France: Undocumented workers occupy the Bastille Opera House

Workers Without Status in France
 Emerge as a Social Force

Karen Wirsig

At the end of the afternoon of May 27, a mass demonstration marched into the Place de la Bastille in Paris. The march itself represented what can now be viewed as a low point in the national union mobilizations to challenge the proposed weakening of France’s public pension regime and other reactionary responses of Nicholas Sarkozy’s government to the world economic crisis. But despite the rain, despite the niggling worry that fatigue was overtaking the movement and apathy the French public, a group of marchers went to work making sure it was a day the French labour movement won’t soon forget.

Hundreds of striking workers without status, known as “travailleurs sans papiers,” set about occupying the steps of the Bastille Opera House in what was to be a crucial stand in their astounding strike.
Workers without status demonstrating against the Sarkozy government reforms.

Workers without status demonstrating against the Sarkozy government reforms.

The strike had started on October 12, 2009, a year ago last week, the morning after a spirited rally and preparation session at the headquarters of France’s biggest union, the Confederation Generale du Travail (CGT), on the eastern edge of Paris’s central city. Thousands of workers, men and women born around the world and living in France under the most fragile conditions, mounted dozens of picket lines at temporary agencies, construction companies, cleaning firms and restaurants.

In all, some 6,700 workers stepped out of the shadows and into a central role in re-energizing France’s left social movements, their physical presence confirming what everybody knew but few people seemed to face: just how much certain employers were relying on, and profiting from, directly or indirectly through sub-contractors, workers with no social rights. These included the well-connected international construction firm Bouygues and other builders, well-known restaurant chains and even the Paris public transportation authority, the RATP. Continue reading