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Running into protests is a common enough occurence in Paris. Just Saturday, while out on a stroll with friends near the Bastille monument, I bumped into thousands of purple-shirted people participating in "No Sakozy Day."
But to run into a protest, be questioned by police in riot gear about whether I had been taking part in it and told I couldn’t take my regular route home from the gym but instead needed to walk around several blocks for no justifiable reason is a more exceptional Parisian experience.
The hundred or so mostly African men who stood on the corner outside of a Metro station in a central district on the Left Bank were protesting what they say are unfair policies that allow many of them to work and pay taxes but deny them the proper documents to prove they can legally stay in the country. The workers, who have been trying to bring attention to their situation since October, want a government policy that regularizes their status as lawful residents.
In February, a group of filmmakers sympathetic to their cause produced a three-minute short film about their plight titled, “We work here! We live here! We stay here!” A petition supporting the workers has gathered thousands of signatures, including thousands online.
“We don’t have any rights,” one worker said in the film. Several held up pay stubs and tax documents to show that they had been getting paid by employers in fields like construction who looked the other way when it came to their irregular status.
Another man described a catch-22 in which many find themselves, saying that when workers show up with legal papers, employers don’t want to hire them but when they come with false papers, employers hire them so they can pay the worker any sum they choose.
In the early morning, some of the group on the street had been expelled per a court order from a nearby building they had been squatting for four months.
When I walked past the first time, some were sitting on the pavement in the middle of the street, while others held out plastic cups to collect donations from passersby, all this under the watchful gaze of riot police who corralled them. They carried few placards.
After dark, when I walked by again on my way home, some protesters were performing religious prayers in a corner near a mailbox in front of a bar and the police seemed more vigilant.
I wondered how long the calm standoff would last.