PARIS — Niami Dioumassy said she had been asleep when 300 French riot police charged into a Paris church at dawn on Aug. 12 to take 10 hunger strikers to city hospitals for treatment.
"They had guns and were carrying sticks. We thought they might be coming to kill us. The children couldn't stop crying," said Ms. Dioumassy, an immigrant from Mali. "But we just stayed calm, and no one was hurt."
Some 300 illegal immigrants have been sleeping on foam pads along the nave of the Roman Catholic church of St. Bernard de la Chapelle since June 28. This gargoyled edifice in a teeming immigrant neighborhood is their fourth shelter since mounting a public campaign last May to pressure the French government to allow them to stay in France.
On July 4, 10 men began a hunger strike to dramatize their demands, and on Day 39, the police intervened. Hunger-strike experts claim that after Day 40, damage to the health of a hunger striker could become irreversible. Yet on Monday, doctors opted to respect wishes of the strikers, who all returned to the church (without treatment) and vowed to keep up the strike.
While the police spokesmen said their motive in the raid was "humanitarian," strike supporters, including private doctors, said that there was no medical emergency. The move could also have been intended as a signal to other illegal immigrants that France will not yield to pressure tactics.
Commentary in the pro-government daily "Le Figaro" noted that recent expulsions and the move to hospitalize strikers "are unequivocal signals sent to [Africans] who hope to come to France. It will take months, perhaps years, for such adventurers to understand that our country can no longer afford to be so generous."
Immigration is a charged issue throughout Europe, and especially in France, where unemployment topped 12.5 percent this month. Some 3.6 million foreigners live legally in France, and tens of thousands enter illegally each year. Most recent arrivals have come from former French colonies in Africa.
France's conservative government vowed to control the influx and to expel those living here illegally. Interior Minister Jean-Louis Debr says he has sent 7,352 illegals back to their countries of origin since January, an increase of 25 percent over the same period last year.
Illegals in other French cities, such as Toulouse, Nantes, and Lyon, have also protested the government crackdown, but the 10 in the church symbolize the movement.
For French leaders, the stakes are high. The government faces tough legislative elections in 1998 and cannot afford to appear weak on such a volatile public issue. Three out of 4 French in a recent opinion survey say there are too many immigrants in France.
But the human drama being played out in St. Bernard's church is not something the government can afford to ignore.
"It is unthinkable that the government should allow these strikers to die," says Leon Schwartzenberg, a doctor who is regularly cited among the three most respected public figures in French opinion polls. "It should offer them a future by legalizing their status."
"French public opinion has been asleep on this issue, but that will change when they realize that there are mothers and children here," he adds in an interview outside the church.
Inside St. Bernard, small children grasp the hand of a visitor and skip between mattresses and plastic bags of food and clothing chanting, "Man-i-fest! Man-i-fest!" (slang for the French word manifestation or street demonstration). Supporters promise five protest demonstrations in support of the sans papiers (undocumented workers) in the next few days.
"Either they give me papers, or I will die," says Djibilibou Niakate, a hunger striker from Mali. He says he came to France seven years ago as a political refugee. But after three years, his papers were revoked.
In between drinks of sugared water, he listens to French news from his bed in a protected corner of the church. "I want to hear what they are saying about us," he says.
"If I had working papers, I'd try to get a job washing dishes in a restaurant," says Boubacar Tirera, another hunger striker, who had been a farmer in Mali.
A new hunger striker, Mariam Camara, says: "My two [young] children have neither French nor Malian nationality."
The mood in the church is upbeat. The government intervention means, at least, that someone is paying attention, says Baciair Nidaye, a psychiatrist who regularly visits the strikers.
With much of the French press corps and political elite on vacation, a full debate on this issue has yet to be engaged. But neighborhood shopkeeper Said Omar has already made up his mind. "I've been asking myself for 10 years why they let all these illegals stay in France. They have five or more children, and they just cost money," says Mr. Omar, who came to France legally from Algeria 25 years ago.