Frenchman avoids jail for sheltering migrants

Mr Herrou leaving the courthouse in Nice after his trial on Jan 4. He was tried for "helping undocumented foreigners enter, move about and reside" in France.
Mr Herrou leaving the courthouse in Nice after his trial on Jan 4. He was tried for "helping undocumented foreigners enter, move about and reside" in France.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Farmer given suspended fine for doing what he says is being true to French values

BREIL-SUR-ROYA (France) • The house, if you can call it that, is nearly impossible to find. Unless you happen to be a migrant - then you probably know the place. And, by word of mouth, its owner.

A self-described "extreme leftist", Mr Cedric Herrou - once an auto mechanic, then a steeplejack - is now technically an olive farmer, living out of a crumbling, 19th-century cottage in the middle of nowhere, on a rocky incline high above a riverbed. But Mr Herrou's focus is no longer the picholines that grow on his trees. These days, what matters are the migrants.

For the past two years, Mr Herrou, 37, has continually defied French authorities by shepherding undocumented migrants across the Italian border and onto his hillside farm. As many as 60, he says, have stayed on his land at one time, some after knocking on his door in the dead of night. Mr Herrou has been on trial accused of "helping undocumented foreigners enter, move about and reside" in France.

Yesterday, the court delivered its verdict: he was given a suspended fine of €3,000 (S$4,500), far lighter than the eight-month prison term that prosecutors had requested.

As France struggles to navigate the tidal wave of migration that has crashed onto European shores in recent years, the case of this obscure mechanic-turned-farmer has electrified a nation that has remained comparatively inhospitable to refugees.

At its core is an uncomfortable question about the moral obligations of French citizenship.

In times like these, does being French mean following the letter of the law, which indeed prohibits undocumented foreigners? Or does it mean upholding the lofty, humanitarian values of the French republic in spite of its laws?

NOT ABOUT MONEY

Everyone should go out in the streets and try to solve whatever problems they see.

MR CEDRIC HERROU, on helping migrants not for material benefit.

Mr Herrou - and the thousands who have rallied to his defence across the country - insist on the latter. As was widely reported in French media during his trial last month, he responded to a judge who asked him why he had helped migrants across the border with a simple phrase: "I am a Frenchman."

"There's much to criticise about it today, but France is a country with values that are beautiful - the rights of man, the protection of children, and the social welfare we have," he said in an interview on Wednesday at his cottage, where he makes meals for migrants from his alfresco kitchen. "All of which we are in the process of losing."

He was brandishing a sizzling skillet in front of the last of the migrants staying on his land: Mohamed, 19, from Sudan, who made his way into Libya and across the central Mediterranean to Lampedusa and then onto the Italian mainland. He found Mohamed wandering in the valley earlier in the week and had quickly taken him in.

Mr Herrou scoffed at the notion that many now consider him a hero. "I'm not doing this for the money or the material benefit.

"Everyone should go out in the streets and try to solve whatever problems they see. That's what democracy is. It's not staying at home and sharing things on Facebook. It's positioning ourselves to live better together."

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 11, 2017, with the headline 'Frenchman avoids jail for sheltering migrants'. Print Edition | Subscribe