A court in Nice has acquitted a French citizen who attempted to give three Eritrean women shelter at his home. Pierre-Alain Mannoni was stopped by police in October in the French Riviera and was arrested on suspicion of helping the three women, all of whom were deemed as illegal immigrants by French authorities after slipping across the border from Italy. The court ruled that Mannoni had “no other intention than to offer them a night of safety and thereby preserve their dignity” with the court’s president adding that Mannoni “received no compensation whether direct or indirect [for his actions]”. Justice has been done, and this decision will be important for French political discourse.
Unlike in England and the United States, the French legal system is based on civil law and such decisions such as these do not set binding precedents for courts across the country. I mention this because there a number of other court cases coming up concerning individuals that have also helped refugees. A large number of these people live in France’s Roya Valley which local people have since colloquially renamed ‘Rebel Valley’.
One of these upcoming court cases concerns Cédric Herrou who faces up to 5 years in jail and a €30,000 fine for helping migrants enter France and temporarily live there. Other residents of the town have gone on the record saying that they hope that Herrou is found innocent but that they shall keep helping refugees entering France irrespective of the result.
The court cases have been a hot-button issue in France as they have questioned the idea of what a citizen’s civic duty is. Those who support Mannoni and Herrou have argued that helping refugees in need is consistent with the values of the French Republic, namely liberty, equality, an fraternity. The argument is that allowing people to continue suffering for factors beyond their control, such as a civil war or a tyrannical government, abdicates your duty to French civil society. I find this to be a compelling argument.If a person is fleeing a horrific geopolitical situation I do not see a moral argument saying that I shouldn’t help them.
More importantly these court cases keep this issue in the news and change perceptions of refugees in France. By humanising refugees, and those who support them, the divisive rhetoric of people like Marine Le Pen cannot take hold as easily. I don’t know about you but anything that makes it harder for fascists to get elected is a good thing. The way that the French people can respond to people like Le Pen is by fighting them on their own ground.
Everything that comes out of the Front National’s mouth is painted in red, white, and blue and wrapped in the French flag. If everyone in society who is not in the FN can make a coherent argument essentially saying that it is patriotic to help refugees, their message is undermined. Although I’m not a fan of patriotism, because I personally find it an undesirable quality in people, I think that weaponising it to fight fascists is totally justified.
The French discourse around the refugee crisis is currently highly contentious and this will allow for the rise of the Far-Right. If French civil society can decontest the idea of helping refugees, the FN will be placed back outside the realm of respectability. Changing the discourse around refugees is a way of delegitimising Marine Le Pen’s party and this is a positive end result whether you are on the Left or not. The French presidential election is far enough away for a concerted effort to humanise refugees to make a difference. It is now our responsibility to undermine the verbal poison of the Far-Right to prevent a disgusting individual being the next occupant of the Elysees Palace.