French and British volunteers arrested for giving food to migrants in Italy

A British and two French volunteers were arrested in Italy while distributing food to migrants which is banned in the town of Ventimiglia near the border with France, their association and police said on Thursday.

French and British volunteers arrested for giving food to migrants in Italy
A French volunteer distributing food to migrants in Ventimiglia in 2016. Photo: Marco Bertorello/AFP

The three voluntary workers were charged with violating a city order.

“We were about ten people but they took the two drivers of the vehicles which had the food and Simon, a Briton who had forgotten his passport,” said one of them, Gerard Bonnet, 64.

“They took our fingerprints, a photo and released us,” he said.

Police in Ventimiglia, which has become a migrant bottleneck, told AFP the three had been arrested late on Monday for distributing food to the migrants, an offence which could lead to a fine of up 206 euros ($222). There is also a rarely used, three-month jail sentence available.

Map showing the location of Ventimiglia, which lies close to the French-Italian border.

“This activity has been banned by a decree from the mayor of Ventimiglia,” police said.

The mayor instituted the ban on distributing food to migrants in the summer of 2015 when their arrivals, at first sporadic, began to block the train station, according to city hall.

It insisted that the mayor had taken that action for sanitary reasons.

“He didn't take the decision lightly. The unregulated distribution of food poses problems,” city officials who declined to be named told AFP.

They pointed out that migrants can find assistance at a Red Cross camp outside the town and also from the Catholic charity Caritas.

The arrested volunteers were with the Roya Citoyenne (citizen) rights group in the Roya valley on the French-Italian border.

On the night of the arrests the group distributed 160 food bags including, apples and cans of tuna as well as some clothing for the migrants.

Since 2015 Europe has seen its worst migration crisis since World War II with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa.

Ventimiglia has seen protests by migrants, many of whom hope to travel through France to northern Europe, where they may have friends and relatives or think they would have better job prospects.

There have also been clashes between police and activists, leading to the death of one police officer in August 2016.

The crisis has also seen several people arrested for people-smuggling between Italy and France, some claiming they were acting for humanitarian purposes and others charging migrants exorbitant fees.


French ex-minister convicted in fake jobs scam

A French court on Thursday found former justice minister Michel Mercier guilty of embezzlement in a fake jobs scheme he ran for the benefit of family members.

French ex-minister convicted in fake jobs scam

Mercier, 75, who served under former president Nicolas Sarkozy between 2010 and 2012, claimed tens of thousands of euros for his wife and daughter for parliamentary jobs  they never carried out.

The court handed him a suspended prison sentence of three years.

Mercier gave “personal gain precedence over the public good”, the court said in its verdict, calling Mercier’s actions “serious”.

As senator, Mercier claimed 50,000 euros ($54,000 at today’s rate) in salary for his wife Joelle between 2005 and 2009, and  €37,000 for his daughter Delphine between 2012 and 2014.

During that time, Delphine Mercier was living in London and did not set foot in the French Senate, but her father claimed she was acting as his “cultural advisor”.

Neither Mercier nor his daughter were able to provide any proof of actual work done.

Joelle Mercier, meanwhile, claimed during the trial that she had served as her husband’s representative at village fairs and funerals.

She was found guilty of conspiracy to embezzle public funds and of receiving stolen money and sentenced to a suspended prison term of 18 months and a €40,000 fine.

The court handed the daughter a 12-month suspended sentence and a fine of €10,000.

Prosecutors had asked for the ex-minister to serve one year behind bars, accusing him of “creating smoke screens” in his defence and seeking to mislead the court.

Mercier had based part of his defence on his rural roots, pitting his “common sense” against the “Parisians” of the national financial crimes unit PNF.

Several French politicians have been convicted for similar offences committed before France in 2017 banned National Assembly deputies and senators from employing family members.

The move came in reaction to a public outcry over a high-profile case involving former right-wing prime minister Francois Fillon, who was found guilty of providing a fake parliamentary assistant job to his wife that saw her paid hundreds of thousands of euros in public funds.

The “Penelopegate” scandal, revealed in a media report while he was the front-runner in the 2017 presidential race, torpedoed  his political career and cleared a path for then-relatively unknown Emmanuel Macron.

Last year, a court trimmed Fillon’s sentence to four years in prison with three suspended — down from five years with three suspended when he was first found guilty in 2020.