French farmer gets suspended sentence for helping migrants enter France

A French appeals court on Tuesday increased the sentence against a farmer who has made a point of helping migrants cross the border from Italy, but stopped short of jailing him.

French farmer gets suspended sentence for helping migrants enter France
French farmer Cedric Herrou stands outside a courthouse near a sign reading "No to the crime of solidarity". AFP
The court in Aix-en-Provence gave activist Cedric Herrou a four-month suspended sentence — half the length the prosecutor had asked for, but more than his initial sentence.
“This is a warning sentence,” the court's senior judge told him. “If you are convicted again, you risk having this sentence applied.”
Herrou was unrepentant as he emerged from court, where around 30 activists and supporters were on hand to support him.
“They'll just have to put me in prison, it'll be simpler,” he said. “I will continue to fight from prison.”
'Heroic' farmer faces prison for helping migrants into France
Cedric Herrou. AFP   
He would be appealing the sentence to the country's top court, he added.
Earlier, just before entering court to receive his sentence, he told reporters: “It is the role of a citizen in a democracy to take action when the state fails to.”
Herrou, an organic olive farmer, is a leading figure in Roya Citoyenne, an association dedicated to helping migrants.
At his original trial in February, he received a suspended 3,000-euro fine for helping migrants on the Italian side of the border cross the border.
But he was acquitted on another charge of sheltering around 50 Eritrean illegal migrants at a disused railway building.
The appeals court Tuesday confirmed the first conviction but reversed the acquittal.
Hailed as a hero by some, irresponsible by others, Herrou was in no mood to compromise Tuesday.
“I say to all the families I helped that I do not regret anything, that I did it with pleasure,” he said.
“If the immigration was coming from the north of Europe, the courts wouldn't be acting this way, this is state racism,” he added.
Herrou is one of several people to appear in court in southern France charged with illegally assisting migrants who have travelled up through Europe after crossing the Mediterranean in rickety boats.
His home is just a few kilometres from the border with Italy and despite the court case he continues to help migrants who turn up on his doorstep prepare their applications for asylum.
Last month he was arrested and charged as he accompanied 156 migrants to Marseille to help them file their asylum requests.
Since the beginning of 2017, more than 117,000 people have made the perilous Mediterranean crossing into Europe from north Africa — more than 96,000 of them arriving in Italy.
Already this year, 2,417 had died attempting the crossing, according to figures from the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).


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.