French researcher acquitted of aiding migrants

A French court on Friday acquitted a man for helping migrants sneak into the country from Italy as immigration issues play a major role ahead of this year's elections.

French researcher acquitted of aiding migrants
Pierre-Alain Mannoni arrives at the Nice Courthouse in November. Photo: Yann Coatsaliou/AFP
“In France today we have the right to save people in distress,” said researcher Pierre-Alain Mannoni, who had faced a six-month suspended jail sentence for aiding Eritrean migrants who came into France from Italy.
The prosecutor said during the trial in November in the southern city of Nice that people had a “duty” to help people, “but not help (illegal immigrants) to stay and circulate” in the country.
The judge ruled Friday that the 45-year-old researcher at French national research centre CNRS had helped three young Eritrean women to “protect their dignity”.
A law in effect since 2012 grants immunity to people smugglers who are not paid and if the lives of their charges are considered in peril.
“You can help people,” Mannoni said after the ruling. “I recommend it, it does a lot of good!”
He is one of three people in the area to appear in court recently for illegally assisting migrants travelling up through Europe after crossing the Mediterranean in rickety boats.
Their cases have pitched the spirit of solidarity against the letter of the law at a time when border controls and migration have become hot political issues.
The right-wing president of the Riviera region, Christian Estrosi, has repeatedly criticised activists who help migrants.
He said on Facebook that Friday's ruling was “an insult to the work of the security forces who put their life in danger to protect ours.”
Estrosi added that some jihadists had been able to enter France after passing themselves off as migrants.
Mannoni was arrested at a toll booth near the southern town of Menton in October with the three Eritreans including a minor that he wanted to lodge. Another activist, farmer Cedric Herrou, appeared in the Nice court on Wednesday facing an eight-month suspended prison term for moving some 50 Eritreans into a disused holiday village owned by the state.
Security forces emptied the camp after three days.
In addition to the suspended sentence, public prosecutor Jean-Michel Pretre called for Herrou's vehicle to be confiscated and for his driving licence to be restricted to driving only for professional use.
Herrou, 37, has become something of a folk hero around the French-Italian border for driving migrants across the frontier, under the noses of the French police, and then putting them up. The verdict in his case is expected on February 10.
In early December an appeals court in Aix-en-Provence upheld a fine of 1,500 euros ($1,580) against a 73-year-old retired professor for helping two Eritreans avoid a police check.
The controversy comes less than four months ahead of the first round of France's presidential elections.
The Socialist government came under harsh criticism for allowing the infamous “Jungle” migrant camp to develop near the northern port of Calais, which the authorities finally closed in October.


How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.