FECL 46 (August 1996):
In early July, 300 Africans threatened with deportation sought sanctuary in the Saint-Bernard church in Paris. The 300 are part of the ever growing number of the so-called "sans-papiers" - foreigners without residence papers. Many of them have been living in France for years, but suddenly found themselves in a situation of illegality after the entry into force of the ultra-restrictive "Pasqua laws" on immigration control (see FECL No.17: "'IMMIGRATION ZERO': PASQUA'S ANTI-IMMIGRATION PACKAGE VOTED BY PARLIAMENT", "PASQUA POLICY DRAWS PROTESTS FROM MANY QUARTERS", No.18: "CONSTITUTIONAL COUNCIL ANNULATES PROVISIONS OF 'PASQUA BILL' ON IMMIGRATION", No.35: "Fear and suspicion: the effects of anti-immigration policies", No.43: "New anti-immigration proposals embarrass the government"). Since March, "irregular" immigrants, often supported by French family members, friends and human rights groups, have been protesting against the government's deportation policy with hunger strikes, church occupations and marches. The movement soon spread from Paris to the provinces.
The authorities' reaction was contradictory. One the one hand, police raids of churches and immigrants' homes - often ending in family break-ups and legally questionable expulsions, and the institutionalisation of charter flights taking deportees back to Africa. On the other hand: negotiations with human rights associations, Interior Ministry directives to the immigration authorities recommending a "humane" approach in dealing with residence requests, and the case-by-case re-examination of residence applications of immigrants whose deportation had been previously ordered.
In summer, an impressive number of celebrities, including stage manager Ariane Mnouchkine and film star Emanuelle Béart, expressed their support for the sans-papiers and rumours began to circulate about an imminent negotiated solution to the conflict. But on 23 August, hundreds of riot police stormed the Saint-Bernard church in Paris. Police smashed the church gate with sledgehammers and evicted 300 Africans, 10 of whom had been on a hunger strike for 50 days. Press images of the incident went around the world, seriously denting the reputation of France as "the home of human rights". At home, a growing solidarity movement responded with a wave of demonstrations and public protests.
The government justified its rigorous action with reference to a recent decision of the country's highest administrative court, the Conseil d'Etat, denying any legal claim of the sans-papiers to residence. However, in the same decision, the Court also required that the government respect the right to family life, protect sick persons from deportation, and avoid undue hardship. Furthermore, the Conseil d'Etat required equal treatment of the sans-papiers in all parts of the country and condemned the prevailing arbitrariness of the authorities.
In a hasty effort to meet mounting public indignation, but in clear contradiction of the requirement of equal treatment, the government promised to reexamine the cases of the 300 Africans of Saint-Bernard. In the meantime, 120 of them have been granted stay. On the other hand, eight Africans have already been deported - partly in breach of legal and humanitarian requirements. Three are being detained for infraction of the foreigners law, and one person is being held pending deportation. Remarkably, the Interior Ministry refrained from giving grounds for its decision to regularise the 120, in order "to avoid precedents" likely to trigger a nation-wide flood of requests for reexamination.
By blending spectacular and tough action against the sans-papiers with sudden concessions and demonstrations of humaneness in publicised cases, the government is obviously trying to satisfy a part of the constituency that is continually drifting towards Mr Le Pen's extreme-right Front National, while at the same time avoiding unrest among the country's large immigrant population.
Significantly, the Catholic church seems to have similar concerns. While many parishes have offered sanctuary to the sans-papiers, and the lower clergy has been strongly involved in the solidarity movement, French Cardinal Lustiger was quick in condemning "political-humanitarian organisations" for "manipulating" the immigrants and stirring them up against the government. And when the police smashed the gates of the Saint-Bernard church with sledge hammers in blatant violation of church sanctuary, the Cardinal's first reaction was to blame the solidarity movement for its alleged obstruction of a peaceful settlement of the conflict.
Sources: GISTI (30, Rue des Petites Ecuries, F-75010 Paris, Tel: +33/1 42 470709; Fax: +33/1 42 470707); Reuter, 23.8.96; Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 6/7.9.96.