The arrival in Paris on December 3rd 1983 of the March for Equality and Against Racism drew an estimated 100,000 people onto the streets to greet the weary marchers, escorting them along the capital's boulevards to a triumphant demonstration at the Place de la Bastille.
In the six weeks since the marchers had set off amid relative disinterest, from the southern city of Marseille on October 15th, their protest movement had grown into a national cause, attracting political support and widespread media coverage.
It became dubbed as ‘The march of the beurs', (La Marche des beurs), after the colloquial name (a play on the word Arab) for young French citizens born to immigrant parents from France’s former North African colonies of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. The march, organised by young beurs with the support of Catholic and Protestant clergymen, followed a series of violent events that highlighted the social exclusion of this new generation locked in a no-man’s land between two cultures.
That year there had notably been a series of racist murders and, during the hot summer, violent clashes between police and rioting youths in a sprawling, run-down housing estate in the suburbs of Lyon, called Les Minguettes, typical of many others around France with a large population of North African origin and where unemployment is typically higher than the national average.
It was in the aftermath of those riots at Les Minguettes that the march was organised, amid a tense political climate; in local elections , the far-right Front National party was making its first significant gains, while the then-socialist government mounted a vigorous attack on strikes in support of equal rights by immigrant manual workers at a Renault car-making plant, denouncing them as led by Islamists who threatened national interests. In a newspaper interview, the prime minister at the time, Pierre Mauroy, said the strikers were “agitated by religious and political groups” which held values that “had little in common with French social realities”.
Abdallah Moubine, who grew up in the Moroccan mining town of Khouribga, was 29 years old when the March for Equality and Against Racism took place. He was then a manual worker at a Citroën factory near Paris, and was an active trades union official.
“We saw them leave Marseille, they were just a few,” he recalls of the 1983 march. “On arrival in Paris, there were thousands of them. At our end, with our mates, we relayed [the movement], we held meetings at the Bourse du travail [trades unions’ administrative and meeting hall], debates with the sociologist Saïd Bouamama, and we took part in the demonstration on the last day in Montparnasse. It was magnificent.”
He describes himself as being of “the generation before”, that of those who have work, unlike so many of their children, the beurs. Now almost 60, he continues to work for the French carmaker, PSA Peugeot-Citroën, doing night shifts at the same plant where he began his first job in France, in Saint-Ouen, a suburb north-west of the capital. He looks after the supplies of metal rolls for the cutting machines, working from 9.20 p.m. to 6.30 a.m., Monday to Friday. Last year he earned a total salary of 34,000 euros.
He says that today he has “neither hope nor illusion” in the current socialist government and vividly remembers how he felt targeted by the comments in 1983 of Prime Minister Mauroy aimed at the Renault strikers. At the time, North African immigrants made up the majority of the unskilled workforce in the many car-making plants situated around Paris. Moubine’s experiences, both as a North African immigrant and a union activist, provide a gritty insight into the explosive atmosphere during which the 1983 march took place.
He can remember exactly the day he arrived in France: “It was Tuesday September 4th 1973.” He had come from Morocco with the promise of a job at Citroën, found for him by his father who was already in France. “On the Wednesday, I was at a medical check-up at [the quai] Javel, in Paris, in the 15th arrondissement, where the [Citroën] head office was, and on the Thursday I was at work,” he says.
“It was me who wanted to come, my father wasn’t keen,” recalls Moubine. “For me, France was equality, fraternity, the country of human rights. It was a country where life was good.” He began at Citroën at the lowest rank. “My role was simply cutting up metal to make car parts, I pulled and I pushed, all day long, full stop, that’s it,” he explains.
After a short while, he was promoted to the post of factory store manager. “It was better,” he says. “I had to prepare the orders. That required knowing the [different] parts, the references, looking after the arrival and the sending of parts, and the reception.” His pay was modest. “If I remember well, it was 1,200 francs [about 183 euros] per fortnight. We were paid in cash, hand to hand. The chief arrived with the envelope and the pay slip. You had to say thank you.”
After a brief period with another Citroën factory north of Paris, he returned to the Saint-Ouen plant in 1980 when he joined the communist-led CGT union and which, he says, led the management to move his job. “They didn’t want me to work as a store manager anymore, which was a job that involved contact with staff, because they sensed that I had begun to be a union activist,” he says. “I found myself out on the strip loading and unloading lorries with a Fenwick [fork-lift truck], not seeing anyone anymore.”
In early 1982, he became a CGT representative on the works council. Between 1982 and 1984, Citroën and its PSA sister company Talbot, now defunct, were rocked by a series of strikes involving mostly immigrant manual workers, supported by the CGT, whose principle demands included equality of pay and promotion opportunities, better health care management, better recognition of industrial accidents, and an end to racist behaviour at the workplace.
In February 1982, Moubine joined a protest meeting at Citroën’s plant at Aulnay, north of Paris, taking the microphone to address a crowd of some 3,000. Shortly afterwards he was on the picket lines during a strike at the carmaker’s plants of Saint-Ouen, Asnières and Levallois. “I slept several nights there, in front of the factory,” he recalls.
He says his activism led to him being threatened with the sack by his managers. However, he kept his job, although he was never further promoted. He remembers a warning from his father: “’You’ll see’ he told me, ‘the bosses are all the same, in every country’. After a few months, I understood, whether it be in Morocco, France or elsewhere, you must demand things, be militant. You mustn’t stay with your arms folded.”
In 1983, Moubine went to Poissy, west of Paris, to join strikers at the plant of Citroën’s other sister company Peugeot. He recalls hearing managers and members of the company’s own staff union, the CSL, shouting “The Arabs for the oven, the Arabs in the Seine”.
“They blocked us inside a workshop, building number 3 or 5 – I can’t remember now,” he says. “We needed reinforcements from our mates to be let out. That was when there was that well-known declaration by [the then-French Prime Minister] Pierre Mauroy saying that the strikers were led, manipulated, by the Islamists.”
One of the factors in the government’s claims that the strikers were led by Islamists was that, while their demands were centred on pay and working conditions, they also included the demand for the right to a room for prayers.
Moubine, who describes himself as “a non-practicing believer”, rejects the allegations. “There weren’t Islamists in the workshop, that’s false,” he says. “I understood straight away that it was a tactic to divide the workforce and to break the relationship between [the employees of] Renault, Simca and Citroën.”
The demand for prayer rooms was also controversial for some CGT union organizers. “At that time I went regularly to [the union’s headquarters in] Montreuil,” says Moubine. “The secretary for the metal workers was called André Sainjon, he was a socialist. He was well-dressed. I used to call him ‘Mr. Minister’. He, for example, didn’t understand that demand.”