Les gilets noirs: a French protest movement defending migrants' rights

The gilets jaunes/yellow vests protest movement mobilized in France over a slate of grievances, led by President Macron's plan to meet emissions targets by punishing poor and a rural people, while dealing out massive favors to the country's wealthy elites. As the movement spread around the world, it took on different characters: sometimes lefty, sometimes right-wing, sometimes explicitly racist.

A new French movement, les gilet noirs (the black vests), makes racial justice the center of its protests, arguing for the rights of migrants, especially African migrants, who have long struggled with discrimination in France. Many of these migrants are from countries that were looted by French colonialists and are descended from colonial subjects who were pressed in French military service, only to be rejected by French society and the French state.

The gilets noirs number 1,500 so far, and are mostly black (one of their slogans is that they are "black with anger" at the treatment of African migrants). They were incubated by the activist collective La Chapelle Debout, in the foyers: communal residences for migrant workers. They have staged several occupations, most notably an occupation of the Panthéon in July, where the police lied and told protesters that if they dispersed peacefully they would not face identity checks or arrests, only to stage a series of violent rushes with batons when the protesters agreed to disperse, while shouting racial epithets. 50 protesters were hospitalized by the police, and 21 were arrested.

Like the yellow vests, the gilets noirs are concerned with rising inequality and official favoritism for wealthy elites; unlike the yellow vests, the gilets noirs refuse to allow racialized people to be scapegoated for inequality, pushing back against Macron's racist rhetoric, which attempts to neutralize "soft on immigration" claims from the white nationalist parties in France.

De Billy characterizes Macron's rightward turn on immigration as a mistake. "You are not preventing the rise of the far-right," he told The Intercept. "But you might be giving credibility to what it says."

French Member of Parliament Danièle Obono, one of the few lawmakers who has publicly supported the gilets noirs, called Macron's agenda "neoliberal" and said he was a person with "very conservative views of the world" who had disguised himself as a progressive. "The immigration debate is for him a way to structure and create a social, ideological electoral base for his policy," she told The Intercept.

The gilets noirs, meanwhile, say they hope to resume large-scale actions soon. Their current demand is a meeting with the prime minister. In June, through Obono, movement leaders transmitted a letter to Philippe. "We ask you to receive a delegation of Gilets Noirs at Matignon. … We will continue to mobilize and ask for decent housing and papers for everyone," it reads.

A "Black Vests" Movement Emerges in France to Protest Treatment of Undocumented Migrants [Camille Baker/The Intercept]

(Image: Emma Francis for The Intercept)