Black French students with African names have been advised to change their name to something “more French” when applying for jobs. Discrimination has reached such a level that last year the government decreed that companies with more than 50 employees should use anonymous CVs for recruitment.
Patrick Lozs, the president of Cran, France's umbrella group of black associations, has fought for direct census questions that would determine the exact ethnic, racial or religious make-up of French society. Without statistics, he feels discrimination is being swept under the carpet. But although a clause in the latest immigration law may allow “diversity statistics”, many of those on the French left are opposed. More than 40 leading figures launched a petition warning that counting ethnic minorities would be “dangerous” and lead to “confrontation” between community groups.
Lozs says that Sarkozy is at a crossroads: he could voluntarily face up to discrimination in France, measure and deal with it, or sit back and wait for the race riots. “He must be brave. I think he knows the real level of discrimination – but does he want to show it to the country?”
Religion and the secular state are also often uneasy. In 2004, the government banned religious symbols such as the hijab in schools. This week, a court in southern France will consider the case of a driving instructor sued for refusing to give lessons to a Muslim woman because she wore a headscarf. He said the scarf would impair her vision and initially won his case, although it is now subject to an appeal. In the Vosges, in eastern France, another court is to consider a case against the owner of a rural holiday cottage. She refused entry to a family who had made a reservation and driven 500km, stating the women should first remove their headscarves. The owner's lawyer said she was simply defending the secular state and came from a feminist perspective.
The debate over national identity has deepened the festering sore of the 2005, where young people who felt discriminated against, marginalised and packed away in high-rise suburban ghettos expressed themselves in the worst violence for 40 years. In three weeks, more than 9,000 cars and buses were torched, dozens of public buildings and business were burned, 3,000 people were arrested and 160m (110m) of damage was done across France, from Paris to Lyon, Normandy to Toulouse. Many on the estates fear trouble could easily flare up again.
One recent Saturday on Les Bosquets estate, beyond the Priphrique ring-road that serves as Paris's moat against the suburban high-rises, teenagers had torched some wheelie bins for a laugh and firemen were putting out the flames. Rats darted from the weeds as teenage joy-riders roared up and down on motorbikes. The tower-blocks with broken windows and piss-smelling entrances bore a rainbow of grafittied variations on “Fuck the police.”
Hamadi Diallo, 22, stood at a bus stop. He said he was proud to be French. His parents arrived from Mali in the 1960s, his father worked packing TV sets in Darty, the French equivalent of Argos. “My parents taught us to work hard,” he says. “I'm lucky – I was only unemployed for a year before I got a job in a garage. My sister has two diplomas in public administration but can only get work in McDonald's.”
He knows that Sarkozy has proudly repeated that wayward youths on the housing estates were “racaille” – a word that translates as rabble, but is perceived round here to mean scum. “It tarnishes everyone. But it's best not to think about it, because if you did, you'd give up on yourself, you'd lie down and die”.
Marie-Pascale is a pseudonym.