Police now treat church occupiers with caution


French police have learned a lot in the two years since illegal African immigrants began occupying French churches; so have the immigrants. Last night, the sans-papiers were to mark the second anniversary of the take-over of Saint-Ambroise Church in Paris with a lamp-lit procession.

Earlier in the day, 100 immigrants briefly occupied the Church of Saint Jean in Montmartre before riot police removed them. As they were herded into the police buses, the Africans shouted their unchanging slogan: "Papers for everyone".

Paris police have intervened three times in as many days to stop church occupations and a demonstration by illegal immigrants. French authorities are determined to prevent a repeat of the highly publicised 1996 occupation of Saint Bernard Church. After a six-week hunger strike, during which French intellectuals rallied to the Africans' cause, riot police horrified public opinion by breaking down the church door with an axe.

In June 1997, the new Socialist-led government invited illegal immigrants, estimated at 300,000 by the ministry of the interior, to apply for legal residence. French prefectures are supposed to assess all of the 150,000 applications they received by April 30th. By the end of February, 30,053 applications had been rejected, 32,344 accepted. Most of those turned down were single men without families in France, and it is these young men who resumed church occupations in the past two weeks.

Yet few of those turned down will be sent back to Africa; 12,000 was the highest number of people ever expelled from France in one year, and that was under the previous right-wing government. Most of the men who have been refused legal status will simply revert to living clandestinely.

Churches built after the 1905 law on the separation of Church and State are the property of the diocese, so the Africans have occupied two modern churches with the support of priests and parishes: Evry Cathedral near Paris, where 42 Africans have lived since March 7th, and Saint-Pierre du Havre, occupied by 20 men since March 14th. Because the two Paris churches which the immigrants tried to occupy belong to the city, the interior ministry was able to send riot troops to remove them.

Protestant and Catholic clergy have been among the most outspoken defenders of the immigrants. "Many of these foreigners are integrated in French society and have serious reasons for wanting to live here," the Bishop of Le Havre, Mgr Joseph Saudreau, said in their defence. "Others are threatened with death in their countries." The bishop asked the government to "re-examine the dramatic situation of the sans-papiers with the maximum of good will and fraternity."

Church officials admit they are not qualified to judge immigration cases, but say it would be against their Christian faith to turn away those in need.