‘Gilets Noir:’ The New Black Power in Europe

By Lee Jasper | Guest Columnist | Last updated: Aug 29, 2019 - 4:00:10 PM

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There is a new powerful Black movement emerging in France. That former imperial bastion of liberty, equality, and fraternity has seen the reawakening of the spirit of 18th century Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint L’Ouverture. Brilliantly immortalized in the book of the late great Trinidadian author, academic and activist C.L.R. James, “The Black Jacobins,” it was Toussaint who organized and led enslaved Africans in Haiti, during their fight for freedom during the height of 18th-century Napoleonic French imperialism.

Although the French revolution occurred in 1789 with the publication of the “Rights of Man”, as with most modern-day declarations of the principle of universal human rights, it would apply exclusively to Whites only, not those kept in bondage on French plantations.

French socialism and liberty, much like international human rights conventions were then and remains now a strictly reserved area of White privilege.

This new radical and emerging movement of undocumented migrants in France, “Gilets Noir” or the “Black Vests,” as they are also known, is the natural successor to the earlier Sans Papier Movement and has been inspired of late by the Yellow Jacket, Gilets Jaunes movement. This new movement is dedicated to regularizing those African migrants without papers and challenging the appalling condition of their pay and working conditions, being brutally exploited by French employers, using their “illegal” status as leverage to enforce low pay and horrendous conditions.

You can see these Africans all over Europe on any given morning, between the hours of 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. or way past midnight. They’re the office cleaners, Uber and Deliveroo drivers, working on construction sites, some are restaurant workers, security staff and the like, all making their way to work for European capitalists, happy to exploit the for-profit, and simultaneously funding the extreme right-wing, right across Europe.

One of their first and most high profile actions—undertaken by Gilets Noir in May of this year—saw the mass occupation of Charles de Gaulle airport, where they demanded to meet French President Macron “the official deporter of the French state.” They stood firm in the face of being teargassed by the French police. They refused to move and then demanded to meet with senior representatives of the French airline demanding that they “stop any financial logistical or political participation in deportations.”

They also recently occupied multinational company Elior who they accuse of brutally exploiting African migrants and refusing to facilitate their pathway to legal citizenship in France. They were also demanding that the company cease providing cleaning, catering and laundry services to French detention centers. They occupied the company’s headquarters in what they described as the heart of imperialism, the Paris business district.

On July 12 this year they organized a hugely successful mass occupation of the Pantheon of Paris, the revered state mausoleum of Napoleon. They held the space for several hours in protest and were then subjected to an all-out attack, brutally beaten by the French Gendarmes. Most in the United Kingdom are not even aware that less than an hour away from London, Africans were subjected to a mass beating by the French police. Such as our own Anglophile prejudice, we know more about what happened to A$AP Rocky in Sweden. Sigh ...

On the 21st of July, Gilets Noir called a general assembly, attended by over 1,000 people, where they began to strategize the continuation of their struggle for equality and justice. This was followed by a mass rally at the Place de le Sorbonne.

It will be interesting to see how the French Left, sections of who can be ambivalent in the fight against racism, respond to the attacks on Gilets Noir. In any event, what we see in France, I think could represent a very historic turning point.

The Black leadership of Europe has historically been seen as being in Britain. I think that mantle has now passed to France. British Blacks have simply lost their revolutionary spirit of freedom as can be witnessed by the massive contrast between Africans in France demonstrating against racist immigration policies and the largely tepid response of British Black community to the Windrush Scandal, detention centers, and deportations.

The Black French, from Toussaint to Franz Fanon, have a fine tradition of revolutionaries opposing French imperialism. That resistance can be traced all the way back to the French Imperial Colony and sugar plantation of 18th-century Haiti.

Despite all the acclaimed glories of the French Revolution, enslaved Africans on 18th century French plantations remained in bondage under the auspices of the revolutionary leadership of the French Revolution. This monumental betrayal was critical in providing the catalyst for African revolution on both French and other plantations, right across the enslaved world.

The progressive principles of the French revolution did not apply to enslaved Africans.

The glorious leaders of the French revolution, failed the first test of any genuine revolutionary movement: Freedom and liberty for all. It was, in many ways, the historical beginning of the long history of European White Left hypocrisy on racism.

And even today, we see the continued betrayal of Black communities in Europe, by European progressive Left movements whose tokenistic antiracism and cosmetic commitment to defeating racial inequality, xenophobia, and bigotry was back in the day and remains today, a cheap commodity easily traded off for short term electoral gain. Like the ultimate French betrayal of all enslaved Africans, that saw a cheap deal between the inordinate White privilege of the European labor aristocracy, in a tawdry effort to gain power and secure the votes of their respective domestic, racists and xenophobes.

Here in Britain too, we’ve seen, in recent times, popular Left support for Brexit result in racism on the British Left that has remarkably seen the likes of Nigel Farage and Georg Galloway singing from the same hymn sheet on Brexit. Given my own past association with George, I find this a horrific, grotesque and inexplicable anomaly.

I suppose for the purposes of clarity and balance I should declare my own prejudice and state categorically that I believe that Brexit is a project of the extreme right-wing that is seeking to fundamentally reshape British society, and more importantly the economy, into a low paid, tax avoidance, xenophobic hellhole. My own assessment is that racism and fascism will be exponentially amplified as a consequence of the disastrous consequences of Brexit, and as we all know, when the European middle-class feels the pinch, it’s Black people who feel the punch.

The complicity of the British left with racism has plenty of receipts too.

Students of politics will recall the historic alliance of Tony Benn and Enoch Powell in the last EU referendum in 1973. It’s a dangerous trend with profound historical precedents. “British jobs for British workers” is a popular refrain among the Left, some of whom have become entranced by the fiction of securing socialism in one country.

Meanwhile, as British austerity rips through British Black communities like a Force 10 hurricane, we see a trade union and Labour movement that appears largely content with the disproportionate effects of austerity, that have seen British Black workers disproportionately made redundant, disciplined and sacked, and whole communities suffer the degradation of massive surges of cuts to services, increased poverty, and sky-high unemployment.

Nationally, we have 55 percent Black youth unemployed currently. That is a higher unemployment rate than for Palestinian youth in the West Bank Gaza. It’s higher than the youth unemployment rate of Greece and Italy, both of whose economies are in the toilet. Where is the British Left voice on this? Praying for a Brexit that will see Black youth unemployment, poverty and racism become deeply entrenched and culturally endemic.

Some British Blacks are blithely approaching Brexit as if nothing will change. It’s a fact that we endure wholesale discrimination within criminal justice and policing, and austerity has massively amplified racism and racial inequality across the board, and just like the original French revolutionaries, the British trade union movement, with some notable exceptions like the PCS Union, have mostly failed to defend Black communities from the most vicious and sustained period of Torystate-backed racism we’ve ever faced throughout Britain’s entire post-war period.

The Left has failed us and failed to stop the increases in race hate. They’ve failed to check Nigel Farage, and failed Black workers and communities under attack. We now face resurgent racism that is raging out of control with no apparent credible response from the left, other than the usual, tired arse, left tropes of cosmetic antiracism and anti-fascism.

Intrinsic to this failure is the lack of genuine and authentic Black leadership within the antiracist and labor movement. As such, British anti-racism remains the prisoner of the trade union bureaucracy and Bennites. It’s that simple, instead of confronting state racism, weak trade unions prefer these wonderfully choreographed, set-piece anti-fascist, punch-ups with the old enemy. It’s a pantomime style of anti-racism.

For the British Left, it’s so much easier to prioritize chasing Tommy Robinson around the country than it is to confront the state racism of institutional discrimination within policing and criminal justice. Windrush, police racism, criminalization of Black communities, racist attacks on the rise, disproportionate redundancies for Black workers, deportations, exclusions from school, profound racial inequalities in rates of health, are just some of the issues that remain largely untouched by the British Left.

When European economies decline, racism and fascism always rise. Today we see European economies stalling in the headwinds of globalization, creeping along with growth rates between one percent and three percent. Most see rapidly declining birth rates, whilst Western nations have seen their percentage of global GDP continually falling against the backdrop of the economic and political rise of China, India, and Africa, they see and understand their inevitable future.

Their response is the perennial cultural European cultural default setting in extremis.

In times of acute economic crisis: racism divides the working classes, so as to leave the wealthy untouched. The poverty of natural resources, combined with falling birth rates in Europe, leaves them with their go-to option, of seeking to forcibly appropriate, through war and domination or use the International Monetary Fund mechanisms to forcibly access other nations’ wealth and resources. Any cursory examination of the second Cold War currently developing on the African continent provides ample evidence of the new scramble for Africa.

Toussaint was enslaved until the age of 33 and went on to lead the first African revolutionary liberation of a former colonial plantation anywhere in the world. Not only did he defeat the French Napoleonic army, securing freedom for the former slaves, but he also inspired the enslaved African Diaspora to rise up in glorious bloody rebellion.

One of the least discussed aspects of Britain leaving the European Union is the breakup of relations between Black people here in Britain and those resident in the rest of Europe.

In many ways over the last 50 years, Black European communities have long sought to emulate and admired the work of British activists, particular in securing legislative protection against race discrimination and the pioneering antiracist work of British Black communities demanding justice. Throughout the 1990s we were the leading voices in convincing the European Union to strengthen and enhance race equality legislation as part of Europe’s fundamental human rights framework.

We worked hard to secure that victory and it was really based on the precedent set here in the United Kingdom that forced the rest of Europe to fall in line with our collective demands for the enshrined legal protection of Black European citizens.

We have marched with our brothers and sisters in Paris in solidarity against both Le Pen’s and the far right. We have supported and stood with African migrants in Italy, and were outraged as we witnessed the macabre recreation of the dreaded “Middle Passage,” of transatlantic slave trade crossing, that saw thousands of Africans being exploited and left to drown in the Mediterranean Sea, in an attempt to escape Arab enslavement in Libya, war and poverty.

The movement in the United Kingdom led by organizations like Black Activists Against The Cuts, worked hard to bring supplies to the African refugees of Calais and the Society of Black Lawyers organized Black British delegations to Italy to assess and support efforts to rescue and resettle refugees.

Today, all over the Western world we see the rise of racism and xenophobia and in Europe and America, that trend is particularly accentuated.

What we see is the relentless rise of the extreme right-wing, culminating in violent infringements of Black people’s rights, such as the Windrush scandal and the continuing saga of the criminalization of Black communities, through a criminal justice system that is immersed in a culture of institutionalized racism, producing disproportionate outcomes for Black people at every turn.

In many ways we are third-class citizens, living in a supposed “first-class democracy.”

Whether it is the glorious French Revolution or the perfect meritocracy of Britain, as Black people in Europe we need to consolidate and prepare for the impending social and economic crisis that will hit the economies of Britain and Europe, and the subsequent social chaos that will disproportionately and overwhelmingly hit the poorest. We must prepare for a massive upsurge in racism and fascism, the likes of which we have not seen in our lifetime.

In the age of Trump, I salute our French African brothers and sisters reviving the revolutionary spirit of Toussaint L’Ouverture. The days when Black British activists were considered the leaders of race equality, freedom and antiracism across Europe, much like Britain itself is a faded glory, and as we contemplate the implications of Brexit for Britain and Europe, European Black leadership and unity will be absolutely critical to surviving and ultimately defeating the rise of the extreme right in Europe, and White supremacy across the globe.

I salute the radical leadership of Gilets Noir.

In September I will be organizing a London public meeting with Gilets Noir to begin discussing joint strategies, solidarity and how we can tighten the relationship between Africans in France and in Europe.

It’s time to break out the Brexit cabal and forge a Black European Power Network.

Lee Jasper, a UK-based human rights anti-racist activist, is former co-chair of BARAC UK, No a Blaksox sponsor, a founding member of Operation Black Vote and co-chair of Momentum Black Connexions London. The article originally appeared on