The group of young men was greeted with drums, loudspeakers, and dancing as they poured out of the exit of the gleaming Porte de La Chapelle Arena in northern Paris on a Tuesday evening in late October. “On a gagné,” one of them cried — “We won.”
These weren’t athletes celebrating a victory. Rather, they were undocumented immigrants who had just won a major concession from Bouygues, the construction company building the eight-thousand-person-capacity stadium slated to host events for next summer’s 2024 Paris Olympics.
After twelve hours of negotiations, which lasted from early morning until around 8:00 p.m., roughly two hundred strikers, union representatives, and activists inked an agreement with Paris city hall and Bouygues allowing for the regularization of all undocumented workers who had been hired to work on the arena. The deal also includes workers previously let go by the subcontractor in charge of finishing work on the site by the end of the year.
In a communiqué released later that evening, organizers — including the Confédération nationale des travailleurs–Solidarité ouvrière (CNT-SO), a local union, and several migrants’ rights organizations — vowed to continue fighting until they could “ensure the regularization of all.”
“Fear must change camps,” they wrote. “This victory is only the beginning: only the struggle can bring about papers.”
Outside of the construction zone, Diallo Koundenecoun, a Malian immigrant here to support his “camarades,” was taking a break from drumming to chat with his friends. “That building there, it’s undocumented workers who built it,” he told Jacobin, as he pointed to the Porte de La Chapelle Arena. “That’s why we chose this location, to say we played a part in constructing this beautiful work,” which will make France the center of attention on the world stage.
Valérie, a member of the migrants’ rights group Gilets noirs, who preferred not to give her last name, agreed. “We had to hit where it hurts the most,” she said.
In the Paris region, picketers have made “No papers, no Olympics” their rallying cry as France debates a proposed immigration law that would make stricter rules for processing some undocumented workers in “métiers en tension” (roughly, “unrewarding jobs”), while making it easier for authorities to deport others, in particular those with a criminal record. The law, which was proposed by right-wing interior minister Gérald Darmanin, is currently being examined by the French Senate.
Their strike — the product of roughly eight or nine months of organizing, according to various organizers who spoke with Jacobin — coincided with thirty other coordinated strike actions by undocumented workers in the Paris area, targeting diverse sectors, including construction, housekeeping, restaurants, and food delivery, organized by the Confédération général du travail (CGT) union confederation.
As Radio France and others have documented, undocumented workers are often subjected to long work hours, dangerous conditions, and low pay. “Whether it’s for the Olympics or anywhere else in France, when the bosses know you don’t have your papers, you’re like a slave,” Mamadou Sow, a member of CSP75, one of the migrant rights groups in Paris that helped organize the strike, said.
Undocumented workers who spoke with Jacobin, whose names have been changed to protect their identities, described exploitative practices, including long hours, unstable contracts, and dangerous working conditions while working on Olympics sites and others linked to Grand Paris, an urban renovation project launched under President Nicolas Sarkozy, currently extending through Paris’s working-class suburbs.
Moussa, who crossed by sea from his native Mauritania, landing first in Spain before making his way to France, is currently working on the arena in La Chapelle. In order to get work on the Olympics construction zone, he borrowed identity papers from a friend — a common practice. The pay was low — just sixty-five euros per day, not including food and transportation costs, and the subcontractor that runs the site was strict. “If you show up even five minutes late, they’ll send you away and hire someone else for the day,” Moussa explained through a translator.
Souleymane, from Mali, worked on the site for six months. He said that some undocumented workers were denied housing, and ended up living on the streets. After being let go, he decided to start organizing other workers.
“We decided to express publicly that we are normal people like you, we go to work like you and we should have the same rights as you,” he said. “There are a lot of undocumented workers who worked on this site, which is emblematic,” he added, referring to the Porte de La Chapelle Arena. “They’re being exploited and at the same time, it’s them who are keeping the business running” for the state.
Étienne Deschamps, a member of CNT Workers Solidarity (CNT-SO), which helped organize the strike, explained that undocumented immigrants were doubly victims of the system. “We don’t respect their rights and we don’t give them access to services,” including health care and retirement, he said.
The Olympics, a State of Exception
Union leaders hope to use the Olympics to their advantage to push through long-standing demands. While the Olympic Games are not scheduled until next summer, construction companies are rushing to finish work by the end of the year — giving union organizers a window of opportunity, Deschamps explained.
“There are deadlines to meet,” Deschamps said. “The more delays there are, the more the government will need to find solutions.”
Jules Boykoff, author of the book Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics, suggested that this type of “piggybacking” is a typical strategy in the lead-up to megaevents like the Olympics.
“Activists often chant that the whole world is watching, and when it comes to the Olympics, it’s really true,” he said. “The bottom line is that the Olympics are an inequality machine, and so it’s no surprise that undocumented workers or labor unions in France would use this moment to piggyback the event to their political advantage and flip the state of exception on its head so they can get some proper benefits for their members.”
Undocumented workers worry that their “launch window” is narrowing, especially with the looming immigration reform bill, which would place the onus on undocumented workers, and not employers,to take the steps necessary to obtain a work permit.
“The ‘Loi Darmanin’ is an attempt to bring undocumented workers to their knees,” said Abilou, a member of Droits Devant!!, an activist organization responsible, alongside the CGT, for the first massive strike of undocumented workers, which saw more than one million undocumented workers walk off their job sites in 2008. “When they want to take away your rights, you have to do something, to show that you’re there.”
On Monday, at an organizing meeting at the Bourse du Travail in République, organizers passed around a letter that they plan to send to the inister of the Economy. A draft of the letter, which Jacobin has seen, asks the minister to “take action to ensure widespread regularization” of the more than six hundred thousand undocumented workers in France. (Currently, about thirty thousand undocumented workers are processed per year.)
“If not, and if the situation continues, it is clear that other strikes will take place in the sectors of activity where undocumented immigrants work,” the letter warns.
Panic at the Workplace
In La Chapelle, activists estimate that the occupation of the Porte de La Chapelle Arena could lead to the processing of eighty to one hundred undocumented workers, including those who were let go in the past three months because of their migratory status. They hope that the strike will lead to a multiplier effect.
“We created a panic,” Valérie, from Gilets noirs said, “Every time we manage to enter a site, we open the door a little bit more” to more strike actions.
The CNT-SO and Gilets noirs, she added, are currently meeting with other construction companies working on the Greater Paris and Olympics sites at the request of the city of Paris, and plan to strike at other “symbolic” sites in the coming weeks.
Deschamps, at the CNT-SO, agreed. ‘If we have to strike again, we’ll strike again,” he said.
Contractor Bouygues, for its part, is moving forward on paperwork to regularize the undocumented workers at the Porte de La Chapelle Arena. However, undocumented workers currently employed on the site have been barred access to the worksite until the contracts have been signed under their names.
Nevertheless, they remain hopeful. Moussa has been feeling energized. “I’ve been smiling inside,” he told Jacobin through a translator, “because I’m finally going to have something for myself.”