The northern French port of Calais is facing a double problem: a high concentration of illegal immigrants hoping to make their way across the Channel to Britain and one of the highest levels of unemployment in the country.
Hundreds of the homeless migrants throng the streets around the port, living in makeshift camps and squatting in empty houses in this economically blighted city.
Every day the immigrants, from countries as diverse as Syria and Ethiopia, line up for food handouts from local charities.
But not everyone in Calais is so well-disposed towards them.
And the deaths of three of the migrants in the last month – one drowned, one stabbed and another crushed to death in the back of a lorry – have made their presence in the city a key issue in this weekend’s local elections, an issue France's far-right is keen to exploit.
‘Humanity and firmness’
Calais’ incumbent mayor Natacha Bouchart is loath to discuss the migrants “because I don’t want them to become a central issue of this coming election”.
But speaking at the city’s annual “Soup Festival”, Bouchart defended her record and said her watchwords were “humanity and firmness”.
“We've taken a very humane approach when it comes to migrants, with areas for them to take showers and places where associations can give them food,” she told FRANCE 24. “But at the same time I can't tolerate any squatting in public or private buildings that belong to the people of Calais.”
Bouchart, the member of France’s centre-right UMP party (currently the main party of opposition at the national level), has a fight on her hands.
In the 2012 presidential election, the anti-immigration National Front (FN) leader Marine Le Pen came well ahead of either mainstream candidates – the UMP’s Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist President François Hollande – in local voting.
And in this Sunday’s local elections, the three main parties – the FN, UMP and Hollande’s Socialists – are neck-and-neck. The vote is expected to go to a second round.
‘Hatred, fear and misunderstanding’
FN candidate Françoise Vernalde has no qualms about making Calais’ migrant problem a key part of her campaign.
Distributing leaflets at a marketplace near the port, she told FRANCE 24 that the migrants were a blight on the life of the city, and has placed anti-immigration policies and increased border protection at the heart of her manifesto.
“Workers who get up early in the morning are faced with noise and nuisance,” she said. “These migrants drink alcohol and gather in groups. The workers have to file complaints at the police station.”
In the working class Beau Marais district of Calais, Socialist candidate Yann Capet is as reticent to discuss the migrant problem as the UMP’s Bouchart, preferring instead to focus on the region’s profound economic malaise.
Capet, however, is on record as calling the migrant problem “neither a taboo nor a magnet for extremist politics”.
But he told FRANCE 24 this week that in the run-up to Sunday’s vote, he wanted to concentrate on other issues.
“What people want talk to me about is unemployment, we have one of the worst rates in France,” he said. “They also want to talk about housing and other problems in their daily lives.”
Whether or not the candidates want to discuss the migrant problem openly, it remains a core issue.
Humanitarian group Médecins du Monde says the migrants in Calais, who number upwards of 400, are living in atrocious conditions.
“There is a lack of toilet and drinking water facilities available to them,” the NGO said. “In Calais this provision is well below the norms seen in most countries around the world.”
Date created : 2014-03-19