She was a card-carrying Front National supporter and her “racist” policeman husband’s job was to help hold back the wave of migrants trying to break into the Channel Tunnel terminal or the ferry port at Calais.
For Béatrice Huret, migrant was just a word, detached from reality, which stood for people from far away coming over here and taking our jobs.
But all that changed the day she first set foot in the so-called Jungle in Calais and saw the squalor that thousands of people were living in as they waited for their chance to sneak into the UK.
Within weeks she was in love with Mokhtar, an Iranian who fled his country where he was persecuted for being a Christian, and whose photo was published in newspapers around the world last year when he sewed his lips together in protest at the appalling living conditions in the Jungle.
And within a year she was facing a people-smuggling conviction for helping Mokhtar and two of his friends make it to England in a boat from which they were plucked by the UK coastguard as it sank just off Kent.
She tells her tale of transformation, romance and adventure in the just published book “Calais Mon Amour.”
Beatrice said that because he was a policeman, her husband was not legally allowed to join a political party, so he got his wife to sign up instead to Marine Le Pen’s Front National, which paid her to distribute pamphlets.
(French riot police hold back refugees and migrants in the now cleared Calais Jungle. AFP)
She said that, unlike her husband, who died from cancer in 2010, she was not really racist.
But she was worried about “all these foreigners, who seemed so different, and who were getting into France.”
Beatrice lived with her adolescent son and her mother around 20 kilometres from the “Jungle” camp, but she had never seen the giant shantytown built of tents and shacks on waste ground on the outskirts of Calais.
On her way home from work one very cold day in 2015, she felt sorry for a teenage Sudanese boy and agreed to drop him off at the camp, which at its peak last year was home to around 10,000 people most of whom who had fled war or poverty in Africa or the Middle East.
(An aerial image of the sprawling Calais Jungle before it was cleared last year. AFP)
Then for the first time she saw for herself what conditions there were like.
“I felt like I was in a war zone, it was like a war camp, a refugee camp, and something went ‘click’ and I said to myself that I just had to help,” she said.
Suddenly, migrants were no longer just a word, no longer an abstraction for her.
Beatrice, who works at a centre that trains young people to become carers, started to bring food and clothing to people in the Jungle, roping in friends and family members to help, and slowly got to know the camp and its people.
Then, in February of last year, she laid eyes on Mokhtar, a 34-year-old former teacher of Persian who had to flee his native Iran where he faced persecution, and ostracism by his own family, for having converted to Christianity.
She met him just at the moment he and several of several of his compatriots had sewed their lips together in protest aimed at getting the French authorities to do something to improve conditions in the Jungle.
(One of the Iranian protesters who had stitched his lips together. AFP)
“I sat down and then he came over and very gently he asked me if I would like a cup of tea, and then he went and made me tea, and it was a bit of a shock, it was love at first sight,” she said.
“It was just his look, it was so soft… I mean, there they were with their lips sewn up and they ask me do I want some tea…”
(An Iranian protester after having his lips stitched together. AFP)
A romance blossomed and Beatrice offered to put Mokhtar and some of his friends up in her house, ignoring advice from her friends that she was making a big mistake.
She was under no illusions about her new lover’s goal. Mokhtar had already tried to get to England by hiding in the back of lorries and now he was about to try a change of tack.
He and two friends gave Beatrice around €1,000 and got her to buy a small boat for them.
On June 11 last year, Beatrice towed the boat with her car to a beach near Dunkirk, and the trio of migrants, none of whom had ever manned a boat before, set sail at around 4am on a perilous journey across the world’s busiest shipping channel.
“We dressed them up so they would look like men out on a fishing trip, with fishing rods,” she said with a smile.
That was the moment when the whole thing might have ended, when Beatrice hoped for the best but worried that she might have been had, and worried that Mokhtar and his friends might even drown.
That very nearly came to pass, when the boat started taking water around 6:30 am when it had got close to the English coast.
The British coastguard sent out a helicopter which eventually spotted them and send a boat out to the rescue.
(Beatrice looks at a photo of Mokhtar on her laptop. Calais Mon Amour)
The three refugees were later questioned by immigration officers, and after a couple of days Mokhtar was sent to an asylum centre from where he could finally contact his beloved who waited anxiously on the other side of the Channel.
“He gave his address in Wakefield (where he had been given accommodation in a shelter). I went to see him the next weekend.”
And ever since then she takes a ferry every second week and drives up to see her lover, who is now in a refugee hostel in Sheffield and who has successfully applied for asylum in Britain. And they keep in touch via webcam nearly every night.
So what of the future? We have no plans, she says, noting that “it hurts when you make plans that don’t work out.”
Last August Beatrice was arrested and charged with people smuggling. She laughs when she speaks of the charge, as for her the idea that she was in it for the money is ridiculous.
The maximum penalty if convicted is 10 years in prison and a fine of €750,000, although she is likely to be given a far less severe sentence if found guilty.
Beatrice has also been put on the government watchlist of people who are deemed a potential threat to the security of the country.
Was it all worth it?
“Yes,” she replied without hesitation. “I did it for him. You do anything for love.”
by Rory Mulholland