The Politics of Neutrality: Cimade, Humanitarianism, and State Power in Modern France

In its 2008 annual report on the status of “centers and locations of administrative retention” for undocumented migrants (les sans-papiers) in France, the French Protestant aid organization Cimade accused Brice Hortefeux, the French minister of immigration, of engaging in a dubious and polemical attempt to sanction the organization for its increasingly harsh critiques of the government’s policies and practices toward these populations.1 Between 1984 and 2007, Cimade had been the only nongovernmental organization (NGO) to have access inside the twenty-five centres de rétention administrative (administrative retention centers, or CRAs), locked internment facilities in France and its overseas departments in which the French government holds undocumented migrants, pending their asylum hearings or their deportation. In August 2008, Hortefeux had declared his intention to undo what he called the “monopoly” that Cimade had long held over access to the CRAs by creating a bidding process through which any “moral person” or organization could apply for access to the centers, which were now organized into eight regions, or “lots.” The contracts would henceforth be awarded to one candidate for each “lot” according to an evaluation of the expertise and competence of the candidate. Additionally, each candidate would have to provide evidence of its “discretion” and “engage to respect a strict neutrality in regards to the individual situations it encounters.”2 Despite declaring in an interview with the Protestant periodical Réforme that his intention was not to “whittle down the rights of foreigners within the CRAs,” nor to “put into question the dedication and professionalism of Cimade,” both Cimade and media commentators understood the timing and content of Hortefeux’s “reforms” to be a clear attempt to undermine Cimade’s work in the CRAs, which largely consisted of providing legal and social support to the migrants in the centers.3

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