As migrants from Calais 'Jungle' move to new homes, grumbling against resettlement grows in France

Migrants wait outside a reception centre to be registered.
Migrants wait outside a reception centre to be registered.PHOTO: NYT

CROISILLES, France (NYTIMES) - The protests began even before the migrants had arrived.

"We don't want them!" shouted the demonstrators in this village of 1,900 people, 128km from Calais, where the migrants were bused from a camp known as the Jungle on Monday (Oct 24).

"This is our home!" others yelled at the darkened, disused retirement home where the migrants were being housed. Inside the building, a young Sudanese man pressed his face to the window and looked out at the angry crowd, bemused.

All over France, tiny communities like this one, in the old battlefields of the country's north, are being forced to deal first-hand with Europe's migrant crisis.

It has not been easy. The effort to relocate many of the 6,000 or more people who had made the Jungle their home has thrust France's divided view of the migrants into plain view.

On Tuesday (Oct 25), officials began breaking down the Jungle in earnest. Cleaning crews wearing fluorescent orange vests and white hard hats arrived with small bulldozers. They worked their way inward, throwing dirty blankets and mattresses, discarded furniture and tarps into a large container for trash.

It was the second day of a long-awaited operation to clear out the Jungle and bus hundreds of migrants to temporary housing around the country. The authorities said some 4,000 migrants, including 772 minors, had been "sheltered" so far.

Not all of the residents in this village were unwelcoming when the 30 or so migrants arrived on Monday evening. Inside the retirement home, there were smiles from volunteers who had come to greet the young Sudanese men.

But outside on the sidewalk, the mood was grim. "No migrants in Croisilles!" read a banner that more than 100 people - men, women and children - milled around. A half-dozen police officers, incongruous in the quiet country town, stood warily by.

"We're not racist!" yelled a man who told the crowd he was a member of the far-right National Front. "We're here to support French identity."

As the demonstration moved to the steps of the city hall, several in the crowd murmured about the potential for rapists and pickpockets among the new arrivals.

"We're against putting migrants all over France," the demonstrator from the National Front yelled to cheers. "It's a time bomb!"

Inside the retirement home, a beaming volunteer sat at a table crowded with migrants.

"We have to come see them regularly, to make sure they eat well," the volunteer said, advising the migrants not to leave the premises for now.

Similar scenes have played out all over France as the government disperses the migrants to more than 450 temporary housing sites in villages, towns and suburbs, from tiny mountain communities to the outskirts of bustling cities like Lyon.

The fix is strictly temporary: The migrants will stay three to six months while they put together asylum applications. Some of these applications will be rejected.

Some places have gritted their collective teeth and accepted the migrants without fuss. Others have haggled over the number and demanded that it be reduced, as in Saint-Bauzille-de-Putois, in the Cévennes mountain range.

In other places, residents, anticipating the migrants' arrival, have hurled stones at the housing sites or set them on fire, as in Loubeyrat, in the Puy-de-Dôme department.

In Pierrefeu-du-Var, in the south, pro- and anti-migrant groups have held duelling demonstrations.

France was a deeply reluctant participant in the German-inspired plan to parcel out the migrant flow all over Europe. But it has been forced to deal with the crisis nonetheless, as a thin trickle of migrants continue to make its way into the country, mostly from Italy.

With the breakup of the Calais camp, the rest of France has woken up to the fact that it, too, must choose sides.

The divisions have been starkly evident this week in this plain-vanilla brick village, once an agricultural centre. It was levelled by the Germans in World War I, then rebuilt, and is now largely a bedroom community for the nearby regional capital, Arras.

The Socialist mayor of Croisilles, Mr Gérard Dué, calmly welcomed the migrants on Monday as the demonstrators yelled outside.

"'Liberty, Equality, Fraternity' is inscribed on the front of every city hall," he said in an interview in his office. "That's what the Republic is all about."

Those opposed to the migrants, he said, were "5 per cent, at most" of his town. Yet he also recounted his astonishment that 250 people had turned out against the migrants at a City Council meeting. The demonstrators threw eggs at his house one recent Saturday.

Yet he said he was not afraid of the political consequences of his decision to welcome the migrants. "The Republic asks you to do something, and so you should do it," he said.

But it has been hard. "It's been hell here," said Ms Raphaëlle Maggiotto, a City Council member and an ally of the mayor. She had not slept in days. "Demonstrations every day. They came to my home. They yelled my name."

On Tuesday morning, the central square, with its monument to the World War I dead and its 1920s Art Deco city hall, was calm after the previous evening's noisy demonstration.

"The village is divided," said Mr Sebastien Okoniewski, who runs the cafe in the square.

All around him, his customers grumbled about the new arrivals, but his own name testified to the immigration - a Polish influx in the early 20th century, along with Italians and Portuguese - that has shaped their region.

"They arrived from the Jungle in white trousers! Not a scratch on them," said Mr Christian Saillot, settling down to a half-pint of lager. "And they weren't even searched," he added angrily.

"They don't have the same mentality as us," said Mr Alain Debas, a retired sailor.

None of Mr Okoniewski's customers expressed support for the migrants on Tuesday morning.

"There is hatred in Croisilles," said a volunteer at the retirement home, Mr Guislane Poutrain. "I've never seen this before. I don't recognise Croisilles anymore. I'm really disappointed."

Inside the retirement home, however, the new arrivals were all smiles - something rarely seen in the Jungle.

Their new home was clean, warm and well-lit. They were far from the Jungle's cold, filth, misery and hunger, and they were happy.

"Everybody here welcomed us," said Mr Abdullah Ahmed, a 24-year-old from Sudan's Darfur region, just after arriving on Monday evening. "We have a bed to sleep in here. There are showers here."