On April 21st, 2018, several dozen members of the Génération Identitaire (Generation Identity) group marched to the Echelle pass on the French-Italian border and unrolled a fence of plastic netting in the snow.
They also displayed a sign reading: “You will not make Europe home! NO WAY. Back to your homeland.”
The group, which included Germans, Italians and Austrians as well as French activists, all wore blue padded jackets marked “Defend Europe” and were backed by two rented helicopters which scoured the area for migrants.
The stunt caused outrage in France, where the group was accused of vigilantism.
Reacting to the blockade, a group of around 100 pro-migrant activists escorted some 30 migrants across the mountain into France, sparking scuffles with police.
On Thursday, a court in the southeastern city of Gap sentenced the 24-year-old leader of Génération Identitaire, Clément Gandelin; his spokesman Romain Espino, 26; and 29-year-old activist Damien Lefevre to six-month jail terms for trying to pass themselves off as police.
They were also find 2,000 euros ($2,200) and stripped of certain rights, including the right to vote, for five years while their group was fined 75,000 euros.
The trio is unlikely to serve any jail time, as in France sentences shorter than two years are usually commuted to other types of punishment, such as community service.
Reacting defiantly on Twitter, Lefevre said he would wear what he called his “political” conviction like “a medal”
“The state has decided to persecute young French people who dare to symbolically and peacefully prove that defending our borders is possible,” he wrote.
The winter of 2017-18 saw a spike in the number of migrants, mostly Africans who had crossed the Mediterranean to Italy before slipping over mountain passes into France to avoid being detected by border police.
Shortly after its mountain foray, Génération Identitaire claimed to have handed over four “illegals” to police while providing information which led to the arrest of seven others that winter.
Pro-migrant groups reacted furiously after several activists who came to the assistance of migrants were put on trial for helping them enter the country illegally.
French lawmakers later softened laws on so-called acts of solidarity with illegal migrants. Helping migrants illegally cross the border remains a crime, however.