Black vests: Who are the gilets noirs and what do they want?

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Paris, France – Following on from the success of France’s gilets jaunes, or yellow vest movement, a new protest group aimed at seeking justice for undocumented migrants is emerging.

The gilets noirs, or black vests, claim to be the largest collective of undocumented migrants in the country, with a membership of between 1,000 and 1,500. 

They are diverse in terms of nationality, immigration status, and their housing situations – many are either homeless or stay in migrant hostels in the greater Paris region. 

Some have lived in France for decades, while others arrived in recent months.

Through a series of high-profile demonstrations and occupation protests in Paris, often targeting symbolic locations, they are holding France to its national motto of liberty, equality and fraternity.

“How can we live, without papers, without work, without accommodation?” Mamadou, a 39-year-old gilets noirs member, told Al Jazeera.

Originally from Mali, he has lived in France since 2014 and has not seen his family back home since.

Mamadou is undocumented and said although he works, he is denied a normal life.

“People have been here five, 10, 20 years [without documents] … how can you live like that?”

Deportations have increased under President Emmanuel Macron, and aid groups say France detained more migrants than any other EU country in 2018. 

Late last year, France passed a controversial new immigration and asylum bill. Measures include doubling the amount of time people can be held in detention.

“Our goal is to fight against all these injustices,” said Kanoute, a 50-year-old Mauritanian who has lived in Paris since early 2017. 

“We fight for all the undocumented, and for all who suffer from police violence, and state racism.

“We fight for our rights. The only way to obtain them is to fight. If you don’t struggle, then France doesn’t give you your rights.”

May 1 2017 Paris protest

Protesters call for asylum seekers’ right to work during a May Day rally in 2017 in Paris [File: Raymond Bobar/Al Jazeera] 

Officials estimate that there are over 300,000 undocumented migrants in France, with NGOs saying there are about 2,000 living on the streets of Paris.

Many live in make-shift camps which face police clearances.

In April this year, the UN criticised France’s provision of housing for refugees and members of the Roma community. 

“It was, as it always is, shocking to see such misery, suffering and destitution in as wealthy a country as France,” said a special rapporteur, calling on officials to stop forcible evictions.

Without legal papers, undocumented migrants cannot officially work, leaving many employed illegally and at risk of exploitation. 

Meanwhile, there have been reports of police brutality. Rough sleepers in Paris told researchers that police have confiscated their tents and sprayed them with tear gas. 

And conditions in refugee detention centres are reportedly poor.

Organising from migrant hostels

The gilets noirs emerged late last year, comprising undocumented migrants, activists from La Chapelle Debout!, a solidarity group that has been active in Paris for over five years, and campaigners with roots in the 1990s “sans papiers”, or without papers movement.

They organised meetings in the foyers – the hundreds of migrant hostels around Paris – and shared frustrations over a fruitless case-by-case approach to resolving immigration issues, later deciding to occupy buildings representing symbolic power.

Early targets were the National Museum of the History of Immigration and the Comedie-Francaise national theatre, the director of which is appointed by the government.

It wasn’t until March this year that the group formed under the gilets noirs brand and started receiving national and international attention.

They are making use of the space opened by the yellow vests. When you target the core symbols of the French republic, you get some attention.

Nacira Guenif, sociologist at the University of Paris-8

Occupations since then have included Charles De Gaulle – the country’s largest airport where many migrants work and from where some are deported – La Défense, the largest business district in Europe, and most recently the iconic Pantheon mausoleum in the Latin Quarter.

“They are making use of the space opened by the yellow vests,” said Nacira Guenif, a sociologist at the University of Paris-8.“When you target the core symbols of the French republic, you get some attention.”

The group has demanded a meeting with French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, calling on him to support the registration of the undocumented.

A letter from the group in June, presented on their behalf by MP Daniele Obono of the left-wing La France Insoumise party, has so far gone unanswered.

Kanoute, who is credited with naming the group, said he took inspiration from the yellow vests “scaring” the French state.

“So we took the same name – the gilets – but we are blackened by anger – and that’s where the name gilets noirs came about.”

He acknowledges differences between the movements but believes there is some mutual support.

“Each time we participate at their demonstrations, and they also attend ours,” he claimed.

FRANCE-POLITICS-SOCIAL-DEMO People march in Paris on January 19, 2019 during a demonstration called by the yellow vests (gilets jaunes) movement in a row of nationwide protest for the tenth week

People march in Paris on January 19, 2019, during a demonstration called by the gilets jaunes movement against high living costs and government tax reforms [File: Eric Feferberg/AFP]

Kiomars, a 56-year-old waiter in Paris who has attended yellow and black vest protests, told Al Jazeera: “I do not vote. We change nothing by voting. I do not know if [the yellow vests] will succeed or not but that’s the goal.”

He participated in a gilets noir protest calling for the release of those arrested following the Pantheon occupation.

“We stand together,” he said, but noted that some yellow vest members “believe they (gilets noirs) should not touch the symbols [of the French Republic]”.

Addressing neocolonialism

Migration expert Miriam Ticktin, a professor of anthropology at the New School for Social Research in New York, compares the gilets noirs movement to undocumented migrant activism in the 1990s, which she said was the height of the movement.

“In some ways, it is a direct continuation of the sans papiers movement of the late 1990s,” she said, with their shared emphasis on systemic issues – capitalism, racism and colonisation.

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The gilets noirs say that the economy of France, and Europe as a whole, has been historically dependent on cheap resources and labour from former colonies.

While some gilets noirs are from countries including Afghanistan and Sudan, most are from former French colonies. 

“France and its companies grow rich on our backs,” a recent gilets noirs statement said, listing French firms such as the oil giant Total and water company Suez, which they claimed are stealing Africa’s resources and propping up corrupt governments.

The group also mirrors the earlier sans papiers movement’s attempt to shift the conversation from select compassion towards universal human rights.

“Compassion turns it into a question of individuals who need saving,” Ticktin says. “The gilets noirs are trying to shift this language. It is really heartening to see a collective political movement, declaring ‘it’s not just for us, its a social movement for everybody,’.”

At the time of the creation of the gilets noirs, we weren’t at the same level of strength as the yellow vests. But we will reach their level one day.

Kanoute, gilets noir member

Abdulaye, a 37-year-old Malian who has lived in France since 2012, first heard of the gilets noirs when hundreds of their activists occupied Elior’s headquarters in May, accusing the multinational catering company of exploiting undocumented migrants.

As a cleaner for the company, he said he had been chasing unpaid wages for eight months. 

“I was desperate,” he told Al Jazeera.

After the gilets noirs helped him get his pay, he was determined to join the movement.

Some undocumented migrants secure employment under an alias – using someone’s else papers showing their right to work – a situation which risks further exploitation. 

“We are exploited on all sides. We don’t have rights, we are easy to exploit, we are easy to discriminate against,” Abdulaye said. “My goal is …to be [documented]. And to have a normal life, like everyone else.” 

Elior criticised the occupation, but a spokesperson confirmed that the company held a meeting with the protesters. It agreed to find ways to assist 23 employees with immigration issues. 

The gilets noirs said that over 200 cases will eventually be looked into.

French authorities have been relatively quiet about the movement.

Parisian Mayor Anne Hildago, the Paris police, and most businesses affected declined Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.

While a handful of politicians have supported the movement, including Obono and the Green party’s Esther Benbassa, most who have intervened have condemned the activists.

But the gilets noirs are undeterred and plan more protests.

“At the time of the creation of the gilets noirs, we weren’t at the same level of strength as the yellow vests,” Kanoute said. “But we will reach their level one day. Because we have just started, and we are already known around the world.”

Gilets Noir

A man holds a placard reading ‘Support to the Gilets Noirs’ as he stands in front of the Pantheon occupied by undocumented migrants in Paris, France, July 12, 2019 [Philippe Wojazer/Reuters]

Black vests: Who are the gilets noirs and what do they want?

Paris, France – Following on from the success of France’s gilets jaunes, or yellow vest movement, a new protest group aimed at seeking justice for undocumented migrants is emerging. The gilets noirs, or black vests, claim to be the largest collective of undocumented migrants in the country, with a membership of between 1,000 and 1,500.

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