Cédric Herrou is a 37-year-old French olive farmer convicted in a Nice court yesterday of helping African refugees cross the border from Italy. His olive farm is in a mountain valley bordering Italy near a well-worn route where refugees try to slip past border guards.
Herrou is part of a quasi-clandestine underground railroad of other farmers & townspeople who go scouting for refugees along the border, take them in vans to local farms for food & lodging, provide them shoes & clothing, get them medical care, & help them move on & navigate past border patrol & local snitches who will turn them in to authorities. The snitches are often medical personnel or rail workers prevailed on for help.
The local people who turn refugees in consider Herrou & his fellow underground activists outlaws; others consider him a local hero for unapologetically defying France’s treatment of refugees. Many of the objections expressed by Herrou have to do with witnessing children suffering, endangered, or deported with reckless indifference.
When asked by the judge “Why do you do all this?” Herrou turned the question around & challenged the humanity of French law & authorities who arrested over 36,000 refugees, including many teenagers & children, in the south of France last year & deported them back to Italy. He called it “shameful,” “unlawful,” “ignoble” to endanger refugees or to thwart them in trying to find work & a better life. Providing sanctuary “is an act of humanity, not a crime,” he said & added that his defiance is shared by a network of “thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people who believe in fraternity”.
Herrou elaborated his answer to the judge by saying it was his national duty “as a Frenchman” to aid refugees. Certainly he meant that not in the sense of European supremacy but in the spirit of the great French Revolution against feudalism: “liberté, égalité, fraternité”–what today we call human solidarity. “Either I close my eyes, or I don’t,” he said.
The court let him off with a suspended fine since the less than hard-nosed prosecutor expressed admiration for his work as “noble” even if illegal & asked for the lenient suspended sentence. By letting him off so easy, the court signaled the underground network to proceed without fear of draconian reprisals in the courts.
A large rally of activists from the network were outside the court cheering Herrou as he left. They had hung posters on the courthouse which read: “Crime of Solidarity” and “They are Us.” The trial seems to have emboldened Herrou’s defiance because he told French radio he still has four Eritrean teenagers & one from Sudan living in caravans on his farm.
Full respect to Cédric Herrou & the French underground network. The world needs “thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people who believe in fraternity” just like them.
(Photo by Valery Hache/AFP/Getty Images)