French farmer’s trial puts rebel valley helping migrants in spotlight
The trial of a French farmer accused of helping migrants slip across the border from Italy, which opened in Nice on Wednesday, has drawn attention to residents of an Alpine valley who claim it is their civic duty to help those in need.
Unapologetic about his actions, Herrou says he is merely doing his civic duty by providing food, shelter and other aid to migrants fleeing war and poverty – and making up for the shortcomings of public authorities.
“I don’t mind appearing before a judge, but I want the authorities to do so too,” he told France Info radio hours before appearing in court, accusing the French state of failing in its moral duty to help those in need.
“I prefer to be jailed as a free man than to live closing my eyes and plugging my ears,” Herrou added.
It is a view shared by the hundreds of activists and sympathisers who rallied near the Nice court house on Wednesday, in support of the farmer.
Many of them, like Herrou, hail from the nearby Roya Valley, which has emerged as a sanctuary for migrants from stricken African countries, in defiance of French law and government policy.
The Roya Valley
Nestled in between the craggy summits of the Maritime Alps, the Roya Valley stretches along the border between France and Italy, just north of the Italian frontier town of Ventimiglia and the Riviera’s famed beaches.
Since the French government reintroduced border controls two years ago, in a bid to stem the flow of migrants, thousands have amassed in and around Ventimiglia, waiting for a chance to cross into France.
Non-white travelers are routinely stopped, and pulled from cars or trains if they don’t have the right documents. They are mostly Eritrean, Sudanese or Chadian, many of them children.
With police patrolling road and rail links along the coast, around the clock, the Roya has become an alternative route for those hoping to go undetected.
But it is also a bottleneck. The road going north, away from the coast, eventually leads back into Italy. To move deeper into France, migrants have to head west, climbing above barren ridges, where the few roads are also watched by police.
Challenging the law
For the past two years, Herrou and other local residents have been helping migrants along the way, providing food and shelter, tending to their wounds, teaching them a little French, and offering lifts to nearby towns.
Unlike the dozens of smugglers who have been arrested in the area, Herrou and his accomplices make no profit in return.
But their actions still place them in potential conflict with French law, which bans all assistance to illegal migrants unless it is deemed necessary to protect “their dignity and physical integrity”.
Herrou was arrested a first time last August and swiftly released when a judge ruled that he had acted on humanitarian grounds by helping a group of Eritreans into France.
He was arrested again in mid-October when he decided to open a shelter in a disused holiday camp owned by France’s rail operator, the SNCF, to house some 50 migrants.
This time prosecutors say his actions should be treated as a form of activism, and not as a humanitarian endeavour.
‘Our duty is to disobey’
Herrou, who lives in an old olive grower’s shack, has become a symbol of solidarity towards migrants, and of the Roya Valley’s culture of defiance.
Resident say the area’s spirit of resistance was forged during World War II, when many villagers found refuge across the border once the Nazis had swept into the south of France.
The valley has remained a rare left-wing bastion in a region that leans heavily to the right.
During the last presidential election, in 2012, the Socialist candidate, François Hollande, picked up more than 80 percent of votes in the village of Saorge, a few kilometres up the road from Breil-sur-Roya, where Herrou lives.
Now many say they are disgusted by what they see as the Socialist government’s inhumane response to the migrant crisis.
“There comes a point where our duty is to disobey,” one villager, who sheltered 20 migrants in her house, told French daily Libération in November.
Man of the year
Herrou’s unapologetic stance has made him something of a folk hero, his fame stretching well beyond the valley’s confines.
Last month, he was elected the French Riviera’s personality of the year by readers of Nice Matin, the main regional daily.
At the time, he told the newspaper that “thousands of people shared in the struggle” to help migrants.
“Most people are in favour of opening a shelter for migrants in the area – this is not only the will of a handful of far-left activists,” he said.
But, with the country deeply divided over the rancorous issue of migration, some have described Herrou as an outlaw.
Even as villagers in the Roya Valley offer food and shelter, other French citizens regularly tip off the police to help them round up migrants.
Later this week, a verdict is due in the trial of another local resident who was caught giving a lift to three Eritrean women near Nice, shortly after their arrival from Italy.
The ruling in the researcher's case is expected Friday. Prosecutors have called for a six-month suspended sentence for the 45-year-old university researcher, who lives in Nice.
Last month, a 73-year-old academic was fined 1,500 euros for a similar infringement.
René Dahon, a resident of the Roya Valley, said they would not be intimidated should Herrou also be found guilty.
“When we started helping migrants two years ago, there was just a handful of us,” he said. “When we occupied the abandoned holiday camp, there were fifty of us. If we have to do it again, we will be hundreds.”