Around 1,000 Black Vest activists and others occupied one of France’s most famous monuments on Friday—and were met by vicious police repression.
Most of those who surged into the Pantheon in Paris were undocumented migrants. Their demands included a meeting with the prime minister about regularising their status.
The Black Vests is a migrant association whose name echoes the Yellow Vests protest movement that has been battling president Emmanuel Macron for eight months.
"Today we immigrants without papers, inhabitants of social housing, tenants of the streets, are occupying the Pantheon,” a Black Vests’ statement said. "In the French Republic, we are paperless, faceless, voiceless".
One activist told Socialist Worker, “We are fighting the unequal treatment we face. But we are also drawing attention to the system that makes us undocumented immigrants."
The group's press release highlighted how undocumented immigrants in France sleep "under highways" when there are "200,000 empty flats in Paris", or in migrant housing centres where the police come to arrest them "in their bed".
They called for their fellow migrants in detention centres to be set free and demanded that these centres be closed.
The Pantheon was chosen as the protest location to highlight the huge gap between the promises of French democracy—liberty, equality and fraternity—and the reality of people’s lives. It is the burial place of figures such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Marie Curie and Alexandre Dumas.
There is a plaque commemorating the great slave revolt leader Toussaint L’Ouverture.
The Black Vests made their statements in front of a statue representing France with the slogan "live free or die".
The activist told Socialist Worker, “France says it celebrates the end of slavery and revolt against rule by an elite. But our lives as undocumented migrants have much in common with slavery. No rights. No freedom to move, no security or a future.”
Police repeatedly charged a support rally outside the Pantheon, using tear gas and making dozens of arrests. They then attacked those who had been occupying the Pantheon when they left, hospitalising around 40 people.
One person had their finger torn off, two others were clubbed unconscious.
Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally, tweeted her anger at the Black Vests.
"It is UNACCEPTABLE to see protesting illegal aliens occupy, with wholesale impunity, this is the centre of the Republic," Le Pen said.
"Expulsion should be the immigrants' future—that is the LAW”.
However, some left wing MPs backed the protesters, and some prominent Yellow Vest figures showed support for the Black Vests on social media.
On Sunday—the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille at the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789—Macron faced whistles and boos as he took part in a military parade.
He is under fresh fire over the lavish spending of his environment minister, Francois de Rugy.
The Sunday Times newspaper reported that de Rugy, the second most senior member of the government, and his wife, Severine Servat, a gossip journalist dubbed Lady Gala, spent £500 of public money on a Dyson hairdryer coated with gold leaf.
The couple also used state funds for lavish parties, including giant lobsters and £400 bottles of wine and a weekend apartment.
When over 1,000 Yellow Vests demonstrated on Saturday in Paris, as well as their usual slogan "Macron resign" they also chanted "Lobsters everywhere, justice nowhere" and "De Rugy in prison".
On Tuesday de Rugy resigned.
The Black Vest have vowed to keep up their protests.
In June they occupied the headquarters of the Paris-based outsourcing giant Elior Group which employs many migrants on low wages and terrible conditions..
And a month earlier activists occupied a terminal at the city's Charles De Gaulle airport against Air France's collaboration in the deportation of undocumented migrants