French Ask: Should It Be a Crime to Help Illegal Immigrants?

Susan Sachs, Christian Science Monitor, March 18, 2009

Three weeks ago, police officers in northern France came knocking on the door of a food bank volunteer named Monique Pouille. They searched her home, hauled her to the station, put her in a jail cell, and kept her in custody for nine hours.

Her alleged crime: providing assistance to some of the illegal immigrants who gather at the port city of Calais in hopes of smuggling themselves across the channel to England. Specifically, Mrs. Pouille recharged their cellphones.

The case of the “good Samaritan grandma,” as she is being called, might have remained a blip on the radar here, a one-shot curiosity on the national news. But shortly after Pouille’s ordeal, her story found a broader echo in a highly publicized new film about a fictional Frenchman reported to the police, also for helping a young refugee.

The confluence of the two events has set off a lively debate here about the boundaries between compassion and civic duty. The film, “Welcome,” tells the story of an ordinary middle-class swimming instructor named Simon, from Calais; and an Iraqi teenager who has sneaked across Europe in a desperate bid to join the girl he loves in London.

Overcoming his initial apathy and suspicion, the Frenchman takes the boy under his wing and into his home, coaching him for what he knows will be an attempt to swim the English Channel. In the eyes of the police, that makes him not just a benefactor but an accomplice.

The film has received glowing reviews as a realistic tale that poses a moral dilemma. In the words of the newspaper Le Monde, it forces the audience to confront the human drama of a desperate migrant and ask themselves, “What would I do in Simon’s place?”

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His comments [those of the movie’s director] infuriated the Minister of Immigration, Eric Besson, who called the comparison insulting and inappropriate. The two men have been sparring on television talk shows and in newspapers for two weeks. The public discussion has served to strengthen the resolve of some people who have been helping illegal immigrants for years.

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Much of the public discussion has centered on how the government enforces a 1945 law that makes it a crime, punishable by up to five years in prison, to aid people living in or transiting France illegally.

Mr. Besson said it is applied against human-trafficking rings, not charities or individuals who simply provide humanitarian relief to undocumented migrants and refugees. But there have been scattered prosecutions over the last few years.

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More often, it appears, the law may be invoked as a means of harassing people who regularly defend, support, and assist migrants.

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The authorities should distinguish between simple acts of kindness and assistance that facilitates the lucrative business of people-smuggling, according to Ludovic Duprey, the chief prosecutor in the northern French town of Hazebrouck.

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The case of Pouille, who was recharging migrants’ cellphones, illustrates how murky each situation can get.

When the border police questioned her, she said, they reproached her for “indiscriminately” helping the migrants. According to her account, she should have checked whether any of them were using their phones to arrange an illegal border crossing.

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