Sunday, May 25, 2008

PARIS — Tucked into a gritty corner of Avenue de Lafayette in northern Paris, Chez Papa is better known for serving up french fries and steak than a workers revolution.

But the unassuming French restaurant has morphed into a hostel of sorts for more than three dozen angry illegal immigrants — one of a growing number of Paris-area establishments taken over by foreign workers in a wave of groundbreaking strikes that are spreading to other parts of the country.

Demonstrations and sit-ins are nothing new here; indeed, strikes and protest marches often seem to be a French pastime. But while numbering only about 800 people so far, the swelling movement by illegal-immigrant workers — many of whom pay French taxes and social charges — is unprecedented and has won the support of France’s largest trade union, the CGT.

“What’s new is that immigrants are claiming their rights as workers in France,” said Jerome Martinez, who oversees immigration issues in the Paris area for Cimade, a French nongovernmental organization.

“We see people do not have legal papers after years of working in sectors where the country needs labor, like construction, the hotel industry, agriculture.”

That problem is reflected elsewhere in Europe, where tougher immigration policies are colliding with the economic reality of an aging work force that shuns the menial jobs many immigrants embrace.

European countries such as Spain have legalized hundreds of thousands of workers, but others, including the Netherlands and Italy, are closing their doors to illegals from Africa and elsewhere.

In France, conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy came to power last May, vowing to step up deportation of illegal aliens, championing instead a “chosen immigration” policy favoring highly skilled and educated workers.

His government swiftly made good on his word, passing legislation in July that, among other things, scrapped a policy allowing illegal immigrants to acquire working papers if they could prove they had been in the country for 10 years.

But today, the government’s platform is under attack by employers and immigrant rights activists — and illegal immigrants themselves who last month began a wave of occupations and strikes at construction sites, cleaning establishments and restaurants like Chez Papa.

“The government now says it will regularize immigrants on a case-by-case basis,” said Gaye Kebe, a 30-year-old Malian cook at Chez Papa who joined 39 other restaurant workers who took over the establishment April 15. “We don’t want a case-by-case basis. We want the same rules for everyone.”

Mr. Kebe and his colleagues, all from sub-Saharan Africa, have been living at the restaurant for more than a month, sleeping on the floor, washing themselves in the restrooms and, on a recent morning, drinking coffee and watching television.

“We’re going to wait this out because we don’t have the choice,” said Mr. Kebe, a stocky man sporting brown pants and a T-shirt. “We’re not going to back down.”

Mr. Kebe said he arrived in France from his native Mali a decade ago. A year later, he landed a job at Chez Papa using false papers. He claims he has paid French taxes ever since, hoping to legalize his status with the 10-year residency rule. But the measure was scrapped before he could enjoy its benefits.

“It’s very difficult to work illegally in France,” said another Malian kitchen worker, Camara Adama. “You don’t know when the police will stop you and ask for your papers.”

The workers movement has received a mixed response from French employers, who risk fines unless they make sure their workers are legal.

The head of France’s hotel industry association recently urged the government to legalize up to 100,000 taxpaying illegal immigrants. Not doing so, he argued, spelled disaster for French tourism.

The CGT union also has taken up their cause, helping the workers stage sit-ins and try to legalize their status. At Chez Papa, several union members visit the workers on any given day.

“When I found out they were paying their taxes, their social security and their retirement [in France] and that they didn’t have legal papers, I came here quickly,” said CGT member Denise Coupe, who sat at a table at Chez Papa with some of the striking workers.

“I’m disgusted that a country which claims to champion human rights doesn’t follow through when it comes to immigrants,” she said.

Chez Papa owner Bruno Druihl initially supported the strike. But as the days wore on and his restaurants remained closed for business, he cooled to the workers’ grievances — especially, his associate Catherine Bosserelle said, after workers rejected a recent offer to help regularize their status.

Still, Ms. Bosserelle said, Mr. Druihl has little option but to keep hiring immigrants and hope their working papers are in order.

“A very large majority of people who apply for restaurant jobs are foreigners,” she said. “When we advertise, it’s very rare to have a French person applying for a position.”

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