Les mots

The meaning of "sans-papiers"?

The French term "sans-papiers" describes any foreign person living in France without a residence permit. It resembles the term "clandestin", which appeared in political and administrative vocabulary in the late 19th century with the first measures strictly defining the terms of foreigners’ “right to residence”.

Ghazel, Urgent, 1997-2007 © Musée national de l'histoire et des cultures de l'immigration
Ghazel, Urgent, 1997-2007 © Musée national de l'histoire et des cultures de l'immigration

"Sans-papiers" stands apart from "clandestin" however in the sense that it is not an administrative category, but rather a term coined by those primarily concerned to denounce their situation. Hence, use of the term "sans-papiers" became widespread from the 1970s, particularly with mobilisation against the Marcellin-Fontanet memorandums (1972-1973), which linked employment contracts to residence permits.
Some 40 years later, despite the mobilisation of those concerned and solidarity movements, despite massive regularisation operations (130,000 foreigners regularised in 1981-1982, 76,500 in 1997-1998) and others “case by case”, the question remains. While it is difficult to quantify the phenomenon precisely, the number of people in an irregular situation in France in 2021 was estimated at 300,000 or 400,000 (source: Pew Research Center, cited by the Cimade).

Living and working with fear in your heart

And this is not for lack of mobilisation, efforts to put an end to situations that are truly grotesque: from the strike by undocumented workers at the Église Saint Bernard in 1996 via the cleaners’ strike at the Hôtel Ibis des Batignolles in Paris in 2019, to the strike by 300 undocumented workers in the Paris region that began in October 2021. Each time, the challenge of these mass movements and strikes by undocumented workers is twofold: obtaining regularisation and getting out of the shadows. “In my head, I have no peace of mind, because I know that I can inspected by the police during the trip to work. As soon as I leave the metro, I say to myself ‘Thank God I got here safely’. But at night, in order to get home, it starts over. It’s the same anxiety every day.” Those are the words of Baradji Makan, and this experience has lasted almost three years, day after day. And yet he works in the kitchens of the luxurious Brasserie de Marly, under the arcades of the Louvre museum (L'Humanité, November 5th 2021).
“Undocumented immigrants” can be garbage collectors, deliverers, warehouse workers, cleaners… they work, without being “seen or recognised”, in manufacturing, construction, the restaurant trade, cleaning, domestic work, agriculture, security (read Gauz, Debout payé, Le Nouvel Attila, 2014) or in beauty salons (read Sylvain Pattieu, Beauté-Parade, Plein Jour Edition, 2015). On a day-to-day basis, the difficulties and obstacles are many: access to housing, access to healthcare, no right to work leading to working under the table and exploitation (hardship, working hours, lower wages or even unpaid, etc.).
Undocumented immigrants no longer seem like a specific type of animal, hunted down solely as such: they are also the poorly housed, they are high school students, parents of schoolchildren, the unemployed, workers with insecure jobs. In this respect, they are now a part of the fabric of French social movements, they are members of unions, associations. In a fitting reversal of roles, these organisations are now adding to their list of concerns the specific administrative situation of undocumented immigrants”, writes Mogniss H Abdallah of Agence IM’Média (see his article on the website causetoujours.be). And in this respect, solidarity is mobilising structures like the RESF, the Cimade or the MRAP, as well as celebrities and people from the business world (following the example of filmmakers and writers). In 2020 and 2021 the Cimade launched a campaign for the regularisation of all undocumented individuals living in France.

Getting out of the shadows

The other challenge these mass movements face is getting out of the shadows, leaving behind a forced clandestinity, an imposed “illegality”. In the words of Maria, a Latin-American: “the word ‘illegal’ is a wound that sticks to your body. It puts us alongside criminals. . . It’s human degradation”, reports Mogniss H Abdallah.
Getting out of those shadows will mean deconstructing stereotypes and fantasies, showing who undocumented workers are and “How France manufactures undocumented people”, something the Cimade presents through ten typical journeys (see them on the Cimade’s website) showing the different steps leading foreigners to find themselves with undocumented status or remain so… as a result of the sluggishness of the French administration, the dematerialisation of procedures or a hardened approach to the processing of applications and/or application of the law … Deconstructing stereotypes also means ripping up the image of the undocumented immigrant as that young man arriving by boat and entering France illegally. As François Héran points out: “there is no clear line between legals and illegals”. Consequently, if a foreigner in a regular situation can find himself undocumented, in contrast, “there is the idea everywhere that, with time, presence, connections created, your right to residence is consolidated” (see the article online).

Mustapha Harzoune, 2022