Every day, migrants cross the border from Italy to France. Minors and asylum seekers have the right to be supported. But the fact is that they are instead regularly taken back to Italy for breaking French law.
But resistance has been on the rise. In the Roya valley, a French enclave surrounded by Italy, the farmer Cédric Herrou started to offer migrants a place to rest, as well as food and protection. He also offered them long-term assistance, such as helping them with filling out their asylum request – all this in the name of human rights. Helping people in distress seems to him as the most fundamental human act, but today his gestures have become criminal acts – even if he is able to quote written French law.
But Herrou is not the only one trying to help out. Other farmers have opened their doors and lands to these foreigners, confronting the political apathy that has transformed injustice into normality. The renaissance of possibly the most important invention in French political history was repressed – the Citoyennité – the concept of a self-confident, informed citizen, who actively takes part in defending the rights of others, especially those who have been disenfranchised.
To protect asylum seekers, small children, youngsters without parents, and invalids, are evident duties. The usual transfer back to Italy would only have reinforced their fragility and provoked further risks. To recognise a problem and to act, not to wait for state assistance or reaction, is the – potentially anarchic – mainspring of the citoyen: to provoke not illegality, but autarchy. It is a positive form of disobedience, necessary when rights get violated – a self-responsibility referring to the principal virtues of the French revolution: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.
Convicted by the court, supported by the public
Herrou was tried and sentenced by the courts, a risk which did not frighten him. Meanwhile, his actions made their way into the media. He was not without support. In Libre (Free))/To the Four Winds, the documentary filmmaker Michel Toesca follows Herrou in his everyday life for three years, which did not leave him much time for farming. The pressure of events needed no script.
We see Herrou in a TV discussion with Prime Minister Manuel Valls, or declaring to the Prosecutor of the Republic and the police prefect, that the violent and incompetent actions of state officials don’t give him and his activists any choice but to resist.
«What is presented in Libre is only a case study of what happens at numerous European borders.»
Toesca filmed without equipment or crew, just improvising with a handheld camera and sometimes in conflict situations with his cell phone only. Before starting his film in 2015, he already lived in the Roya valley and had met Herrou as early as 2000. Soon after, they became friends. The shooting of the film and activist participation became inseparable. Festivities, outbreaks of joy, and contemplative moments in this insecure life also slipped into his film, screened out of competition at Cannes. The central motive remained the same: the unbroken will to protect.
In the neighbouring Italian town of Vintimille, faced with the ongoing waves of migrants, the local government in 2015 prohibited the distribution of food to the exhausted. Improvised campgrounds got wiped away. On the French side, a group founded the Defence of World Citizens, while Médecins du Monde also helped out.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Adam Nossiter from the New York Times presented Herrou as the main figure of a feature article. With such media coverage, the farmer was even able to force the prime minister into taking a position. But in no way did all of this change the ongoing and illegal deportations.
It just satisfied the ‘public interest’ which, as we know from experience, does not last very long. The judicial threat to aiding illegal immigration and potential terrorism was maintained. The population had also become divided.
As Herrou’s own land already accommodated more than 80 people and was getting too small, an empty state building was occupied. It took only three days before it was evacuated by 200 police officers. Herrou was imprisoned for the third time. With €3000 paid to bail him out of jail, he was free again.
A crime to save lives?
But during April 2017 a positive change seemed to happen. The prefect and the local police were convicted by the Administrative Court for the serious offence of failing to attribute asylum rights. The minor consequence was that the prefecture allowed Herrou to henceforth bring ten asylum seekers per day from Roya to Nice. All other acts of assistance still risked judicial punishment. It seems that even the French courts are not able to enforce French law and rights.
Herrou and his companions decided to proceed with a three-day march from Roya to Nice with one hundred migrants. But shortly thereafter his land was surrounded by military and police. Meanwhile, the entire overcrowded valley was under permanent surveillance. Again, France demonstrated its contradictory law and sentenced the marchers to imprisonment.
Massive police checks led the migrants to change their routes and to pass through other valleys. Some of them remained on Herrou’s land and tried to be helpful. They wanted to start a new life there. Herrou founded a new association with the aim of building social and economic projects for the emigrated. Regular debates with specialists, politicians, lawyers, and celebrities were part of this activity.
In the Roya valley, we can find the European paradox of legally instituted injustice in its crystalline form. For decades, the western world has profited from under-development and contracted with dictatorial systems to further its interests. As those tyrannies have finally been dissolved, it has become common practice among the established world powers not to help these shattered countries to achieve sovereignty, but to profit again by delivering weapons to the different military camps, which only highlights the disaster.
Hundreds of thousands of victims of these destroyed territories are now standing before the borders of the profiteers, who again prefer to risk the death of the abandoned rather than organising a modus vivendi to protect life. Of course, the concept that the country of migrants’ first registration will be the one which is and remains responsible was born to fail. It only further strains the extremely disproportionate burdens among some European partners. What is presented in Libre is only a case study of what happens at numerous European borders.
Recently, the perversion of ethics was pushed to its cynical climax with the captain of the ‘Lifeline’ accused of saving lives at sea, instead of simply informing the coast guard of a shipwreck and moving away. Even lifesaving has been criminalized. Observer flights, which could potentially discover ships in danger and assist with rescue, have also been ended. Why continue to observe a self-provoked disaster? In this way, Europe is writing its own will as a moral authority and defender of virtue. The only thing left is the answer by the citoyen.