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The French far-right voter on trial for helping a migrant

She may once have voted for France's anti-immigrant National Front, but now she faces possible jail time for helping the Iranian refugee she fell in love with.

The French far-right voter on trial for helping a migrant
Beatrice Huret insists she has no regrets. Photo: Denis Charlet

Beatrice Huret insists she has no regrets and believes she has done nothing wrong.

On June 27th however, she goes on trial for offering aid to a foreigner and in theory at least, faces a jail term of up to 10 years.

It has been a long journey for someone who used to leaflet for the National Front, the far-right party that campaigns on a fiercely anti-immigrant platform.

Huret, a dark-haired woman of 44, lives in the Calais area of northern France, where in recent years thousands of migrants have gathered awaiting their chance to cross the Channel to England – legally or illegally.

For 20 years she was married to a police officer, a member of the border police and a National Front sympathiser like her.

“I lived a basic life and I voted FN (National Front), like my husband, without really thinking twice about it,” she said.

She worked nights as a carer at a retirement home, tended to the house and raised their child during the day. When her husband died of cancer she continued as best she could, moving into the field of adult education.

Her life really began to change one night in February 2015 when she gave a lift to a young Sudanese refugee, dropping him off at the camp near Calais known as “The Jungle”.

“It was a shock to see all these people wading around in the mud,” she said.

“The Jungle” was a squalid, makeshift camp, a kind of shanty town for the migrants and refugees who had travelled to the north coast of France. Between 6,000 and 8,000 people stayed there in desperate conditions until the authorities eventually moved in and dismantled it in November 2016.

Back in 2015, seeing their plight, Huret decided to volunteer there. It was a year later that she first met Mokhtar.

Love at first sight

Mokhtar was one of a number of Iranians who in March 2016 sewed their mouths shut in protest over French efforts to demolish the southern half of the camp.

When they first met, he spoke English but no French and her English was at best, rudimentary. “It was just 'hello, thank you, goodbye', so I didn't speak to him immediately,” she said.

“He got up to get me some tea. You got a sense of someone who was very gentle, very calm and then his look… it was love at first sight.”

And the language barrier proved no real obstacle.

“Our love story started there, with the help of 'Google Translate',” she explained.

Then a couple of months after their relationship began, another volunteer asked her to put up Mokhtar for a couple of days while they put together a plan to get him to England in a lorry.

But that plan came to nothing and he ended up staying with her, her 76-year-old mother and her 19-year-old son for a month.

Having endured eight months in the 'Jungle', Mokhtar had not given up on his dream of getting to England, and he enlisted her help in another, desperate plan.

She agreed to buy a small boat for €1,000 ($1,120) so that he and two friends could attempt the crossing by sea.

“If I hadn't done it, they would have found someone else to do it!” she said. “That was their objective and I couldn't have done anything to talk them out of it.”

So it was that on June 11, 2016, at 4:00 am she took Mokhtar in her arms and hugged him goodbye before he and his friends set off across the Channel for England.

 'I did nothing illegal'

It was two months later that the French authorities took her into custody – in the same station her late husband once worked – for her role in helping him.

“I told the whole truth because, for me, I had done nothing illegal,” she said.

Her companion Mokhtar had made safely to England, though not without a scare when their boat began taking in water.

The 37-year-old former teacher has now settled in the northern city of Sheffield and has even obtained a work permit.

She visits him every other weekend, taking the cross-Channel ferry denied the migrants still searching for a route over from France.

And her English has improved. “I understand everything, but I still have a bit of trouble speaking it,” she says with a smile.

She has written a book about their story, “Calais, Mon Amour”. In it, she celebrates Mokhtar's courage and dignity.

“Mokhtar gave me back the taste of forgotten love,” she writes. “But he gave me something even more precious, the taste of truth.”

It remains to be seen, however, how her truth will stand up to the truth set out in the prosecutor's papers.

Zoé Leroy

POLITICS

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.

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