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Film industry seeks to highlight plight of illegal workers

Text by Priscille LAFITTE

Latest update : 2010-02-23

A few days before French regional elections, a screenwriters’ collective has launched a movement to fight for legal status for those working in the country without the proper papers.

A screenwriters guild in France has launched a movement demanding that many of those working in the country without the proper papers be made legal employees in France. Their first strike was a cinematic coup – a short film of interviews with illegal workers in which they revealed their circumstances, showed their pay slips as proof and revealed the names of their employers, which included the prime minister’s office at Matignon, Bouygues Telecom, the National Assembly and the Naf Naf clothing label. It made for a shocking three minutes.

The screenwriters’ collective brings brings together some of the biggest names in French cinema, including the directors Arnaud Desplechin, Costa Gavras, Patrice Chéreau, Abdellatif Kechiche and Cédric Klapisch. Unfortunately, it is impossible to know just who was behind the camera. But the collective gave a face and a voice to some of the estimated 6,000 illegal workers who have been on strike since Oct. 12 in a bid to obtain their working permits. The short film project – which was assembled in just three weeks – is factual, direct and to the point.

Laurent Cantet, director of the French film ‘Between the Walls’ (‘Entre les Murs’), which won the prestigious Palme d’Or award at Cannes in 2008, wanted to give these workers a chance to tell their stories. He wanted to “give a voice to the thousands of people who are on strike in an environment of indifference” by using his filmmaking knowledge “to lend a resonance to the movement”.

“You see that nice Axa [insurance company] tower over there? We built it,” says one illegal worker. Another says he works as a plumber at the prime minister’s office in Matignon, while others make deliveries for such well-known French high-street giants as Carrefour, Franprix and Monoprix. These men and women speak of their daily lives in the employ of reputable enterprises that comprise a significant portion of France’s economic and business worlds. They have all the necessary paperwork: tax returns on the letterhead of the National Assembly, pay slips showing the financial contributions they have made into government coffers in the form of tax payments – everything except that magic document that would make all things possible: a French residence permit.

The testimonies show the perversity of the system in which these people are trapped. “When you have the right papers, they (employers) don’t hire you,” says French screen icon Matthieu Amalric. “If you are illegal, they will hire you, but they will pay you what they want.” Amalric, who attended the short film’s showing on Monday evening, calls the situation “Kafkaesque”. “And then these people are accused of not integrating!” he added incredulously.

‘I have served almost every branch of government’

At the film’s premier, another illegal immigrant tells his story, incomprehensible as it may seeem. “I worked at [the prime minister’s office at] Matignon and as a waiter at Radio France. I have served at almost every branch of government,” he says, including Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux and Economic Minister Christine Lagarde. When he told people who he worked for, they asked why he didn’t ask them to help him get papers. “I said I was afraid,” he said, adding: “I was not there for that. I remained professional to the end.”

Several artists from the Paris film scene have already lent their voices to the debate, including the 2007 film ‘Let Them Grow Here’ (‘Laissez-les grandir ici’), released a few weeks before the presidential election that brought Nicolas Sarkozy to office. Since the premier of that film, it has been seen by 2.5 million people, Cantet says, noting that its release was planned to coincide with the launch of the Education Network Without Borders. “The ideas put forward in that film, such as allowing the children of illegal immigrants to attend school, have made the problem apparent to everyone,” he said. “We hope the same thing will happen for illegal workers.”

The three-minute film – entitled We work here! We live here! We will stay here! (On bosse ici ! On vit ici ! On reste ici) – is now available online. It will be distributed beginning on March 10 by 500 art-house cinemas in France.

(Main photo credit: © Rondeau Lanvin)


Date created : 2010-02-23