France: where migrant solidarity is criminalised and citizenship rights are being redefined

The difference between a citizen and an activist is a line drawn in sand. Pierre-Alain Mannoni, a 45-year-old university professor from Nice, didn’t intend to become an activist – in fact, he still rejects the tag. But when a simple gesture of kindness towards three migrant women provoked the ire of the French authorities, he found no difference between his duties as a citizen and his role as an activist.

The valley of Roya — a rugged, mountainous region on the French-Italian border – has witnessed an ever-growing humanitarian crisis since June 2015, when French authorities partially closed the border with Italy. In a bid to get to France – where they join friends and family or journey on to other countries like the UK – desperate migrants began making treacherous journeys over the Alps, often arriving in Roya.

Roya’s geographical layout is a disorienting affair for anyone unfamiliar with the area. “The valley starts in Italy and ends in Italy. The part in the middle is French. There is only one road connecting all the parts, and it is a very long and rough mountain road. Migrants try to go from Ventimiglia [in Italy] to Nice [in France] following this road, but if you’re taking this route, it is very easy to get lost, get arrested or find yourself back in Italy,” says Mannoni.

Ventimiglia is the first point of arrival for many migrants and refugees fleeing grisly conditions in African countries, such as Eritrea and Sudan. “I don’t know if you are aware of the situation in Ventimiglia, but it’s absolutely horrific. Children are outside, women and their children, outside. And it’s a human hunt, to try to catch those who try to pass. And now with the signed agreement between Italy and Libya, Italy is giving Libya €200 million, I think, so that people don’t leave in the first place,” says Hubert Jourdain, a rights activist from Nice.

According to Jourdain, migrants and refugees are fleeing horrific conditions, made intolerably worse by closed borders. “Do you know that young women from Eritrea take the pill before they start migrating, in order to pass Libya and Lebanon? I mean the violence is unbelievable!”

The dire circumstances faced by refugees and migrants has inspired many activists to provide them with necessary assistance, which they believe, the state chooses not to.

“I have been actively involved since an international problem became local, says Sophie (not her real name), a member of the Roya Citizens, a local group that provides shelter and assistance to migrants. “So for me, and a lot of people will say the same thing, it all happened very quickly.”

Fear-mongering as a means of distraction

However, after a series of terrorist attacks, French authorities have targeted solidarity action that contravenes official migration policy, often accusing activists of people smuggling.

Rights activists argue that such fear-mongering is a cheap and easy way of dramatising particular issues over others in order to distract people from the real causes of mass uncontrolled, or involuntary, migration.

The state has brought dozens of cases against citizens who have helped migrants, accusing them of human trafficking and other crimes. Most famously, Cédric Herrou, an olive farmer from Roya, who sheltered migrants at his farm, faced a variety of charges in a high-profile case which turned him into a folk hero.

Felix Croft, a 28-year-old humanitarian volunteer, faces hefty fines and a lengthy prison sentence for transporting a pregnant refugee and her family across the Italian-French border. He claims he was trying to take them from Ventimiglia to his home in Vence because there was no space in the church where they attempted to find shelter, but was arrested while driving along the motorway.

Mannoni, a father of two, found himself facing a similar ordeal. Last November, he was having dinner with friends in Roya when he was invited to see an abandoned railway building occupied by activists and NGOs. The overcrowded building had been appropriated as a space to shelter migrants, mainly from Sudan and Eritrea, who had crossed the Italian border.

Mannoni was introduced to three Eritrean girls in need of medical and psychological care, and his friends asked him if he could host them in Nice. Hesitating at first (because he “had work the next day”), he relented when he saw the extent of their injuries. He described them in his testimony as appearing “frightened, frozen stiff and sick, and showing visible wounds.”

The three women had walked an entire night, across mountains, to reach the squat and were physically and mentally exhausted. Trying to set an example for his daughters, Mannoni decided to host them at his home in Nice. They got in his car, but didn’t get very far. Mannoni was put on trial under Article L622-1 of France’s immigration law after being arrested at a highway toll booth an hour after he set off from Roya.

The law states that anyone who “facilitates or attempts to facilitate the illegal entry, movement or residence of a foreigner in France shall be punished by imprisonment for five years and a fine of €30,000.” Many have dubbed it the ‘crime of solidarity’.

However, in a landmark case that ushers good news for dozens of other activists facing similar charges, a court has acquitted Mannoni, ruling that he had acted in accordance with the law to ‘protect the dignity’ of the three Eritrean girls he was transporting.

According to the verdict, which was read out in its entirety by the presiding judge: “In light of these elements taken together, it must be judged that the accused helped these immigrants with the aim of preserving their dignity and providing them with physical security which would maintain their physical integrity.”

However, the prosecutor has said he would be appealing the decision. Although Bruno Le Roux, the French interior minister, says there is no ‘crime of solidarity’ as long as no one profits from helping refugees and migrants, the ministry did not responded to requests from Equal Times for an explanation as to why the prosecution plans on appealing Mannoni’s acquittal.

“Their rights and freedoms are ours”

Not only does Mannoni’s case highlight the legal spins authorities perform to justify disciplinary measures against citizens, it also illuminates the fact that citizenship rights are subject to constant contestation and debate.

Distinguishing the concepts of help and assistance, the prosecutor had argued that help corresponding to imminent danger was a duty, but added that the charges for which Mannoni was accused were in line with more organised assistance, not corresponding to real and imminent danger.

The implication of the prosecution’s argument is that spontaneous and impulsive acts of compassion deserve legal immunity, but organised efforts do not. Moreover, the state perceives ‘freedom of movement’ as a non-transferable right that cannot be extended to non-citizens. In doing so, it seeks to secure and protect its position as the sole distributor of such freedoms and rights in France.

Mannoni and his activist friends believe that this contestation of citizenship rights brings migrants and citizens in a common struggle, whereby the rights of one group can be mapped in relation to the others. According to Jourdain, citizens who practise their rights in a way that contravenes official migration channels are questioning and testing the limits of state power, and thus, the scope of their own freedoms.

“We defend the rights and freedoms [of refugees and migrants]; indeed, their rights and freedoms are ours. This is how we ended up in this political fight – there was no other position to take.”

On 7 May, France will vote to elect a new president. The backdrop of far-right populism in Europe, and across the Atlantic, has made migration the prime focus of presidential debates and campaigns in France. According to Mannoni, government officials boast about the number of ‘illegals’ being returned to Ventimiglia but these numbers “often represent the same people trying to cross the border everyday.”

By doing so, Mannoni argues, officials artificially inflate statistics and feign the efficacy of their own response. “We are told migration is a security issue, but have the deportations stopped the terrorists from doing what they do?”

Research materials used for this piece were translated from French to English by Morgane Tims Mace and Kanwal Eshai.