Cédric Herrou, a 37-year-old farmer from Breil-sur-Roya, France, was convicted of facilitating the entry of migrants from Italy to France and of having hosted a few dozen of them, both in his house and in an abandoned SNCF (French railway corporation) holiday center.
He was sentenced to a €3,000 fine and probation. The prosecutor had sought eight months’ imprisonment (a suspended sentence and probation). He had appeared before a Nice court on Jan. 4, and on Jan. 18, he was placed in custody for 36 hours.
“I will continue,” Herrou said Friday, relieved about the light sentence. In January, after his arrest, he had declared: “I will remain faithful to my beliefs. My France will continue to defend the rights of men, women and children present on French soil, in the name of the values that anchor the Republic.”
Herrou has become a symbol of welcoming. Several humanitarian associations (from Emmaus to the Secours Catholique, SOS Racisme and the Union Juive pour la paix) have recently signed a manifesto against the “crime of solidarity” he was accused of. Amnesty International said Friday that “there is no right to send migrants back to Italy. There are rules in France and in Europe that oblige the authorities to verify the identity of migrants, and if they are minors, they cannot be expelled.”
Herrou hosted dozens of minors. According to Amnesty, the prosecution’s goal in his case was primarily to dissuade others from doing the same thing in the Roya Valley, which links Italy to France over Ventimiglia. On Saturday, another 25 people were accused of helping migrants.
When Manuel Valls was Minister of the Interior, he had mitigated the so-called crime of solidarity. Since 1995, the Gisti, a legal aid organization for migrants, has been calling for its abolition. A law issued in 2012 had exempted those accused, in the event that their aid “did not give rise to any direct or indirect compensation and consists in providing legal advice or catering services, accommodation or medical care designed to ensure dignified and decent living conditions to the foreigner.” But the statute, Article 622-1, was not abolished because the government needed it to crack down on smugglers, whose business is the misfortune of others.
For the last 20 years, there has been a battle in France against the crime of solidarity. It is a 2005 law, the preamble of the code on entry and residence of foreign nationals, the amendment of an old 1945 order, which in turn had taken over the terms of a 1938 decree, launched under the German occupation (and then confirmed by the Petain regime). The 1938 decree was followed in 1941 by an order of the Prefect of Paris specifically directed at Jews and punished those who hid them without denouncing them.
The law’s burdensome past has emerged in Herrou’s case, and he has become a symbol of ethics against the injustice codified in the law. Gisti stresses, however, that after the attenuation of the crime of solidarity in 2012, for some time people who came to the rescue of migrants “are being pursued on the basis of legal arguments that have nothing to do directly with immigration.” For example, they are judged for obstruction of public order, movement or similar regulations.
The authorities have resorted to various tricks to make life increasingly difficult for migrants. In Paris, during a cold spell last January, police seized the blankets to be distributed among migrants. On Friday in Calais, the mayor ordered barriers put up to prevent access to the showers organized by Secours Catholique (after the dismantling of “The Jungle,” migrants have returned in the hope of going to Great Britain).
Since June 2015, the border with Italy in the Roya Valley is officially closed, with the Schengen suspension. Herrou started to welcome migrants he contacted while wandering along the railway between Ventimiglia and Menton (there have already been seven deaths).
“I crossed into illegality because the state has crossed into illegality,” he said. He noticed that France was not respecting its obligation to protect migrant minors and instead was sending them back to Italy. “Silence makes us complicit,” Herrou said. “I will not be ashamed 20 years from now.”
Herrou is considered a whistleblower, sending up the alert on the conditions of migrants from the Roya Valley.