Three days after a Malian migrant was acclaimed as a hero for his daring rescue of a child in Paris, three foreign activists went on trial on Thursday in southern France on charges for helping migrants enter the country.
The case of the activists has sparked protests and seen President Emmanuel Macron — who lavished praise and a promise of French citizenship on an undocumented migrant who saved a four-year-old boy in a high-rise rescue — accused of inconsistency.
It is the latest in a series of trials involving activists trying to help migrants on the move through Europe as France prepares a new immigration law that would speed up deportations of failed asylum-seekers.
Two students, Eleonora Laterza, 27, from Italy and Swiss Bastian Stauffer, 26, along with Theo Buckmaster, a 23-year-old Swiss-Belgian, were detained in April for joining a march of 100 activists escorting some 20 migrants over an Alpine pass.
They were responding to a blockade set up at a nearby mountain pass by several dozen far-right activists from Generation Identitaire (Identity Generation), seeking to keep the migrants out.
If convicted on charges of assisting illicit entry into the country as part of an “organised gang,” the campaigners could face up to 10 years in prison, a fine of up to 750,000 euros ($880,000) and be banned from entering France.
The trial was adjourned on Thursday until November 8 to allow the Constitutional Court time to issue a ruling sought by the defence on whether aid to illegal immigrants should be considered a criminal offence.
Earlier this week, around 120 leading French figures in education, science and politics signed an open letter in Le Monde newspaper supporting the activists, accusing prosecutors of flouting France’s constitutional promise of fraternity and equality for all.
As the hearing opened, several dozen protesters gathered outside the courthouse in the southeastern city of Gap to stage a “reverse trial” against the government.
Inside, one of the activists’ lawyers, Henri Leclerc, slammed the law banning assistance to illegal migrants as a violation of French values.
Pensioner in the Dock
The proceeding comes a day after a 73-year-old Amnesty International volunteer appeared in court in the southern city of Nice on charges of helping two underage Africans illegally enter the country. A ruling in her case is expected on July 13.
At least 12 other activists have been fined or given suspended jail terms since 2015 for helping African migrants arriving from Italy after crossing the Mediterranean from Africa.
One of the most high-profile cases was that of olive farmer Cedric Herrou, who was given a four-month suspended sentence in August for helping migrants cross the border near his land.
Herrou has become something of a folk hero for continuing to assist migrants on his farm on the French-Italian border, despite being repeatedly hauled before the courts.
Faced with the outcry over his sentencing French MPs in April voted to soften the law criminalising acts of solidarity, exempting those who provide migrants with free food, shelter, medical care or legal advice.
But helping migrants illegally cross the border remains a crime.
Activists have highlighted the discrepancy in the treatment of Mamoudou Gassama, the 22-year Malian “Spiderman” honoured this week for his daring rescue, and the Alps activists.
“Acts of solidarity should be promoted, not punished,” Amnesty International’s senior campaigner on migration, Maria Serrano, said.
Tougher Law Coming
The French government argues that tighter controls are needed to check the rise of anti-immigration populists who claim Europe has allowed in too many people seeking a better life.
Polls show the French generally supporting tighter controls.
The bill adopted by the National Assembly in April cuts waiting times for asylum applications — reducing it from 12 to six months — while facilitating the deportation of “economic” migrants whose applications to stay have been rejected.
It has yet to be put to a vote in the upper house Senate.