From A World To Win News Service
France: Putting the interests of humanity first
March 20, 2017 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us
In one day in June 2016, 1,000 refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea in unsafe dinghys to reach Europe were rescued at sea by Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) and Sea Watch humanitarian groups. Photo: MSF
March 14, 2017. A World to Win News Service. Cédric Herrou, a 37-year-old olive farmer, took on a mission. Driving his van through back roads and villages and along railway tracks in France’s Roya Valley adjoining Italy, he has picked up refugees, often youth and children, who have walked across the border. He is the most prominent among people in and around the city of Nice, some individuals acting on spontaneous moral impulse and others members of loosely organized networks, sometimes acting clandestinely and others in the media spotlight, who have been defying laws prohibiting assistance to people the government deems “illegal.”
For this Herrou has been arrested three times so far. On February 10, after demonstrators in support of him and other “solidarity criminals” in Nice, Paris and elsewhere, Herrou was sentenced to pay a 3,000 euro fine, suspended unless—or until—he is arrested again. While the court turned down the prosecution’s bid to send Herrou to prison this time, it ruled that helping people in immediate danger, which is a legal obligation under French law, is illegal when it comes to some people. On several occasions, armed police have seized immigrant children he has taken in and dumped them on the Italian border. This is a case of illegal child neglect, Herrou argues, but the courts have punished him, not the police and the authorities behind them.
No one, not even the most cold-hearted officials, can deny that the mostly African refugees trapped at the French-Italian border, huddled on the rocks between the highway and the ocean or crammed into camps under police supervision, need help desperately.
They are among the lucky ones who survived the crossing of the Mediterranean, where thousands have drowned. If they were saved from a capsized boat, they more likely owe that to NGOs and civilian vessels and not the European governments who have officially abandoned their search and rescue operations. If they made it to the Italian island of Lampedusa, they may have been brought ashore by fishermen and volunteers. Their determination carried them as they made their way from Eritrea, Sudan, the Gambia and Nigeria and up the Italian Peninsula, but many would not have survived without the help of other human beings, each other, first of all, and other strangers.
At a previous trial, Herrou told a rally of hundreds of supporters, “If we have to break the law to help people, let’s do it. Our role is to help people overcome danger, and the danger is this border.” (January 5, 2017, Guardian)
Previous attempts to set an example had not ended well for the authorities. In late 2015, a woman was hit with a huge fine for transporting people without papers. When she had heard on her car radio that police were blocking Africans from the main Nice train station, she rushed there, invited people to get in her car and drove them to a less-guarded stop. Contributions poured in overnight to pay her fine.
Nor are such people isolated. In a poll held by the local daily, Nice Matin, readers chose Herrou as the French Riviera’s “person of the year.” This is a remarkable counter-current to the prevailing political climate. Nice was one of the first cities to ban Muslim religious garb on its beaches in the wake of a horrendous Islamist terrorist attack last year. The region has long been a stronghold of the right and far right, in a country where the right and “left” parties that have alternately governed are largely competing with the outright fascists in promoting nationalism and anti-immigrant venom. In a response published in that newspaper, the top local official angrily denounced Herrou for “endangering our country”, “insulting police” and “aiding possible terrorists.”
For or against refugees and immigrants? This is becoming one of the most important issues of our time. When some people see a refugee family struggling along the road, in danger of being hit by a car or dying more slowly, they stop and take them further from the border, or home for the night. Others call the police. This is not just an issue along the borders. In Paris, governed by the Socialist party, the authorities have ordered volunteers to stop distributing food to refugees gathering on the streets. They put up barricades so that the tents and sleeping bags donated by NGOs cannot be used to sleep under bridges. A century and a quarter ago the writer Anatole France sarcastically pointed out, “In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges [and] beg in the streets.” That is literally true of capitalist democracy in France today, where the state, whose purpose is to enforce an intolerable status quo, forbids and punishes a morality based on something other than living one’s life in the service of narrow, self and national interests.
Further, the current outrage and many protests against the police beating and rape of Theo, a young black man in a working class suburb of Paris, are not isolated from the state’s campaign to wall off immigrants from countries crushed by today’s world order. They are examples of “French People First,” an ideology and policy that consider certain national origins a problem or even a crime, and seek to redefine and further organize society along ethnic and religious lines. This slogan is openly put forward by the Trump-loving, fascist National Front, but this outlook has been legitimized by all the major parties. Millions of people, no matter where they were born, are deemed a threat to societies that have fattened off a worldwide system of exploitation and oppression.
Now, in the time of Trump, governments and political movements are dropping the thin veneer of the values and morals that they have claimed to stand for and that have generally lulled people whose lives are somewhat comfortable in the countries where the wealth produced by the planet’s people is concentrated. At some point French society could split: for or against the foreigners perceived to be massed at the borders and people in its midst considered less than really “French.”
When people put their personal interests at risk for what they see are the broader interests of justice and humanity, whatever their ideas about the nature of the system they face and the causes and solutions, their refusal to accept one of the greatest injustices of our time is a huge contribution, and not only to those they help. It brings them into conflict with criminal governments that are responsible for this situation and whose solution is to criminalize the victims. It could help build a challenge to the legitimacy of the political and economic order whose interests are in opposition to the interests of humanity.
It is extremely important for more people to be outraged and determined to act right now, and for them to be willing to follow that outrage to its logical conclusion, in their thinking and understanding, so that their actions can become even more sustained and determined as they understand the breadth and depth of the problem and the solution.
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