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Representing illegal immigrants in France: from clandestins to l'affaire des sans-papiers de Saint-Bernard.

For at least five or six years now, the category of 'illegal' immigration has slowly become hegemonic in the sense that any discussion of 'immigration' in general includes at least some reflection on illegal immigrants or les clandestins. The emphasis on 'illegality' is relatively new. The figure of the clandestin has slowly pushed other cultural icons into the background, replacing such familiar types as le travailleur immigre of the 1970s, and the Beur, or 'second generation immigrant', of the 1980s. What is striking about the category of the 'illegal immigrant' is that it has obviously been constructed as a marvellous point of consensus. Les clandestins, as they are referred to, long united the right and the left under the same banner: it was clear, perhaps until the summer of 1996, that everyone was against illegal immigration and that deportation was unanimously considered to be an appropriate decision. Even the principle of chartered flights was adopted by both the left and the right. As Didier Fassin puts it:

Les mots ne servent pas seulement a nommer, qualifier, ou decrire. Ils permettent aussi de fonder les actions et d'orienter les politiques. En designant comme 'clandestins' les etrangers en situation irreguliere sur le territoire francais, on les classe dans une categorie qui mobilise des images - le travailleur entre illegalement dans le pays et justifie des mesures - pour prevenir et reprimer cet etat de fait - images et mesures qui sont en quelque sorte incluses dans la facon meme de dire les choses.(1)

Fassin exposes the dangerous tautology between two supposedly separate realms: that of representation and that of policy-making. Because of the label chosen to represent the group of individuals known as clandestins, who they are becomes the equivalent of what we should do (to them). In other words, the act of naming someone un dandestin imposes a narrative of illegality which masks the arbitrariness of the selection operated between all the human bodies likely to be constructed as such. And this occurs at a delicate moment when, since the introduction of the Pasqua laws in 1993, the status of many immigrants has changed, the proliferation of legal texts turning some situations into inextricable nightmares, creating administrative monsters such as the inexpulsable-irregularisable who can neither be deported nor given resident's status.(2) It may thus be crucial to focus on the way in which the tautology is constructed and then forgotten. To analyse the disappearing hyphen between images and policies requires that we concentrate on the process of what Stuart Hall calls 'identification' (rather than 'identity').(3) I propose systematically to suspect images of clandestins of reflecting a vested interest in maintaining the illusion that they illustrate a pre-existing category, that they come second to a pre-existing object (illegality), when in fact they provide us with a definition of illegal immigration that has far-reaching consequences.

I have concentrated on the way in which French TV has treated the 'illegal immigrant' as a relevant, recognizable and favourite object of representation. The research corpus here is a series of images captured at the National Institute of the Audiovisual in Paris, roughly between 1989 and 1996. INA keeps a record of every single programme ever broadcast since the beginning of television and it has recently opened its databases of texts, sounds and images to several universities, thus encouraging research on the multimedia construction of social realities.(4) That corpus, however, was complicated by the series of developments that occurred in the summer of 1996 in the Parisian Quartier de la Goutte d'or (known for its cultural diversity and its large immigrant population), and more specifically in and around the Eglise Saint-Bernard where about 300 men, women and children camped for several months, locked in a public tug-of-war with the French government, ten of them starting a long hunger strike in an attempt to obtain the precious 'papers' that would put an end to sometimes years of precarious survival tactics on French soil.(5) Breaking with the traditional image of a France paralysed by a two-month political and social summer recess, all the written and audiovisual news media were rivetted to the case for the whole of August and September. The major daily national and local newspapers and all TV channels contributed to the creation of a political, social and cultural event that is known and may go down in history as l'affaire des sans-papiers de Saint-Bernard.

By comparing the images produced during the affaire des sans-papiers to images found in INA archives before the event, I propose to show how some of the questions raised by previous images are partially answered or addressed by the event. From a semiotic as well as a political point of view, the affaire des sans-papiers constitutes a radical turning point or at least a moment of discontinuity in the construction of foreignness and illegality in France today. I propose that during the affaire des sans-papiers a remarkable combination of individual initiatives and collective response managed to defamiliarize some of the best-established conventions about the portrayal of illegal immigration - conventions that are now exposed as cultural stereotypes or at least archetypes based on historically specific assumptions.

From a purely theoretical point of view, the way in which TV constructs illegal immigration is a fascinating process precisely because it is impossible to visualize an illegal immigrant. An illegal alien looks exactly like a legal alien or, for that matter, a citizen. Like any abstract concept, illegality is, by definition, unrepresentable through exclusively visual means. For television and for all the media that rely heavily on images, illegal immigration must be a daunting challenge. How does a medium that privileges images respond to the difficulty of having to generate so many images of what seems to be an unrepresentable object? Several distinct strategies of representation have conventionally been adopted. And what I want to argue is that they have one feature in common: each time, illegal immigration is not defined, but it is associated with other concepts or elements, for example clandestinity and invisibility, clandestinity and papers, or clandestinity and the police, and clandestinity and race. Images do not try to provide a definition of illegality that one could put into words. Rather, it is assumed that the viewer will be satisfied with a paratactic concatenation of related concepts that dispenses with causal links and articulations. What happens here is that the immigrant's illegality is defined by default because the will to represent is always stronger than the impossibility of representing. And each of the associations has cultural implications, especially as the overlapping binary pairs add up to build whole paradigms of assumptions about the illegal immigrant's physical appearance, economic status, age and gender. In the end, clandestinity is defined as, and replaced with, the category it was originally associated with: visual encoding has taken over and eliminated certain of the mandatory conventions of textual narratives. Les sans-papiers can be seen as a new authoring principle, a group of individuals who managed to impose a new grid of intelligibility, and to suggest that a much more nuanced response to their fate was both desirable and possible.

Clandestinity and race: blacks vs. Beurs?

When the media mention undocumented immigrants, the most common, most naturalized and therefore most worrying association is between clandestinity and race (or rather skin colour), and more specifically, between illegal immigration and blackness. When a camera films groups of people identified as illegal immigrants either by the context or by the words of the journalist, the race and ethnicity of the filmed subjects is usually not commented on. The place of origin sometimes comes into play but no discourse seems to want to register or theorize the fact that French viewers are more and more often presented with images of black people.(6)

Historically, a visual shift is occurring: until the end of the 1980s, the most visible association between immigration and ethnicity was not through black bodies. The stereotypical immigrant was the Arab and the issue of integration was illustrated by pictures of Beurs. Sociologists, political leaders, reporters and cultural critics continue to place much emphasis on the specific situation of Maghrebi populations in France. On the one hand, a minority Beur culture has emerged, and on the other hand, more and more violently racist reactions continue to exploit every incident involving Arabs.(7) Meanwhile, a gradual displacement may be taking place that is slowly constructing people from Mali or Mauritania or Senegal as the latest wave of (illegal) immigrants.

In this regard, the affaire des sans-papiers does not appear, at first, to modify the premises of the debate: in a sense, it even confirmed the equation between blackness and illegal immigration but it also complicated the picture by forcing the media to refine the monolithic category of blackness: because all the 300 sans-papiers were black Africans, the media felt it necessary to identify them very specifically, taking into account not only their name but also their age, their gender and their country of origin. In the summer of 1996, for example, it was standard practice to name the sans-papiers: 'Sidi Diara, un Malien de 29 ans' or 'Kamara un Mauretanien de 34 ans' (Le Meridional, 17 August), 'Ababacar Diop, porte-parole des sans papiers' (Le Monde, 22 August).

The logic was towards more differentiation, and this had two immediate consequences. As the category 'illegal immigrant' started to appear as a collection of different individual cases, the equation between definition and policies dissolved. It became plausible to suggest that the Pasqua laws were powerless to define and therefore to deal with illegal immigrants who were now identified as different individuals, with different life stories and different backgrounds. It must have made the public more sensitive to the idea of a 'case by case' settlement, and less inclined to accept Jean-Louis Debre's sweeping generalizations about Rights, Laws and the Republic. It was no longer clear that we knew who clandestins were nor how we should treat them. While that particular consequence did not address the racial issue, a few stupid errors helped discredit the figure of the illegal immigrant as black subject; one of the sans-papiers was taken back to the wrong country of so-called origin. But when the public or the newspapers giggled, it was from the depth of a newly acquired superiority over those administrators who had not realized that the link between race and nationality is arbitrary.(8)

Any critique of the representation of the illegal immigrant as black is immediately limited by the fact that race is here represented as if by default. Arguments of realism or objectivity and ideological neutrality may place the critic in the difficult position of having to voice (and therefore create, to a certain extent), the stereotypes that he or she would like to erase from the images (isn't it dangerous, for example, to point out that the images of women and children together in the same room seem to be sneakily connoting polygamy?).(9)

It is also extraordinarily difficult to object to the association between illegal immigration and blackness on the grounds that France's overseas departments are populated by black citizens and that they are in great danger of being discriminated against when blackness becomes synonymous with illegal immigration. The remark is valid but tactically self-defeating: if I insist that Caribbean blacks should be protected from suspicion, am I not implying that I somehow accept the principle of haphazard identity control for non-Caribbean blacks (a practice which, incidentally, remains illegal in France for now). Yet, already, novels have started satirizing the particularly ludicrous equation between blackness and illegal immigration; in Didier van Cauwelaert's Un aller simple, the author mocks the police who almost 'deported' a Guadeloupean man because they did not remember that Guadeloupe is a French department.(10) In other words, the deviousness of the move from 'illegal immigrants are (often) black' to 'black people equal (illegal) immigrants' is easy to denounce in theory but quite difficult to transform within the realm of the visual.

Perhaps it would be more effective to object to the principle of organization of images: the fact that there is a fracture, on French TV, between stories and reports about illegal immigration where the majority of bodies are black and every other context where black bodies disappear altogether as if blacks and whites never met on French soil. The sudden visibility of blackness provides a striking contrast with the otherwise remarkable absence from the overall representation of French populations. As an issue of Le Monde admitted,(11) France, unlike Great Britain or Germany, does not make much of an attempt to represent its non-European ethnic minorities. As a result, the sudden focus on black bodies stands out as an exception against a backdrop of commercials, films and sitcoms where everyone is either white or tokenized as the representative of a whole group.

There again, the affaire des sans-papiers represents a turning point because it changed the relative status of illegal immigration as a news-item. Often, the representation of illegal immigrants is part of a larger story on 'immigration': it is subordinated to the coverage of a new political development such as the introduction of a new law or a declaration by a political leader? Images of illegal immigrants usually function as the illustration of a specific story about nationality, about integration or about political asylum, for example.

In the summer of 1996, the hierarchy was reversed. The sanspapiers de Saint-Bernard became a temporary national icon, assumed recognizable by every viewer and every reader. The visual encoding of the sans-papiers was not more natural or more realistic than the types of images I have just referred to. It is clear, for example, that photographers and cartoonists deliberately opted for one specific convention of representation; because ten of the sans-papiers had started a hunger strike that quickly weakened them to the point of confining them to their makeshift beds, the silhouette of an African male wrapped in a (blue) sleeping bag became the symbol of the whole group.

For example, in the Canard enchaine of 14 August 1996, Delambre draws two stereotypical black figures talking to each other: 'Les politiques, les intellectuels, tous en vacances', says one. 'Sauf les charters et les flics', replies the other. A vaguely gothic arch and a cobweb places the two men in a church. Their caricaturally full lips and short cropped hair encodes them as generic black characters, but the immediately understandable reference to the sans-papiers is that the two men are lying down, only their heads and feet sticking out of a sleeping bag.

Even more remarkably, the image of a man in a sleeping bag became an end in itself, a point of reference to which other events were implicitly compared. If illegal immigrants had been constructed as the extreme marginals, the outsiders of the outsiders, the sanspapiers de Saint-Bernard were a centre from which other images radiated. For example, on the front page of Le Monde, on 22 August, the reader discovers the face of president Chirac sticking out of a sleeping bag. In this cartoon, Jacques Chirac is lying in the middle of one of the richly decorated rooms of what is presumably the Elysee palace, while prime minister Alain Juppe, who is just back from his vacation, is shown putting one foot through the door and asking 'Y'a du nouveau?'. On 3 September (after the police's intervention), Le Monde's front page is again graced with Plantu's delightful and incisive remarks. This time, the cartoon shows the first secretary of the Socialist Party, Lionel Jospin, looking at Chirac, still bundled up in a sleeping bag and wondering out loud: 'Si ca se trouve, il est peutetre expulsable?!' The affaire des sans-papiers had clearly become a symbolic starting-point, an interpretive cultural grid that was used to comment on other events that had nothing to do with immigration.

This was especially true of satirical papers. For example, in Le Canard enchaine (21 August 1996), Cabu draws a cartoon representing three of the sans-papiers in their sleeping bags. A policeman in uniform leans over them and, pointing to the holy water font, says that it is forbidden to camp in a church because the level may rise. The political critique is understandable and familiar: Cabu suggests that the authorities often try to persuade foreigners that the measures taken against them are in their best interest. The subtitle of the drawing is 'c'est pour leur bien.' But the image as a whole can only be deciphered if the reader is aware that there is a topical allusion to a well-covered series of accidents due to flooded camp sites in the South of France and also to the controversy started by one specific decision (different levels of administrators disagreeing on whether to close a camp-site located on the bank of a river).

The media's reaction to the sans-papiers implicitly admitted that it was out of the question, metaphorically, to separate the sans-papiers from the rest of the population and their situation from that of the fate of the nation as a whole. Their story contaminated the local and national news. The almost audible echo between les sans-papiers and les sans-abri (paperlessness and homelessness) turned the 300 Africans into a sub-section of the 'excluded', who, paradoxically, belong quite unambiguously to the culture from which they are marginalized by poverty and unemployment. There was also a pun between les sans-papiers and the eminently republican sans-culotte in a cartoon published by Le Canard enchaine (21 August 1996). Jean-Louis Debre and Alain Juppe are looking at a crowd of demonstrators and seem to fear the revolutionary potential of the sans-papiers 'Ca commence par les sans-papiers ca finit par les "sans-culotte"'.

That principle of contamination was precisely what was missing from previous systems of representation where a sort of visual segregation separated the (black) illegal immigrant from the (white) nationals. And when they were not carefully isolated, the type of encounter represented was even more ideologically problematic; contact between the illegal immigrant and the imagined French person was always portrayed as what I would describe as an asymmetrical dialogue in Black and White where a black civilian is talking to a white person who happens to be in a police uniform. As a result, the distressing association between blackness and illegal immigration was reinforced by a second association: the criminalizing proximity between blacks and the white police.

Sociologists and cultural critics have often regretted the fact that the national culture is taken for granted as the obvious reference and therefore not represented while the immigrants are defined as a form of difference and visibility. In his essay, 'Culture's in-between', Homi Bhabha refers to Etienne Balibar's conclusion that 'the language of discrimination works in reverse: the racial/cultural identity of true nationals remains invisible but is inferred from the quasi hallucinatory visibility of the "false nationals" - Jews, "wops", immigrants, indios, natives, blacks.'(13) I would suggest that images go even further and operate a separation between two asymmetrical orders: the immigrant is black and the national is not only white, but also a policeman. Not only are the illegal immigrants qua black bodies constantly confronted with the police and implicitly criminalized, but the national subject watching TV is almost implicitly cast in the role of the immigration officer, whose role is to control and expel. National culture is visible only as a white policeman, or more rarely policewoman, wearing a uniform.

This type of image subtly and hypocritically implies that the illegal immigrant is always already a delinquent. Of course, when someone crosses the border without a passport, he or she breaks a law; this is undeniable. But many images tend to conflate the original administrative transgression with any other type of delinquency and crime. Reinforced by constant verbal associations between delinquency and illegal (or legal) immigrants, the proliferation of references to the police confirms the crudest associations between illegal immigration and delinquency. They echo right-wing phantasm about insecurite and distorted statistical evidence. Surely, counting the illegal immigrants who are imprisoned is a particularly devious way of demonstrating a supposedly higher rate of delinquency among that group of people if the mere fact of having illegally immigrated is the reason why some individuals are arrested to begin with.

Most of the time, officers are calmly operating within visual parameters defined by symbols of authority such as the uniform, the police car, the police counter. Connotations of order and security prevail, and 'we' are meant to feel protected and to identify with the protected community. Radically different images filled television screens when, on 23 August 1996, the police dislodged the sanspapiers from the church. This time, what was remembered by the media was that more than 1000 police officers had been involved in an early morning operation against families whose dignity impressed every single witness. The TV camera showed a group of CRS breaking down the doors of a church with axes, terrifying children, separating men and woman, blacks and whites, and forcing everyone into buses. The photograph that appears on the cover of Ababacar Diop's autobiography is meant to be disturbing and it is an unambiguous representation of physical force, if not violence: two men in uniforms and two men in plain clothes are dragging an African body down the stairs, away from the church whose door he continues to face in his determination not to be dislodged.(14) In other words, the police were perceived as a violently repressive force and not as the supposedly non-violent and peaceful controlling agency filmed in earlier airport scenes, for example.

Illegality and anonymity, or invisibility

The power of images, however, is not exclusively dependent on one context-specific readjustment of symbols. Just as it is important to critique the organization of images and the ideological implication of montage when they create a seemingly natural association between blackness and illegal immigration, it is useful to reappropriate certain imaging conventions when they effectively destabilize conventional paradigms of representation. For example, I argue that some images can go a long way towards avoiding the racialization and criminalization of illegal immigrants without necessarily setting out to do so. Unformulated paradigms are a problematic part of the definition of illegal immigration through images, but some associations may paradoxically provide us with interesting alternatives, for example, the link between clandestinity and invisibility.

Some images unwillingly reveal the theoretical paradox of unrepresentability by generating pictures of invisibility. Several techniques of image manipulation are used to show and hide at the same time; for example, the familiar use of superimposed black rectangles or mosaics that mask part of the immigrant's face. Or the technique of contre-jour used as in the picture where a young Moroccan man describes the appalling lack of hygiene and the inhumane conditions he experienced when he was arrested and placed in the Centre de Detention du Depot de Paris.(15)

When the interviewee's physical identity is not partially erased by add-ons or computer alterations, clandestinity and invisibility are associated thanks to what I would call a clandestine filming of clandestinity. Stories about illegal immigrants are illustrated by anonymous and silent crowds. Somehow, we seem expected to recognize either a crowd of illegal immigrants or perhaps to single out one illegal immigrant among the crowd.

Often, we are presented with anonymous bodies and we have to take the journalists' word that what is represented here is illegality. For example, in the opening images of 'Dossier: le droit et l'asile' (a documentary shown in October 1993, a few days before a new bill of law on the granting of political asylum was to be presented at the Assemblee Nationale), the anonymous faces and bodies that we are invited to identify, recognize as illegal immigrants, are literally in the background, as if to mirror their invisible and underground existence. They are half hidden by the credits, the images competing with the written text. Often, the quality of the images is (artificially?) poor as if to confirm that the filming itself was contaminated by stealth and danger.(16) If I wonder about the cultural consequences of the association between illegal immigration and invisibility, I immediately realize that the paradigm cannot be appropriated as positive or negative. Therefore, this is not a type of representation that dispenses the viewer from a reflection about what should be done.

At first, ostensibly, that type of portrayal is generous. In the case of the Moroccan witness, the desire is to give illegal immigrants a voice while protecting them from the risk of visibility. Here, informing involves a certain degree of sympathy, it cannot be a completely neutral position. However, this type of portrayal cannot be equated with an unambiguously positive type of imaging. As Spivak reminds us in a recent article, testimony and resistance must always be carefully distinguished;(17) the principle of invisible visibility may also return us to the realm of criminality as, for example, where the people who exploit illegal immigrants are hidden by the mosaic.(18) The camera masks the face of one of the interviewees, not because he is an immigrant whose identity must be hidden from the authorities but because he hires illegal immigrants and is therefore, it is suggested, more guilty than the victimized immigrants. While the context allows the viewer to distinguish between employer and employee, the similarity of images creates territories of visual resemblances. The mosaic criminalizes everyone.

Yet, I wonder if there is a paradoxical and perversely beneficial aspect to that type of representation. We are presented with the medium's recognition that it can only go so far. Some mystery is preserved even as someone is identified as an illegal immigrant, and that mystery disappears during the affaire des sans-papiers. When the face is hidden behind a mosaic, it is literally deconstructed as an arbitrary purveyor of identity, it looks as if the person is still unknown, and our voyeuristic gaze is defeated by the impossibility of going any further, thus preserving the space of a desire to know more, to discover who these invisible aliens really are. The viewer may be in a position to read this invisibility as a moment when the visual narrative admits its own limits, and he or she may realize that there is a structuring absence of representation rather than representation. And if the representation of the illegal immigrant's body is always sous rature, the link between the immigrant's body and the papers is revealed to be elusive and arbitrary. Other images displace the impossibility to identify a body as 'illegal' thanks to a deliberate movement away from the body and on the written document, the symbol of nationality, of belonging. The illegal body is not representable, but the document is invested with the metonymical power of representing nationality, legality and citizenship.

Cameras seem fascinated by documents, they dwell on passports and cards that replace the body with close-ups on official identification documents. This type of image de-emphasizes the immigrant and overemphasizes sophisticated and technologically advanced means of control. As if to compensate for the impossibility of recognizing an illegal immigrant, the camera now insists on the difference between the 'authentic' and the 'fake' passport, focusing on the magical 'blue light' that allegedly makes French passports impossible to imitate (no 'passing').

Such images are extremely convenient because they can be used over and over again regardless. of who is involved, and they bypass the problem of the body. They are a perfect substitute for a representation of clandestinity in the abstract. They have the flavour of hard sciences and they provide the imaging media with the same (illusory) sense of control as those who seek to recognize the illegal immigrant in a crowd would like to have. A close-up on a passport, or on a police officer bent on crossing out a fake visa symbolizes a perfectly clear-cut distinction which no representation of bodies can achieve. Again, this perspective is double-edged: on the one hand, the complete disappearance of the body renders the image quite flexible, but it shows that this perfect gesture of recognition must be effected as the cost of disembodiment.

Although such images may be meant or at least able to reassure the supposedly law-abiding and passport-bearing French citizen that frontiers are effective filters, the definition of illegal immigrant that they propose rests on what appears like a very arbitrary and contingent relationship between a body and a set of identity papers.(19) The sans-papiers capitalized on the ambiguity of that hyphen or hymen and introduced a new element in the system of representation: by focusing on the absence of papers and not on the 'fake' passports, they made it clear that the way in which illegal immigration is defined determines what are going to be the acceptable or justifiable responses to the illegal immigrant.

Conclusion: from immigres clandestins to les sans-papiers

Les sans-papiers insisted that they were not clandestins, and the media contributed to relaying their performative declaration, breaking down the monolithic group of illegal immigrants about whom everyone thought they agreed. Inventing themselves as a Derridean 'dangerous supplement' to illegal immigration, the sans-papiers are now the margin of what was the margin and they shatter the illusion that the illegal immigrant was the ultimate frontier. In theory, we know that 'every identity has, at its "margin", an excess, something more',(20) but the sans-papiers have transformed this knowledge into a political and cultural statement. The sans-papiers have named themselves and, as a result, proposed new visual narratives. I wonder if the tremendous impact of the movement and the favourable reaction of the public was also due to the adoption of a non-criminalizing label, the phrase sans-papiers gaining a legitimacy that benefited the group of Africans, through the same principle of association that had until now contributed to marginalizing them.

In the same way as history books had to admit that choosing between the war of Algeria and les evenements involved the respect of quite different values, l'affaire des sans-papiers de Saint-Bernard reminded us that whoever has the power to name the event and whoever controls representation has a direct influence and therefore responsibility over the tangle of personal, collective, legal and human decisions triggered by some images and some words.

At the level of representation, new discursive and visual conventions have been adopted and popularized. The media's intervention have made some images culturally acceptable. The phrase les sans papiers and a series of visual narratives have gone into the INA archive (families in African outfits, men in sleeping bags, the police breaking doors down, etc.). Those images will contribute to destabilize the consensus created by the common use of the category clandestins and will make it more difficult to hide the political agenda at work behind the conflation between descriptive strategies and repressive measures. It is clear, however, that a cultural event has occurred and that the INA archive as well as newspapers and magazines bear the traces of that event. The movement of the sanspapiers generated a strong capital of sympathy among a supposedly hostile French public and this moment of solidarity forced the government to reinterpret its own politics; a firm stance against illegal immigration has always been presented as a direct consequence of the public's need and desire. In other words, the fight against illegal immigrants is meant to be a popular if not a populist move. More cynical political manceuvres are even suspected. It is often suggested that when the government publicizes anti-immigration policies, it is flirting with a portion of the electorate that is thought to be attracted by the Front National's theses. The sanspapiers demonstrated that such unholy alliances may well backfire; the extreme right did not seem impressed by the untidy demonstration of force that resulted in a negligible number of deportations in the end. And simultaneously, the replacement of clandestins with sans-papiers was instrumental in the breaking down of the left-right consensus that deportation was a suitable response to illegal immigration. And while it is not clear whether the spontaneous movement of solidarity will eventually translate into the type of political mobilization that could eventually secure the overthrow of the contested Pasqua laws, emotions did run high for quite a while. The level of national guilt may be measured by the fact that references were made to the fate of Jews at the hands of French police during the Vichy regime. The implicit comparison, it goes without saying, did not go unchallenged, but the very possibility of seeing the illegal immigrant as a victim rather than as a criminal was definitely in place. To that extent, the sans-papiers have achieved remarkable results.

Practically, however, there is no end to that story. Some of the sanspapiers were deported, some obtained the precious documents, but the number of cases settled was, in the end, far less memorable than the spectacular eviction from the church by the police. The narrative logic adopted by the media just before the intervention was one of binary failure or success: would the sans-papiers agree to put an end to their hunger strike, would they die, would the government accept to negotiate, would force be used? Even though the sans-papiers themselves, supported by a committee of mediators, insisted that what they wanted was a case-by-case settlement, it is clear that the media were not quite capable of providing an equivalent case-by-case coverage. From a visual point of view, a conventional narrative built up until the church was evacuated, then the story visibly petered out. From a human point of view, this is obviously a disaster since, for many of the 300 Africans, the situation remains unchanged, and they are still irregularisables-inexpulsables, but it is no longer possible to assume that the label clandestin will function as a carte blanche when governments make decisions about how to treat illegal immigrants.

On the other hand, there may be a sobering twist to this whole episode: the media's power as an instrument of control over the practices of the state has, to a certain extent, been reasserted. They practically single-handedly created the sans-papiers and were instrumental in eliciting a quite unexpected movement of generosity among the French public. TV cameras can be said to have functioned as the nation's conscience when they witnessed the CRS dragging the sans-papiers out of their shelter during a violent, confusing and quite chaotic episode. This lamentable affair did not occur behind closed doors. No one can claim 'we did not know'. The trouble is, of course, that it is quite possible to imagine that the camera's eye was also being used by the government to send a message to undocumented immigrants on French soil or to candidates for illegal immigration. While some French people are perhaps comforted in the hope that their country is not as hopelessly xenophobic as they feared, others may have heard quite a different message. Despite the obviously sympathetic reaction generated by the sans-papiers de Saint-Bernard, the government did not hesitate to orchestrate a highly visible intervention. To a certain extent, I wonder if that signal was not the most effective moment of reappropriation of the whole symbolic event.

It could also be argued, however, that the high visibility of the sans-papiers succeeded in sending a political signal to the French public and obtained tangible results in the next election. Although they could not vote, illegal immigrants may have played a role in the shift from the right to the left that occurred after their movement had apparently failed to secure papers for everyone. A large number of regularisations followed the left's return to power and, although it appears that the Socialist-dominated government will not go as far as abolishing the 1993 Pasqua laws, it is clear that the parliamentary debate about the Chevenement laws has occurred in a radically different atmosphere.


1. See Didier Fassin, "'Clandestins" ou "exclus"? Quand les mots font de la politique', Politix, xxxiv (1996).

2. The category includes foreign parents of French children, undocumented spouses of French citizens, and a large number of special cases resulting from job-related accidents or diseases (Fassin, 79).

3. Stuart Hall, 'Who needs identity?' in Stuart Hall and Paul du Gay (eds), Questions of Cultural Identity (London: Sage, 1996), 1-17.

4. I want to express my heartfelt gratitude to the personnel of the consultation unit of the Inatheque de France for their invaluable help. Special thanks to M. Antoine for providing assistance with a frustratingly temperamental workstation.

5. Another history of the movement could insist on the discrepancy between several distinct phases of the movement of the so-called sans-papiers de Saint-Bernard. The first few months of struggle failed to attract the public's or the media's attention, but the affaire des sans papiers can be said to have started on 18 March 1996 when 118 families occupied the Saint-Ambroise church in the 11th arrondissement of Paris. Before finding a temporary shelter at the Saint-Bernard church, the group of immigrants had already gone through five forgotten months of distressing trials and tribulations, moving from one church to a gymnasium, then to the Cartoucherie de Vincennes, to empty SNCF warehouses, and finally to Saint-Bernard, from which they were violently expelled on 23 August 1996. The saga of the sans-papiers was filmed by Samir Abdallah, who completed a 52-minute video entitled 'La Ballade des "sans-papiers"'.

6. When white foreigners are mentioned (people coming from Croatia, Romania, India or Italy), they are always presented as isolated cases. Some communities are practically never mentioned as communities (I am thinking of Chinese immigrants who are remarkably absent from representational conventions).

7. See the exploitation, by the Front National in September 1996, of the murder of a teenager in Marseilles; disregarding the victim's father's pleas for dignity, Le Pen's party organized a clearly anti-Arab demonstration without being in the least deterred by the fact that the young murderer had a French passport.

8. See Francois Bonnet, 'Fuite en avant', Le Monde, 30 August 1996, stating that one Senegalese citizen was deported to Mali. For an analysis of the constitution of the racialized subject, see Avtar Brah, 'Difference, diversity and differentiation', in James Donald and Ali Attansi (eds), Race, Culture and Difference (London: Sage, 1992), 126-45.

9. Polygamy is not authorized by the French constitution and it was one of the issues addressed by the 1993 Pasqua laws. For a historical perspective on the sometimes sinister implications of the so-called regroupement familial, see Rosemarie Scullion, 'Vicious circles: immigration and national identity in twentieth-century France', SubStance, lxxvi-lxxvii (1995), 30-48. I doubt that the de facto prohibition of polygamy should be viewed as a feminist statement. Rather, polygamous males are perceived as responsible for overpopulation in subsidized housing and for excessive reliance on social benefits.

10. Paris: Seuil, 1994.

11. See 'Television, radio, multimedia. Enquete, l'image de l'immigration a la television: immigres, la portion congrue', Le Monde, 2 September 1996, esp. 3.

12. For example, it is no coincidence that the INA database reveals a proliferation of images around the introduction of the Pasqua laws in 1993.

13. Homi Bhabha, 'Culture's in-between', in Stuart Hall and Paul du Gay (eds), Questions of Cultural Identity (London: Sage, 1996), 54. Bhabha cites 'Paradoxes of universality' in David Theo Goldberg (ed.), Anatomy of Racism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990), 284.

14. Ababacar Diop, Dans la peau d'un sans-papier (Paris: Seuil, 1997).

15. A detention centre already criticized for failing to respect the sanitary criteria defined by the European Convention of Human Rights: see 'Depot de Paris', Journal televise 20 heures, presented by Bruno Masure, France 2 (8 November 1993).

16. At the beginning of 'Speciale immigration' presented by Christine Okrent, Antenne 2 (10 July 1991), before any word is uttered, we see a few men, filmed from behind, in black and white, and probably from quite a distance and through a zoom, judging from the grainy image. Only then does the journalist whose silhouette now fills the screen tells us: 'vous venez de voir comment un petit groupe vient de passer la frontiere Vintimille Menton. Cela se passe tousles jours, toutes les semaines...'.

17. See Gayatri Spivak, 'Responsibility', Boundary 2, xxi, 3 (1994), 43-64.

18. 'Dossier le droit et l'asile/immigration expulsions' (24 October 1993).

19. Will they not also suggest to illegal immigrants that as their clandestinity is like a temporary chemical reaction produced by the encounter between a blue light and a fake passport, it simply ceases to have a definition away from the border?

20. Stuart Hall, 'Who needs identity?', in Hall and Du Gay, 5.
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Author:Rosello, Mireille
Publication:Journal of European Studies
Date:Mar 1, 1998
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