“Don’t touch our children!” French Citizens Rise in Opposition to the Deportation of Illegal Immigrant Families


Usually children look forward to the last day of school before the beginning of summer vacation, but this year thousands in France dread what the day could bring. On June 30, as the academic year comes to an end, so too will the temporary protections offered to illegal immigrants whose children were enrolled in French schools over the past year. These families face the risk of arrest and immediate expulsion from the country. To prevent this, thousands of parents, teachers, school administrators, human rights activists, and local government officials have mobilized and united to form a movement that has made headlines in all national and even some international newspapers.

Catalysis of long-standing Grievances

According to Minister of the Interior Nicolas Sarkozy, between 200,000 and 400,000 illegal immigrants currently reside in France. As the imprecision of Mr. Sarkozy’s estimate demonstrates, accurate statistics on illegal immigrants are very difficult to gather, in France as in any other country. In French, illegal immigrants are referred to as “sans-papiers,” people with no papers. Because they generally avoid contact with the authorities, they seldom appear in public records. For instance, 178,689 sans-papiers received free medical care with the aid of state health insurance last year, but observers agree that this number is far smaller than the actual number of sans-papiers. Because French law requires that all children, regardless of citizenship, attend school between the ages of six and sixteen, even teachers and school administrators can only estimate how many of their students are sans-papiers. One principal of a public nursery school, Mrs. Catherine Depachtère, discovered the citizenship status of a young Chinese student quite by chance in an indirect manner, through discussions with the girl’s parents about public assistance for school meal fees. According to Jacqueline Costa-Lascou, the head of the Integration and Immigration Statistics Observatory, between 15.000 and 20.000 sans-papiers children attend French schools. Immigrants’ rights activists place their estimates much higher, at around 50,000.

Though they may be uncertain as to the exact number, most European policymakers are certain that there are too many illegal immigrants. In France, the recent tightening of immigration restrictions has been spearheaded by Minister of the Interior Nicolas Sarkozy, a highly controversial political figure with presidential ambitions that may be realized in next year’s election. (Mr. Sarkozy serves as president of the conservative UMP party, whose members include his rival, President Jacques Chirac.) Most recently, Mr. Sarkozy introduced a bill whose goal is to replace “immigration by default” (immigration subie) with “immigration by choice” (immigration choisie). Currently, the vast majority of immigrants are people joining family members already living in France. Mr. Sarkozy would like to limit such family reunification in favor of high-skilled workers, scientific researchers, and academics. The part of the bill that sans-papiers are most directly concerned with is the revocation of the existing policy of automatic regularization for people who entered the country illegally but have lived in France for ten years. According to French citizenship laws, children born in France of foreign parents remain foreigners until the age of eighteen, when they can choose to adopt French citizenship. Therefore, a child born in France of illegal immigrants can be deported to his parents’ home country, even if he has never visited that country previously. 

This bill, commonly referred to as the “Sarkozy law,” was approved by a 367-164 vote in the lower house of the French Parliament on May 17. On June 16, the upper house approved the bill after adding several amendments. The Sarkozy law has been subject to harsh criticism from the left. Many argue that to select immigrants is to deny that all persons have equal value and equal rights. Political leaders from developing countries have voiced concern that this would increase the brain drain and harm their countries even further. Some accuse Mr. Sarkozy of catering to extreme right-wing voters who blame real or perceived foreigners (i.e. French-born children of immigrants) for France’s economic and social problems. Activist Cathy Lenihan characterizes his policies as “LePenist with a nice face,” referring to Jean-Marie LePen, the (in)famous leader of the xenophobic National Front party who reached the second and final round of the last presidential elections, held in spring 2002. Although the Sarkozy law further polarized people who were already firm supporters or detractors, it does not seem to have been the primary cause for the mobilization of hundreds of previously apolitical citizens in the movement against the expulsion of children whose parents are illegal immigrants.  

The catalyst for the movement was a circular issued by Mr. Sarkozy on June 13. In this note, he asks all préfets, local representatives of the Ministry of the Interior, to cooperate in ensuring that sans-papiers return to their home countries as soon as possible. He promises a monetary reward for those who agree to leave the country quickly and voluntarily, and offers the possibility of an “exceptional and humanitarian” residence permit for people who have lived in France for several years and who have demonstrated “a real desire to integrate.” Finally he reaffirms that the temporary immunity granted to sans-papiers families with children enrolled in French schools will be revoked at the end of the academic year. 

A Multilateral Movement

The first to react were non-governmental organizations dedicated to human and immigrants’ rights. Most notable among these is Réseau Education Sans Frontières (Education Without Borders Network), an umbrella group for numerous NGO’s and leftist political parties. Although the decentralized nature of the network sometimes prevents quick, decisive action, RESF has taken the most active role in drawing attention to the movement and distributing information to both sans-papiers families and the French citizens who want to help them. The Paris branch of RESF hosts information sessions and open hours for legal advice several times a week in their six offices located in various parts of the city. Laurence Deléarde, the local coordinator for RESF operations in eastern Paris, says that she can’t count the number of sans-papiers she has met and worked with over the past few weeks. She estimates that as many as four hundred people came to seek legal advice at one open hours session held last Wednesday. At 4:30 in the afternoon about sixty people were waiting in the street outside the RESF office, and ten more arrived over the course of the next hour. Most of them were women with young children, some dressed in boubous (traditional western African dresses), some wearing headscarves, but most in T-shirts and jeans. No one seemed to have a clear understanding of the situation; strangers struck up conversations with each other in an effort to glean some information. Almost everyone spoke fairly fluent French, but in some cases children as young as seven were pressed into service as interpreters for their parents. The open hours were to last for three hours, but due to high demand they were extended to seven and a half hours, finally ending at 11:30 at night. Information sessions are also attended by dozens of people. Like many other participants in the movement, Deléarde believes there are many sans-papiers families who don’t know where to ask for help or don’t dare draw attention to themselves. 

Beyond disseminating information, RESF is involved in a number of different initiatives to oppose the expulsion of sans-papiers families with children enrolled in French schools. For each family that registers with the network, they assemble a file containing documented proof that the family has lived in France for several years, made efforts at integration, and received support from local community members. These documents include, for example, school certificates, social security and state health insurance forms, and personalized letters from employers and teachers. Once they have assembled such a file, RESF arranges a parrainage, a symbolic sponsorship of a sans-papiers individual or family by a French citizen. RESF organizers have convinced actors, comedians, artists, and local politicians to act as sponsors in order to attract greater media attention. This week, the leftist national newspaper Liberation announced that it would sponsor one child a day until the official end of the academic year on June 30. In addition, RESF has established an emergency hotline that is accessible at any hour of the day. 

Parents’ groups have also emerged as major participants in the movement to aid sans-papiers families in danger of being expelled. At the Ecole Palestine, a public nursery school in the Belleville neighborhood of Paris, concerned parents have organized a group called “Touche pas à nos enfants!” (“Don’t Touch Our Children!”). The group’s name is a reference to the well-known catchphrase “Touche pas à mon pote!” (Don’t touch my friend!), the official motto of the anti-racism organization S.O.S. Racisme. Because Belleville has a sizeable immigrant population living alongside French citizens, French children at l’Ecole Palestine have close friends who are first or second-generation immigrants, some of whom are sans-papiers. As Delearde observes, the sudden realization that “their kid’s little friend could be kicked out of the country” has moved many parents to act. Last week “Touche pas à nos enfants!” held an information session at 8:45 in the morning, timed so that parents could attend right after they had dropped off their children at school. Sitting in the back room of a nearby café, fifteen parents discussed strategies to protect sans-papiers children and collaboration with RESF. “Touche pas à nos enfants!” organizers have decided to act independently from RESF, drawing on the network for information and contacts, but setting up their own more localized network to look out for sans-papiers families at Ecole Palestine. For instance, they are currently investigating the possibility of establishing their own emergency hotline. One parent suggested a more dramatic measure: if a family is arrested and taken to the airport to be flown out of the country, a group of supporters could hand out flyers to passengers informing them of the situation and suggesting that they refuse to wear their seatbelts to prevent the plane from taking off. 

Administrators and teachers at Ecole Palestine are also involved in the movement. In fact, “Touche pas à nos enfants!” was originally formed because the principal of the school, Mrs. Depachtère, alerted the president of the parents’ association to the existence of at least one sans-papiers family in l’Ecole Palestine. As a civil servant, Mrs. Depachtère feels that her capacity to help sans-papiers is limited, but she felt it was her duty to protect the families in her school. Although she is against open immigration, she feels that “since these people are here, we must take care of them.” 

Perhaps the most surprising participants in the movement are the local government officials. In defiance to orders from the Ministry of the Interior, many mayors of arrondissements (subdivisions of metropolitan Paris) have allowed parrainage ceremonies to take place in their offices. At these ceremonies, local residents and even some elected officials announce their sponsorship of a sans-papiers child, adult or family in front of large audiences. At a parrainage ceremony in the 11th arrondissement city hall this past Saturday, elected representatives even wore their official blue, white and red sashes while publicly declaring their insubordination to the central government. Roger Molkou, director of the 11th arrondissement mayor’s cabinet, says that local government officials cannot incur any penalty for such actions. “Taking a political stance is normal in a democracy,” he declares matter-of-factly. Many of the mayors that hosted parrainage ceremonies belong to the Socialist Party, which is consistently in opposition to the ruling UMP.

Memories of the Holocaust

During the past academic year, schools served as a haven for sans-papiers children. With summer vacation drawing near, activists have resorted to drastic measures. Because sans-papiers parents cannot be deported without their children, they have decided to hide the children from the authorities. Generally, the children are separated from their parents, given an emergency hotline number to call in case they are arrested, then moved from one host family to another either for the duration of summer vacation or until their family receives a residence permit. Resistance against the arrest and deportation of a minority population, concealment of children—few would fail to notice the associations between the current situation and the Holocaust. The national petition of the RESF, which has approximately 62,000 signatures to date, compares the current situation with “those episodes when, faced with unbearable persecution, each person had to make a choice.” A deputy sponsoring a sans-papiers family during the parrainage ceremony at the city hall of the 11th arrondissement made a similarly vague but clearly understood reference to the Holocaust, saying that recent discussions about children going into hiding “call up very, very sad memories.”    

Many associations make explicit references as well. Near the entrance of every public nursery, elementary, middle and high school in Paris the government has placed an official brass plaque that condemns the deportation of Jews during the Second World War and notes how many students from that school were deported. At the Ecole Palestine, “Touche pas à nos enfants!” posted one of their own signs directly beneath the plaque. The plaque is dedicated “to the memory of students from this school who were deported between 1942 and 1944 because they were born Jewish, the innocent victims of Nazi barbarism with the complicity of the Vichy government.” The “Touche pas à nos enfants!” sign reads: “In this school, from June 30th onwards, sans-papiers children can be taken away by the police and deported outside of the borders of the European Union. Silence is a form of complicity.” 

Annette Wieviorka, an eminent French historian who has published numerous works on 20th century Jewish history and particularly on the Holocaust, questions the value and appropriateness of the parallel. “Of course the comparison between the concealment of Jewish children and of children of sans-papiers parents is very exaggerated,” she says, because most of “the families are not political refugees, and children don’t risk their lives if they are expulsed.” Furthermore, “the risk French parents take by hiding the children is very limited.” The act of providing legal advice to sans-papiers, for instance, does not violate French law. Hiding illegal children that have been ordered to leave the country is punishable by a fine and a maximum prison sentence of five years, but the police have clearly made little effort to track down and arrest sans-papiers families and their supporters. As RESF posts the date, time and location of their information sessions and open hours on their website, the police could easily attend and arrest dozens of people at a time. 

For some, the connection to the Holocaust is very personal. Betsy Schlesinger is an American pianist who has lived in France for twenty years. Her two children are enrolled in Ecole Palestine, and she recently joined “Touche pas a nos Enfants!” Although she doesn’t know any sans-papiers families personally, when she heard about the movement against the expulsion of children she knew immediately that she wanted to get involved in what she considers  “a very unique cause.” She explains her solidarity with sans-papiers families partly through her family history. Her mother-in-law, whose parents were deported to Auschwitz, survived the Holocaust by going into hiding with French host families from 1942 until the end of the war. “There are times,” Mrs. Schlesinger says, “when going against the law is a moral duty.” 

Moral Obligations and Political Strategies

Many previously apolitical parents seem to share Mrs. Schlesinger’s reasons for joining the movement. Participants’ motivations for mobilization seem to fall in two overlapping categories: moral obligation and political strategy. Professor Wieviorka compares the current movement to earlier ones against forced marriage and for the legalization of abortion, all “cases of mobilization of civil society, of people who are not necessarily politicized, of moral mobilization.” Certainly most of the participants—be they parents, school administrators, RESF and LDH activists, or government officials—speak of their involvement in moral terms. 

Indeed, the current movement is not in favour of the legalisation of all sans-papiers, but specifically concerns families whose children go to school. Roger Molkou, the mayor’s chief of staff in the 19th arrondissement, explains: “We revolt (on s’insurge) because the children are not responsible for the way the parents entered the territory, and have the right to continue their education in France.” The fact that schoolchildren are involved, rallies many parents around the cause, and explains the large participation of many former depoliticized people. Also, since the children are often born in France, activists consider they are fully French and have the right to stay, with their parents.    

Similarly, religious organizations protesting the recent tightening of immigration restrictions have presented their stance as a moral one. Churches, as traditional moral authorities and places of refuge, have been involved in previous sans-papiers movements in France. Most famously, in the spring of 1996, 118 mostly African sans-papiers families occupied the Saint-Ambroise church in Paris for four days until the police evicted them with the implicit permission of the local Catholic leadership. Several months later the protesters moved into the Saint-Bernard church and staged hunger strikes there, this time with the approval of the priest. The 1996 sans-papiers movement was closely followed by the French media, and eventually caught the attention of foreign news agencies. Embarrassed in front of domestic and international audiences, then Prime Minister Alain Juppé finally agreed to examine the sans-papiers protesters’ requests for residence permits on a case-by-case basis in August, five months after the movement began. This spring, several churches have opened their doors to sans-papiers. In April, the Council of Christian Churches of France, which brings together representatives of the Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Churches, expressed “serious concerns” about the immigration law in a letter to the Prime Minister. The French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) has remained silent on the issue.

However, the timing and the political background of many of the participants suggest that moral ideals are not the only driving force behind the movement. Leaders in both parents’ groups and NGO’s tend to be experienced left-wing militants. Laurence Deléarde, the local coordinator of the RESF in eastern Paris, is a member of the Socialist Party and has participated in numerous campaigns, most recently against the genocide in Darfur. Cathy Lenihan, a “Touche pas a nos Enfants!” organizer, has militated for various causes in France and in her home country of Canada. Recently, politicians themselves have taken up the cause by publicly denouncing the new immigration laws. The vast majority belong to parties such as the Socialist Party, the Green Party, and the French Communist Party. Left-wing mayors organize parrainage ceremonies, and the official homepage of the municipality of Paris offers a link to the RESF website. At the parrainage ceremony in the 11th arrondissement, Mayor Georges Sarre lamented that laws are made in the conservative-dominated Parliament, and declared to the sans-papiers in the audience that “all of us on the left will support you!” Clearly, part of the movement represents a more generalized opposition to the current political leadership. 

This opposition is timely. Presidential and legislative elections will be held next spring, and public discontent is widespread. The Chirac administration has been weakened by a series of scandals and massive protests, from the November riots, to the nationwide student protests against the “First Job Contract” this spring, to the “Clearstream” corruption scandal. While RESF and “Touche pas à nos enfants!” fear that the government will take advantage of summer vacation to conduct massive expulsions of sans-papiers families while schools are closed and many people are gone on vacation, others are more optimistic. “All the schools in eastern Paris are mobilized,” observes Mrs. Depachtère.  “If the government senses that a real mobilisation is taking place, it won’t risk turning all those people against it.” She is confident that a large movement against the expulsion of sans-papiers children could have lasting political force. June 30th will mark not only the end of the academic year, but also the beginning of an open power struggle between the activists on the left and the government on the right. 




Abdallah, Mogniss H. J’y suis,  J’y reste !: Les luttes de l’immigration en France depuis les années soixante. 

Paris : Editions Reflex, 2000. 

Kimberly Hamilton (dir.), “The Challenge of French Diversity”, Migration Policy Institute, November 2004. 

(cf: http://www.migrationinformation.org/Profiles/display.cfm?ID=266)

Tabet, Marie-Christine, “Unacceptable vagueness of the statistics on illegal immigrants”, in Le Figaro

(Rubrique In English), 18 April 2006.

Weil, Patrick. La République et sa diversité. Paris : Le Seuil, 2005.





Loic Correnson, coordinator of Touche pas à nos enfants! (22 June) 

Laurence Deléarde, coordinator of RESF 

Catherine Depachtère, principal of the Ecole Palestine (24 June)

Cathy Lenihan, parent involved in Touche pas à nos enfants! (22 June)

Roger Molkou, chief of the mayor’s staff in the 19th arrondissement (26 June)

Betsy Schlesinger-Grynszpan, parent involved in Touche pas à nos enfants! (22 June)

Jean-Marc Wasilewski, president of the Paris federation of the Ligue des Droits de l’Homme (24 June)

Annette Wieviorka, historian and researcher (23 June)


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France France 2006


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