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French court acquits researcher who helped illegal migrants find shelter

Yann Coatsaliou, AFP | Pierre-Alain Mannoni, 45, arrives at the Nice courthouse for the start of his trial on November 23, 2016.

A Nice court acquitted a Frenchman caught giving a lift to three illegal migrants in the latest case to highlight the actions of citizens in the now famous “rebel valley”, who claim it is their civic duty to help those in need.


Prosecutors had requested a six-month suspended jail term for the 45-year-old university researcher, who was stopped by police in October on the French Riviera, with three Eritrean women in his car.

Pierre-Alain Mannoni had planned to give shelter for the night to the three women, who had recently slipped across the border from Italy, and then help them reach the city of Marseille.

In doing so, he had “no other intention than to offer them a night of safety and thereby preserve their dignity,” the court ruled on Friday.

The court’s president stressed that Mannoni had “received no compensation, whether direct or indirect”, for his actions.

“I am no smuggler,” Mannoni told FRANCE 24 back in November, ahead of his trial. “I never touched any money. I like to help people, that is what matters in life.”

Civic duty

Support for migrants who illegally enter France has emerged as a hot-button topic, with the country deeply divided over the rancorous issue of immigration.

French law bans all assistance to illegal migrants unless it is deemed necessary to protect “their dignity and physical integrity”, thereby allowing the judges room for maneuver.

Mannoni’s acquittal comes a month after a 73-year-old academic was fined 1,500 euros for a similar infringement.

It follows the opening this week in Nice of the trial of a farmer who boasted about helping some 200 migrants slip across the border from Italy.

The Roya, France's rebel valley that shelters migrants

Cédric Herrou, 37, faces up to five years in prison, and 30,000 euros in fines for helping migrants to illegally enter France, and dwell and travel in the country.

Unapologetic about his actions, Herrou has said he is merely doing his civic duty by helping migrants fleeing war and poverty – and making up for the shortcomings of public authorities.

France’s ‘rebel valley’

Herrou’s trial has cast a spotlight on the actions of residents of the Roya Valley, along the Italian border, where Mannoni picked up the three Eritrean women.

Residents of the so-called “rebel valley” have been helping migrants into the country, providing food and shelter, tending to their wounds, and offering lifts to nearby towns.

The farmer was arrested 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.

On Wednesday, hundreds of supporters gathered outside the Nice court house calling for Herrou’s acquittal.

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 told FRANCE 24. “When we occupied the abandoned holiday camp, there were fifty of us. If we have to do it again, we will be hundreds.”

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