And voilà. Last Monday, the French government decided to dismantle the refugee camp in Calais. The operation itself is set to last about a week, and aims to escort the nearly 7,000 refugees to various reception centers, eventually relocating them to all four corners of the country. In doing so, France is putting an end to the largest shantytown ever to be established on French soil. This camp has sheltered tens of thousands of refugees who, since 2000, have aimed to illegally enter the UK.
Naturally, this new piece of information sparked some interesting reactions. In France, much like everywhere else in Europe, the dismantling of the Calais Jungle resonates strongly with the current tremors in EU politics, and its attempt to grapple with the largest ever refugee crisis. As a dozen buses made their way out of Calais, many critics (political and non-political) pointed to the general indecision of the French government. Despite the gloomy atmosphere of the situation, politicians around the country have demonstrated solidarity towards refugees. For some, this solidarity has been at the core of their philosophy for a long time.
At the jungle’s edge hides the best mayor in the world
Grande-Synthe is a small commune of about 20,000 people, situated 40km north of Calais. Its leader? Damien Carême, the environmentalist mayor who was elected in 2001. Since his election he has increased the number of 'green' acts exponentially. However, it was only in March of 2016 that the mayor of Grande-Synthe became known to the larger public by opening a refugee camp. Given the growing number of migrants in his municipality, along with the indecisive attitude of the government, the environmentalist decided to open the first humanitarian camp in France: the HCR [Haut- Comité Réfugié, Ed.]. Without a penny from the State, he found support from Doctors Without Borders. Three months later, the State finally approved the financing and management of this camp. The Minister of the Interior, Bernard Cazeneuve, and the Housing Minister Cécile Duflot are obliged to visit what is now the “the camp of the exiled and La Linière” with its showers, its varied activities and its canteen. Thanks to his efforts in providing free housing for about 2,800 refugees, Damien Carême is shortlisted for the World Mayor 2016 prize.
A little further south Marie-Anne Chapdelaine, the deputy of the Ille-et-Vilaine department in Brittany, is also known for her humanitarian efforts. Concerned by the frightful discourse of the Front National, this active 54-year-old politician is part of the Socialist Party, and is persistent on the trajectory of "these people, who are fleeing dramatic situations." She insists that their integration will mean "a peaceful co-existence between [refugees] and local politicians, small structures, larger structures and within families." Chapdelaine also draws on the origin of their diaspora, saying: "we should welcome them because if we put ourselves in their shoes, wouldn’t we also want to flee Syria or Afghanistan?" As a result, her department has allowed for almost 500 refugees to be housed since the camp’s demolition. Amongst the communities in question, Cancale is often referred to as a successful example. In this small town of about 5,000, the local hospital has already been serving as a shelter for refugees for three months.
In the east Éric Piolle, mayor of Grenoble, is also emitting a humanitarian aura. Last fall, he participated in the Nuit Debout movement which was well-integrated in the city centre. This time, however, it’s his turn to showcase his contempt. Similar to when Laurent Wauquiez (the temporary President of the right-wing Republicans) railed against the movement of refugees over fears of "multiplying the number of 'jungles' in France." With the force of a thousand suns, Piolle responded by saying: "Unlike [Wauquiez] claims, all around the country and especially in Grenoble, the French have shown that they are prepared – with whatever means they have – to help these distressed people."
The town hall of Grenoble put in place a welcome platform to make a list of all the proposals from locals, and to link them to the organisation that tracks the movement of refugees. Launched in September 2015, this list allowed 350 people to propose various methods in which to accommodate 25 to 30 refugees at a time [Figures from June 2016, Ed]. At this time, the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region is ready to host 751 refugees once the Calais camp has been eradicated. “We will welcome them with open arms, just as Grenoble has done in the past with Armenian, Algerian, Chilean and Spanish refugees,” claims Piolle.
“A benevolent France ”
Jean-Paul Bret, mayor of Villeurbanne, emphasizes that the relocation plan concerns about 1,784 refugees. According to him, "an effort to show solidarity is absolutely doable." Since the first initiatives in trying to relocate refugees, Bret has proudly advocated the "tradition of hospitality in [his] town. Since the end of the 19th century, [Villeurbanne] has developed thanks to the successive arrival of migrants, forced into exile by misery and oppression." In an "international context where migration has been unrivaled since 1945," he is simply asking for some common sense and responsibility. Hence, helping out "those who are suffering with conviction and without being naïve," is only normal.
A "benevolent France" is the concept coined by Marie-Guite Dufay, President of the PS in Bourgogne-Franche-Comté. She came up with this motto in a press release alongside four other presidents in response to Laurent Wauquiez’s remark, claiming that he was guilty of “instigating fear.” In an interview with newspaper Journal du Centre, Dufay stressed that it was necessary to dismantle the Calais Jungle. For her, it’s important to "relocate these people throughout France. It is a national problem, global, even. It goes beyond the right-left divide." Thus, the BFC region itself will provide 9,000 places, according to the government’s relocation plan. Dufay also maintains that it is a question of solidarity: "we will not leave everything up to the north and the Ile-de-France." Insisting on the coming together of citizens, regardless of borders and differences, Dufay concludes: "the matter of refugees concerns everyone: all politicians, all citizens. In 50 years our children and grandchildren will ask us how we welcomed these people."
Carole Delga, president of the Occitanie region, prided herself on the "open and generous" reception of a predicted 1,080 refugees in her region via Twitter. "It is a strategy that we support wholeheartedly, both politically and humanitarianly. We will happily do our part to demonstrate national solidarity [to the crisis]," she explains in a column in La Dépêche du Midi. She later added "1,080 refugees in a region of over 6 million inhabitants: where is the danger"” For this local politician, who went from the Martres council to the Occitanie region, a rural environment is a great opportunity for those arriving. "They will be going from a hellish environment in Calais to living conditions that are decent and hygienic. They will re-discover peaceful human relations. At the end of their stay, they will be well-rested, rehabilitated and mentally healed."
With the efforts demonstrated by these French politicians, is it safe to say that the same is being done by the government itself?