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Two years supporting undocumented workers in france – an assessment

dimanche 12 septembre 2010

This report has a very personal tone, but as I don’t belong to any political group, I thought it would be easier to write it this way.

1) Initial motives

Professionally I work at home as a translator and proofreader. So my professional milieu is rather restricted and the area I live in is not really politically interesting. As I had only a mainly editorial activity (publishing a magazine and books 3 times a year under the name of Ni patrie ni frontières, see the website and its texts in English), I thought it would be useful to belong to a group engaged in a “mass activity” at grass root level. I chose the 18th district of Paris because it is a working class district with an important proportion of foreign workers of all nationalities, legal or illegal, who have been living there for a long time and have many traditions of resistance. I also chose this district because I had 2 friends already working there in a local RESF group (RESF means Education without frontiers network : it was created 5 years ago by radical teachers and left wing trade unionists : it’s now a nationwide network including around 200 organisations and trade unions, and, what is more important, thousands of non politically organised people).

2) Our activities

Basically, we receive illegal workers twice a week, two hours each time, in facilities lended to us by a local association. We try to give legal advice, to help migrants to collect all necessary papers and documents, to find a lawyer, etc. Obviously at the beginning the newcomer at RESF does not know anything so he or she works with a more experienced member. Even when we gain more experience, most of us still ask advices to the comrades present in the room (we work around a huge table, so it’s sometimes messy, when you have 10 adults and 5 children or babies together… but it’s a way to share experiences ; only if it’s a very intimate question – physical violence, genital mutilation, etc., – we take the person into another room) ; or through our internal discussion lists which are centered on very practical and down to earth questions (where do find free food, or free housing, or free clothes ; what’s the best tactics for a specific complicated case, what’s the best association we can recommend, etc. ; does anyone know a teacher in a school ready to help, or a local MP ready to intervene).

Another side of our activity is to go to courts, to detention centers, to police headquarters, etc. to help people when they are arrested for a few hours or when they are put inside detention centers.

We also go to the airports to inform the passengers and the crew about the specific condition of the person who is going to be expelled and fly with them. We try to come to the airport with some parents and friends of this person and it often works, as the captain of the plane has the right to refuse somebody on board, and some passengers even protest for reactionary (but useful) reasons : they dont want to be their flight to be disturbed by a passanger who is shouting all the time…)

We also manage what we call “emergency phones” (more or less one phone in each district of Paris, and numbers available in all France) and we answer to all sorts of questions 24/24… if we don’t switch off the phone. Usually we try to select the phone calls and to answer only in detail to calls concerning police arrests or detentions. For the other problems we send people to our biweekly meeting point at our local office.

And last but not least parents in the schools where some “illegal” parent is arrested try to organize demonstrations, sit-ins, and all sorts of events in front of the school, inside the school or on public squares, concert halls, etc.

3) The kind of people who are in RESF, at least in the 18th district

There are more or less 3 kind of people :

- Parents and teachers who are only active in their school (RESF is structured around each local school) and have few contacts with the rest of the Network

- Parents and teachers who are active in their school but also at in contact with the local office and the Network through the Internet

- and others (militants – none is member of a political group -, retired people, etc.) who are active at the local office and accompany people to the “préfecture” (local administration), lawyers, courts, etc.

4) Positive aspects of RESF

As it is a network, which intensely uses the phone and Internet, we are in contact with a lot of people, of all sorts of political or non political backgrounds, including moderate right wing people. RESF has a good image in the media, the « illegal workers » cause is quite trendy among students, journalists, artists, intellectuals, etc. So you dont really work against the stream as it is a humanitarian work which is quite popular in all sorts of milieux. Those who are very hostile to us usually keep a low profile, at least in the 18th district. But I think it’s true also all around France. For example the Christians and others have started monthly « silent circles » all other France in front of city halls or stategic places and there are very few incidents, even with fascists to disturb these gatherings.

Personnally I learned a lot, made nice human contacts with many illegal workers specially Chinese. (I was active for a year with 6 families of illegal workers who were going to be kicked out by the left-wing municipality. So we have combined a support activity for legalization and for housing with many meetings inside this building and with the local socialist party representatives of the municipality ; we were very « lucky » because we won papers and social housing for 5 of the 6 families.)

The big advantage of the RESF network is that people come to the Network to do something : if you just want to talk and not act, there is no room for you. (If you want to recruit for your little grouplet, there is not much to be gained, also, at least doing grassroot work.) People, at least in my local group, don’t loose time in petty polemics. We dont have time, as the pressure of the needs of the illegal workers is so strong on us.

Important also, is that all sorts of non political people give a hand, often just for one family they know, but are ready for example to accommodate a whole family for 2 weeks in their flat, or to accommodate a family inside the school, or to stand in front of a police station for 6 hours, etc.

The network is clearly a place of solidarity among the families of different backgrounds, even if this solidarity does not always last more than a few months, it’s clearly a political victory.

5) The negative aspects of RESF

Contrary to the ideal image I had at the beginning, the RESF network structure is very problematic.

On a local basis ( in a local school, in a district) it may be very democratic and open. Unfortunately it has an informal structure, wich I call as a joke the « Invisible Central Committee ». This informal group, not elected, includes some of the founders of the Network : they control the funds and banking account, mailing lists, contacts with the journalists, the main leaders of the big leftwing parties and trade unions, etc.

As this informal group has not been elected or chosen by a meeting of all the Network members it controls in fact both the national political orientation of the Network, its campaigns, and the discussions on the mailing lists.

To counterbalance what I just said, all the meetings in Paris are open to everyone, so in a way, the power of this informal, not elected, leading group rests on the lack of interest, lack of time or determination to confront it publicly, or just to take responsibilities, at least in Paris and around Paris.

I’ll not go into details about it but what strikes me after 2 years of experience is there are no political discussions, no political reflection around our themes of activity : the evolution and nature of migrations, class composition, main migrant organisations, government’s migration policies, etc.

As such RESF does not produce any political analysis. It makes references to interesting articles or books here and there but is not an independent and politically productive network able to have an original political perspective..or several competing perspectives.

As we are overwhelmed by the number of arrests and by all sorts of practical and legal problems posed to us by illegal migrants we never have the time to take a break and view our activity with some distance.

Actually we work almost like in a leninist group where the rank and file militant is always active for the leadership, and never has time to discuss.

But one main and essential difference with a traditional leftist activity is that we, in RESF, can see the concrete results of our activities all the time (illegal workers get papers after many efforts, they are released from police headquarters or detention centers, they receive active support of ordinary people, they win legal battles, they come back legally to France after having being expelled), which is not the case when you sell a radical newspaper or distribute a leaflet in front of a factory or company.

The immediate impact of our action is quite thrilling, but it has a terrible consequence : it’s time consuming and impedes us to think (at least to express our thoughts publicly, share them, etc.).

There is another negative aspect with the network structure and it’s a very complex problem : officially the Network has no leaders, no central committee, no spokepersons, no statistics about its members as they dont pay fees and anybody can claim to be a “member” for a day or for 10 years. Every member of RESF is in theory a spokesperson…

In reality, the situation is obviously different. I read somewhere that networks correspond perfectly to the individualistic, anti-leader, mood of many people who have never experienced political groups but dont trust them and to many ex-militants who have been “burnt” by this kind of experience.

So the difference with a Leninist group is that in RESF you can do a lot of things locally without never being controlled by any “leader”, as far as you don’t attract the attention of the cops or the media…

But the inconvenient of this important freedom of action at the local level is that you never learn to think collectively. You do your thing, and if other people disagree they just tell you : “Do it you own way but…”. Therefore at a local level, at least that’s my experience, you dont grow politically while working with others.

Since I’m in RESF I have not tried to push my political views. I did not do it on the internal discussion lists (except a few times and it was not successful at all – people like very short mails and dont like polemics because they divide us), because it’s not the right place to do it : these lists are mainly designed to exchange concrete informations about actions to be organized and legal advises.

In our local office, I did not push my politics, because I thought I had first to learn the “job”. But also because I had the impression the kind of people I was working daily with were either rather reformist minded or not very much interested by “revolutionary” politics. At least that’s was my first impression : after 2 years I know the people better and see some are eager to think and discuss, not only to agitate.

6) the critiques made by radical (“autonomous”) outsiders

Basically, their point of view is that, one is efficient only in his/her social milieu. They see RESF as a rather negative network because it regroups teachers and petty bourgeois parents who “take care” of illegal workers and impede these workers to organize themselves autonomously.

They recognize we are efficient for a significant minority of illegal workers, we give a positive image of migrants in the media, we mobilize intellectuals, artists and left wing politicians, but the political price of this efficiency is a negative relationship of dependence which we establish with the illegal workers and which “castrates” them politically.

In a way, we help the state and government to select who is going to be expelled. Although it’s not always the case, it’s obvious that the cops and judges can expel more easily those who are not “under the protection” of RESF than those who are.

My friends in RESF think that this critique is overexagerated, that if illegal workers wanted to organize themselves the RESF Network would not impede them to do so, that these critiques are illuding themselves about the will of self-organisation among illegal migrants, etc.

7) Some questions to which I have not found answers to share with you….

How is it possible :

- to combine political and support work ?

- not to be totally swallowed by humanitarian or legal activities ?

- to relate to non politically organized people and to attract them to your political ideas ?

- to defend a political perspective on migration and not only a humanitarian one ?

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