The New York Times reports: At times it was hard to know who was on trial, the smuggler or the state.
The defendant, Cédric Herrou, 37, a slightly built olive farmer, did not deny that for months he had illegally spirited dozens of migrants through the remote mountain valley where he lives. He would do it again, he suggested.
Instead, when asked by a judge, “Why do you do all this?” Mr. Herrou turned the tables and questioned the humanity of France’s practice of rounding up and turning back Africans entering illegally from Italy in search of work and a better life. It was “ignoble,” he said.
“There are people dying on the side of the road,” Mr. Herrou replied. “It’s not right. There are children who are not safe. It is enraging to see children, at 2 in the morning, completely dehydrated.
“I am a Frenchman,” Mr. Herrou declared.
The trial, which began on Wednesday, is no ordinary one. It has been substantially covered by the French news media for its rich symbolism and for the way it neatly sums up the ambiguity of France’s policy toward the unceasing flow of migrants into Europe and the quandary they present.
France, foremost among European nations, prides itself on enlightened humanitarianism, fraternity and solidarity. And yet, perhaps first among them, too, it is struggling to reconcile those values with the pressing realities of a smaller, more globalized world, including fear of terrorism.
The contradictions are being played out in courtrooms, in politics and in farmers’ fields, on the sidewalks of Paris and in train stations from the Côte d’Azur to the northern port of Calais, where the government demolished a giant migrant camp in the fall.
On the one hand, politicians in this year’s presidential election are competing to see who can take the toughest line on securing France’s borders. Most are promising a crackdown on migrants, with admission reserved for clear-cut cases of political persecution. Terrorist attacks, including the one last summer in Nice that killed 85 people, have exacerbated anti-migrant sentiment.
But in these remote mountain valleys, where Jews fleeing the Nazis and the Vichy collaborators found refuge during World War II, Mr. Herrou has become something of a folk hero by leading a kind of loosely knit underground railroad to smuggle migrants north, many destined for Britain or Germany. His work has won him admiration for his resistance to the state and his stand that it is simply right to help one’s fellow man, woman or child. [Continue reading…]