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‘Fraternity’: France revives one of its most revered mottos

Loic Venance, AFP file picture | The court ruled that French olive farmer Cédric Herrou should not have been prosecuted because he acted on the “principle of fraternity”.

Thousands of French took to social media to express their pride Friday after a top court ruled that a farmer who helped migrants enter France illegally had acted on the “principle of fraternity”, thereby reviving the very essence of France’s motto.


Just moments after Friday’s ruling by the Constitutional Council, the hashtag #fraternité (fraternity) started trending on Twitter, and by early afternoon it had garnered more than 3,000 mentions.

“Thanks to the Constitutional Court which by its decision means that France still remains (but for how long?) the country of human rights,” a Twitter user going by the handle Thierrydu12 wrote.

Paris’s Mayor Anne Hidalgo also took to Twitter to thank the court for “recalling the principle of #fraternity on the issue of receiving refugees and thereby strongly reaffirming the motto of our Republic”.

And green party (EELV) senator Esther Benbassa tweeted: “Fraternity. Against camps, walls, barbed wire and closed doors to migrants. Against persecution at every single moment. Against the criminalisation of solidarity … A fragile but real hope, against the dark wave sweeping over #Europe.”

Up until now, anyone assisting migrants to illegally enter France, or helping them move around once already in France, have faced up to five years in prison and €30,000 in fines.

Laurence Blisson, of France’s second largest magistrate’s trade union Syndicat de la Magistrature, told FRANCE 24 in an emailed response that the French court ruling is unique and could potentially pave the way for a more permissive view towards migrants, at least in France.

“It’s the first time that this principal has been recognised as such by a supreme jurisdiction, that is to say the freedom to help a person, without having to worry about whether he/she is illegally in France. It’s the first time this is being recognised as a constitutional right,” she said.

The freedom to help others

In August last year, French olive farmer Cédric Herrou was fined and handed a four-month suspended prison sentence for helping roughly 200 migrants illegally enter France from Italy, as well as sheltering many of them once they arrived in France.

But according to Friday’s ruling, the principle of fraternity – which along with the values of liberty and equality make up France’s revered, and constitutionally enshrined, motto – should have protected him from prosecution altogether.

“The concept of fraternity confers the freedom to help others, for humanitarian purposes, without consideration for the legality of their stay on national territory,” the court said, calling also on the French parliament to adapt the law to adhere to the principle.

In a phone interview with FRANCE 24 on Friday, Herrou said that: “What’s going to change now is that by acting in a fraternal way by helping people, people will no longer be punishable by law … Regular citizens will no longer have to worry about the legal or illegal status of those they are helping.”

Some were not as happy with the ruling, however. Guillaume Larrive and Eric Ciotti, two lawmakers representing the centre-right Les Républicains party, told Reuters that it contained “major problems".

“This is an ideological victory for those who consider that illegal immigration is legitimate ... and an encouragement for those who think France doesn’t have the right to protect its borders,” said Larrive and Ciotti.

Unique application

The French court ruling comes at a sensitive time for Europe, where the influx of refugees from war-torn countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia have had some EU member states lock horns on how to deal with the growing number of asylum seekers. While countries such as Hungary and Italy have adopted tough anti-immigrant policies, France and Germany are pushing for the bloc to open its doors more.

According to the International Organization for Migrants (IOM), just over 57,000 migrants have entered the European Union since the beginning of this year.

Blisson, of the Syndicat de la Magistrature, said that the French court ruling could spell a brighter future for both migrants and those wanting to help them, adding that the principal of fraternity could now potentially be applied also in other humanitarian legal battles

“Once the principal is recognised, it can of course be used in other situations aside from the issue of migrants," said Blisson. "To prohibit the act of giving humanitarian help to people who are in precarious situations from becoming a criminal offence, but also to force the government to fulfill certain obligations in order for this fraternity to become a reality. It’s a field of opportunities. It is now up to lawyers and activists to think of all the uses it could have.

France’s national motto is thought to have its roots in the French Revolution where it figured in a speech by French revolutionary Maximilien Robespierre. It was not inscribed into the French constitution until in 1958, however, under the Third Republic.

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