It may not last long, but the shift is real: The government has launched talks with labor unions over how to improve the health sector, it’s expected to unveil new environmental measures, and it may even scrap unpopular pension reforms that sparked one of the longest strike movements in French history. But one absence from the national conversation is especially glaring: the lack of support for undocumented immigrants.
France today is home to some 300,000 to 400,000 undocumented residents — known as sans papiers, or literally “without papers.” Many of them are from sub-Saharan Africa and the Maghreb, but also from Eastern Europe and South Asia. While the past few months have been exasperating for working-class people across the country, they have been especially hard on those without legal recognition from the state.
Many sans papiers live in cramped housing alongside friends, family or both. Overcrowding poses an obvious health risk in the era of covid-19, but it also brought a heavy psychological toll during one of the world’s strictest lockdowns. From mid-March to early May, most French residents could not legally leave their households without official forms explaining why — and in contrast to much of the country, the undocumented did not have the privilege of skirting the rules and risking an encounter with law enforcement.
Some newer arrivals also face obstacles to health care: Under a recent change in the law, asylum seekers residing in France for less than three months no longer have access to state medical aid that enables them to consult general practitioners. That means they must seek care at emergency rooms, many of which were already overburdened before the pandemic.
Then, of course, there is the punishing economic downturn, the most severe in France since World War II. Many undocumented immigrants work off the books and thus haven’t been able to access the state’s greatly expanded unemployment benefits. At the same time, they’re barred from other critical welfare programs such as low-income housing aid or minimum income subsidies.
This situation is inhumane and morally indefensible in a country as wealthy as France — the sixth largest economy in the world and one that counts just over 2 million millionaires. That sense of injustice is a big reason why more than 5,000 people took to the streets of Paris in protest last Saturday, calling for the state to regularize the immigration status of all undocumented residents and to close immigrant detention centers.
French authorities needn’t look far for examples of how to address these demands. In the early days of the crisis, Portugal granted residency rights and full access to social programs to all migrants with pending residency applications until at least June 30. And last month, Italy, which is home to an even larger undocumented population than France, approved a plan to grant temporary six-month residency permits to undocumented workers in agriculture and home care. These measures are far from sufficient, but they’re better than nothing.
It’s not all that surprising the government hasn’t taken initiative on its own. After all, Macron’s party has approved laws to clamp down on benefits for sans papiers and to speed up deportations. Despite his carefully crafted liberal image abroad, the French president wants to appear tough on law and order at home. Winning over conservative voters and framing himself as the only credible alternative to Marine Le Pen and the far-right National Rally is a pillar of his reelection strategy for 2022.
But Macron does respond to pressure, and the French Left has been badly missing in action. In April, a group of 104 parliamentarians issued a petition to grant amnesty to undocumented residents, and representatives from the country’s two largest labor confederations followed suit shortly after that. Still, from the Communists and Socialists to the Greens and France Unbowed, left-wing party leaders haven’t prioritized the defense of sans papiers in their public interventions or in their critiques of how authorities have managed the crisis. That seems to reflect a disheartening political calculus: a sense that defending those without French nationality isn’t worth the costs at a time when public opinion is of the broad view that there are too many immigrants in France.
Among the left-wingers keeping mum is Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the boisterous populist and former presidential candidate who rarely passes up an opportunity to take a swipe at Macron. Over the past week, the MP from Marseille hasn’t hesitated to slam racial inequalities in the United States, slamming the “empire” and cheering the revolts. In one tweet, he expressed solidarity with American protesters and exclaimed “down with racism.” If only he and others like him had as much enthusiasm about sans papiers marching in the streets of Paris.
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