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Activists Protest Against Racism, Xenophobia Across France (Photo Essay)

Tempestuous French president Nicolas Sarkozy has been in a tailspin in the polls in recent months and his turbulent way of trying to snap out of it was to rally the most conservative and xenophobic wing of his right-wing base with a series of moves over the summer that were sure to remind everybody who’s the toughest of them all on foreigners.

Tempestuous French president Nicolas Sarkozy has been in a tailspin in the polls in recent months and his turbulent way of trying to snap out of it was to rally the most conservative and xenophobic wing of his right-wing base with a series of moves over the summer that were sure to remind everybody who’s the toughest of them all on foreigners.

Aside from threatening to strip their French citizenship from anyone of “foreign origin” (whatever that means) found guilty of threatening the life of a police officer, he undertook to dismantle several Roma camps and deport thousands of Romas, “back” to Romania where many of them had never lived before.

This tough-cop move has in fact elicited a favourable response from nearly two French persons out of three, which is high enough. Nearly 70% have indicated in polls that they accept the dismantling of “certain” Roma camps and the immediate deportation of undocumented Romas.

However, reactions internationally – from the Pope, the European Commission and even the UN – have caused France’s image to deteriorate rapidly.

And there’s also another France, populated by that still significant portion of the population that reacts to racist and xenophobic nastiness by uniting against it and standing up to say “No, never again”. That is what happened Saturday afternoon September 4 in the streets of Paris and about 130 other French cities and towns. The Paris march drew between 70,000 and 100,000 people according to the most serious estimates, in an atmosphere – favoured by perfect summer weather – in which the anger abundantly expressed didn’t exclude a certain festive feeling and a strong sense of unity and solidarity. In short, not a bad opening to a season of social movements which promises to put Sarkozy to a series of decisive tests.

Just about the whole French left was represented on Saturday – Socialists, Communists, Greens, neo- or post-Trotskyists, trade unions, undocumented African workers, feminist collectives, immigrants’ rights and civil liberties groups, antiwar groups, the local branch of Act-Up, and it was indeed the first time in recent memory that this has occurred. Will Sarkozy succeed in bringing unity to a left that has been desperately fragmented in recent years?

The following photo essay seeks to present a sense of the variety of people in attendance, in an ambience that mixed joy and anger. The Romas, who are not usually seen in street demonstrations, came in substantial numbers under the banner of various associations. They brought some ingredients rarely seen in ordinary French protest marches – see the pictures below.

The movement doesn’t end here. The subject of Sarkozy’s plan to raise the retirement age could bring even more people to the streets nationwide on Tuesday Sept. 7th: to be continued.

There’s a forest of signs among this delegation of the French Union of Tzigane (or Roma) Associations. One says: “Mr. Sarkozy, make war on poverty, not on the Romas”, and the other reads “For the honor of France, NO to state anti-Rom-ism”.

The main banner reads “Roma families have a right to housing”. In the background another states simply “The Romas want to live” and, in the background, a group of local citizens from Choisy-le-Roi, south of Paris, display their “solidarity with Roma families” whose camp was razed in mid-August. Oh yes, and there’s a small sign that counsels “Let’s be well-behaved, but not too much!”

Here’s a compelling father-daughter team. Dad, sporting a French revolutionary Phrygian bonnet, stands for Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. The young lady, whose headgear also suggests the revolutionary era, calls for the arrest of government minister Brice Hortefeux, who was the first to occupy Sarkozy’s new, Orwellian “Ministry of Immigration and National Identity”, before becoming minister of the interior (“top cop”), and whose own contributions to racist humour would have resulted in his forced resignation in any other country. And speaking of symbols: just in back of them is the statue commemorating the fall of the Bastille in 1789, and the banner draped over its base reads “Unemployment, racketeering, racism: welcome to Sarkozy-land”.

This young guy’s sign doesn’t mince words or images. It reads: “We must say no to National-Sarkozyism”. The sticker on his shirt reads “What’s the matter with my face?” which is an old French way of saying “Do I look illegal?” He’s standing next to a sympathizer of the Movement Against Racism and for Friendship Among Peoples (MRAP), founded in 1949.

In a similar vein, the little sign held up by a man on the left pictures Sarkozy in the uniform of Maréchal Pétain, who surrendered France to the Nazi occupiers in 1940. The message “Fils de Pétain” is based on a dubious play on words: literally, it means “Son of Pétain” but it also suggests “son of a putain” i.e., an “SOB” in English. The banner of the French Union of Tsigane (or Roma) Associations lists all the names commonly used to designate this group: Roms, Gitans, Manouches, Sintis, etc.

The Romas may have stolen the show Saturday, but the stalwarts of the “Collective of the Undocumented” and other groups of undocumented workers made a respectable showing. The banner, whose relevance for the US too is striking, reads “Stop the raids, close the detention centers, regularization is a right”.

Feminism in solidarity with immigrants, including the undocumented, is alive and well. The banner reads “Regularization for overexploited and forgotten undocumented women workers”. And lest it should be thought that this particular group of feminists might be divided over the Islamic veil question, here’s visual proof that’s not about to happen.

Yes, some Romas actually do work in a circus – one with a famous reputation. They were obviously in a contest for the most photogenic group in the whole demonstration.

The Americans Against the War (AAW) began their career protesting the announced war in Iraq, at a time when the French government agreed with their denunciation of Bush and Cheney’s unilateral imperial adventure. Their small but unfailing presence has been noted ever since 2002 in all demonstrations concerning war and peace. But fighting racism, no matter what its source, is also very much on the agenda.

It appears that in Choisy-le-Roi solidarity between the Romas and local officials is strong in the face of state repression. The men with red, white and blue sashes are elected officials.

The message on this young man’s mask suggests that Sarkozy has lately been emitting toxic and nausea-inducing gases. The T-shirt says (in English) “Consume, Obey, Die!”.

The folks at Act-Up do just as their name implies. One sign, intended not to leave anyone indifferent, cries out “Romas, undocumented, and sex workers: the Republic prefers you dead”. Another says, “For the [government minister] Hortefeux, the life of a foreigner is worth nothing”. No need to translate the main banner.

And last but not least, the justly famous “Education without borders network” (RESF), whose mission is to fight, tooth and nail, deportations affecting school children and their families. The painted cloth sign says “I want to stay with my friends in France”. A sign in the upper left corner (“2006-2012”) suggests that Sarkozy might turn out to be a one-term president. To be continued…

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