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Illegal Immigrant Workers in Paris Want Resident Status in France

Illegal immigrants working in the Paris area have launched an unprecedented wave of sit-ins and strikes to demand their situation be normalized. The movement is spreading - and is supported by the country's largest trade union. From Paris, Lisa Bryant reports it also challenges France's tough stance on immigration - which the government aims to highlight when it takes over the European Union presidency in July.

Chez Papa is a typical French restaurant in downtown Paris, serving up traditional specialties like foie gras and steak frites. But the clientele has been staying away from the establishment since mid-April when three dozen illegal immigrant workers, including some of the restaurant's employees, essentially took over the establishment.

They are still here - sleeping on the restaurant's floors and on this recent morning watching television and drinking coffee. They are men like 30-year-old Guy Kebe, who has been working in the kitchen of Chez Papa for the past nine years - illegally.

Kebbe said he arrived to France from his native Mali 10 years ago. His father and his siblings all have legal residency. But he does not. He got his job on the kitchen staff using false working papers.

Kebbe said the workers began their sit-in April 15, after their boss fired a couple of workers who he discovered had been using false documents.

France's largest labor union, the CGT, has supported this and other sit-ins taking place in dozens of Paris businesses. Most of them involve the restaurant, construction and cleaning industries - all sectors, experts say, that often face labor shortages. Many of those hired are immigrants.

CGT spokesman Remi Picaud says that is one key reason why France's immigration policy has to change.

For the past 30 years, Picaud says, France's immigration policy has been against luring foreign workers. But like other European countries, he says, France needs foreign labor.

Others agree. The head of France's hotel union recently urged the government to legalize up to 100,000 clandestine workers in the hotel and restaurant industries. Other businesses are also siding with the immigrants' cause. But employers are far from united on the subject.

Chez Papa owner Bruno Druihl initially supported the workers.

But his associate, Catherine Bosserelle says she now feels his employees took advantage of him. They continued to strike even though he agreed to support their applications for legal papers. And their sit-in is costing him lots of money.

Many of those protesting at Chez Papa and elsewhere pay French taxes and social charges. That includes 34-year-old Malian Camara Adama, who earns about $2,000 a month working in the restaurant's kitchens. But that does not go far in Paris, where the average rent for a small apartment is about half that amount.

Adama says its very difficult to work legally in France. Like many illegal immigrants, he says, he lives in fear of being stopped by police.

The CGT remains a staunch supporter of the sit-ins that have grown to include about 800 Paris-area workers, and are spreading to other parts of the country. Union members like Denise Coupe visit the strikers at Chez Papa on a daily basis.

Coupe says she is disgusted that workers pay taxes yet cannot obtain legal papers. She says it contradicts France's creed of being a country of human rights.

The center-right government of President Nicolas Sarkozy, which toughened immigration rules last year, says it will legalize foreign workers on a case-by-case basis. But the illegal workers and activists supporting their movement say they want standardized rules for all.

What is clear is that France is unlikely to follow the example of Spain, which granted amnesty to about 600,000 illegal immigrants in 2006. The French government says it will push for a common European immigration policy - one which rejects blanket amnesties for illegal aliens - when it takes over the rotating European Union presidency, in July.

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