France Refugee Valley
The French valley welcoming refugees
03:46 - Source: CNN
Breil-sur-Roya, France CNN  — 

In the south of France, heartland of far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, a small community is sending a defiant message.

In a region where anti-immigrant sentiment is on the rise and politicians are pushing to tighten France’s borders, a group of people are opening their doors, giving migrants temporary shelter as they seek new lives in Europe.

Standing on the porch of his home on a cool spring afternoon, 55-year-old Alain Creton looks out across the Roya Valley – a string of small mountain villages on France’s southern border with Italy. In the last year alone, he estimates that he and his wife, Camille, 34, have hosted more than 60 refugees here, though they’ve lost track.

Since the refugee crisis hit Europe’s Mediterranean coast two years ago, this enclave has become the frontline of France’s fight against immigration as refugees try to head north.

Perched on a craggy hillside, dotted with tepees and a yurt, Creton’s off-the-grid home in Saint-Dalmas-de-Tende is a 15-minute hike up a steep dirt path from the nearest road.

“We can’t have humanity die on our doorstep,” Alain, an ethnobotanist, said, sweeping his hand toward the fog-filled mountains, a rolled cigarette held in between his fingers.

Camille Creton (right) and her children play a game with Yassir, 22, and Amir, 17.

The Cretons are an anomaly in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region, where support for Le Pen’s National Front has ballooned since the party built an electoral base here in the early 1990s.

Le Pen has campaigned on a nativist platform, calling for France to reclaim its borders and put a stop to “legal and illegal immigration.”

She will face off with centrist frontrunner Emmanuel Macron on Sunday, in the final round in the country’s presidential election.

With the vote nearing, the group assisting refugees – dubbed “delinquents” by local politicians – are anxious about what the result might bring.

Human solidarity

In a house tucked away down a rambling path in Saorge, a medieval mountain village overlooking the turquoise Roya river, Suzel Prio is humming to herself in her living room as she folds the laundry.

The sun sets on the medieval mountain village of Saorge.

The 55-year-old places clean towels on a sofa bed for 16-year-old Yodit from Eritrea.

Prio says she began hosting refugees like Yodit when the migrant crisis hit Europe in 2015, flooding the continent with more than one million people in a single year.

“It’s the minimum amount of empathy we can have for one another,” Prio told CNN. “It’s about human solidarity… fraternity.”

Like many passing through Prio’s home, Yodit arrived in the valley from Ventimiglia in Italy. Thousands of asylum seekers have been stranded in the Italian port city, dubbed a “mini Calais,” since France clamped down on its border in June 2015.

After being blocked from roads and trains leading into the French Riviera, a number of migrants have made their way north through the French Alps and into the Roya Valley.

The refugees who make it to the French valley are often sent back to Italy by police under the “Dublin” regulation, an EU law that requires asylum seekers (in most cases) to apply in the first European country they enter. In 2016, 37,000 people were arrested in the department of Alpes-Maritimes, which spans from the French-Italian border to Cannes. Among them, 90-95% were readmitted to their country of arrival in the EU, according to a department spokesperson.

Prio says that she’s fearful of a Le Pen win.

“The election of Marine Le Pen would be catastrophic. It would be worse for the refugees, it would be worse for the most vulnerable people in France,” Prio said, adding that she won’t be deterred and will continue to host.

Prio’s neighbor, 66-year-old Catherine Gros, lives in small home, just a short walk up a garden path. Gros recalls a cold day last December when about 50 refugees, many of them minors, arrived in the town square as residents were gathered at a church service, singing Christmas hymns.

“It’s one thing to hear about numbers, it’s a very different thing when they arrive in front of you,” Gros, who has hosted more than 20 refugees, said.

In the wake of the Nice attack in July, which left 86 people dead, politicians from President François Hollande to Le Pen have pushed for stronger border controls. Gros said regional politicians have taken up this baton.

“Local politicians use fear in this argument, so they use the Nice attack,” Gros said.

“They have been moving further and further to the right because of Marine Le Pen.”

‘What about us?’

Some 10km along the Roya river, which cuts through the valley’s steep rock cliffs, locals filter in and out of a farmers’ market in Breil-sur-Roya.

It’s a Tuesday morning and few people are interested in talking about immigration – a key issue in the upcoming presidential race. It’s a touchy subject in this hamlet, which first hit the headlines because of local man Cedric Herrou’s efforts to help refugees; action he was ultimately arrested and fined for.

“Ask me about anything you want, as long as it’s about cheese,” one vendor says when asked what he thinks about his migrant-aiding neighbors.

“There are more people that are against helping refugees in this valley than for,” Abid Boukhadra, a 68-year-old Algerian immigrant, who grew up in the area, said.

“There aren’t many jobs, people have trouble making money. The French government isn’t taking care of the French people.”

In 2015, at the height of the migrant crisis, the unemployment rate in the Roya Valley was 9.8%– below the national average at the time (10%).

Another local, Marine, who would not give her last name, said she thinks the valley will vote for her namesake.

“It’s not strange for people to want to vote for Marine Le Pen, when the situation in France is so bad,” she said.

“I don’t have a problem with refugees, they can pass through, but the French government can’t even help the French people, how can they help migrants?”

Searching for political solutions

Sylvain Gogois disagrees.

In the nearby town of Libre – an enclave of houses on a rocky hill just 2km from the France-Italy border – 66-year-old Gogois and his 64-year-old wife Françoise brew a pot of green tea in their wood-paneled kitchen.

The couple, who has hosted up to 40 refugees in their home, were rattled when Françoise was in March arrested for bringing refugees down a mountain path to Sospel, to avoid crossing the border. Charged with assisting in the entry, stay, and movement of “irregular migrants,” her trial is set for mid-May. She faces five years in prison and a fine of 30,000 euros if found guilty.

Gogois said they were scared of what the police might do if they found them helping refugees again. But he vowed that it wouldn’t deter him.

Later that afternoon, Gogois said he planned to walk into the mountains to see if the snow had melted enough to drive a car through an unmarked dirt pass – avoiding police patrols installed throughout the valley. But he says that they can’t go on this way forever – they need help.

We have to find political solutions,” Gogois said. “We have to try to put sufficient pressure on the French government so that they accept more refugees.”

Sylvain Gogois maps out a migrant route through the mountains.

In 2015, France pledged to accept 30,000 refugees from camps in Italy and Greece as part of an EU-wide agreement, but has fallen short of that.

“Think about it this way,” Gogois said. “France said that it would accept 30,000 refugees. There are about 36,000 villages in France. That’s not even one refugee per village.”

‘Fraternité is long gone’

About an hour drive south from Libre, on the main road out of the Roya Valley – which snakes through Italy and past two border checkpoints before returning to France – sits the city of Nice, a jewel on the glittering Côte D’Azur.

The Riviera, one of the richest regions in France, is synonymous with mega-yachts and eye-watering fortunes. But the area also has a large wealth disparity, and isn’t resistant to France’s historically high 10% unemployment rate.

On a sunny spring afternoon, Pierre-Alain Mannoni, a 46-year-old geography researcher at the University of Nice, sips an espresso at a café in Nice’s old village – just meters from where last year’s terror attack took place.

Mannoni, who has become a champion of the refugee cause, said people have become increasingly fearful in Nice – where the local National Front office claims one in two voters plan to cast their ballots for Le Pen.

Mannoni was visiting the Cretons at their home last October when three young Eritrean women arrived nearby. The women were “badly injured, frightened, and cold,” Mannoni recalled.

Alain Creton asked Mannoni if he could help drive the women to Nice, so that they could be treated in the hospital.

“The choice was simple. They had to be helped,” Mannoni said, rolling a cigarette.

“This region, in the world, is one of the richest. There is no reason people should be in danger of dying.”

Mannoni was driving to Nice when he was flagged down by police at a toll on the French-Italian border and arrested for transporting the women.

In January, a judge cleared Mannoni of the charges, ruling he had acted to “preserve the dignity and integrity of the three migrant women.” Responding to the ruling, Christian Estrosi, president of the regional council of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur and former mayor of Nice, said Mannoni was guilty of “endangering the safety of the French people” in a post on Facebook.

“I think fraternité is long gone in France,” Mannoni said as he tapped his cigarette on an ashtray.

‘What they’re doing isn’t normal’

In Nice’s famous Cours Saleya market, busy with shoppers browsing past juicy red strawberries, pink peonies, and lavender soaps, few are willing to talk about Le Pen and the election.

Vendors sorting their wares under red and white striped awnings and people on the street echoed the same sentiment: “our politicians are thieves.”

The general distaste in Nice for their candidates points to the deeper desire by the French electorate to shake up the status quo.

Peonies for sale in Cours Saleya flower market.

Richard, 67, a wiry, bespectacled man selling traditional French bread and pastries said that Le Pen would get his backing.

“I’m voting for Le Pen for many reasons…for leaving the euro, getting out of the union, for tighter border controls, for immigration, for security,” Richard, who wouldn’t give his last name, said in between serving customers.

“The Roya Valley is not far from here. For me, what they’re doing isn’t normal.”

‘They’re saving us’

Back in Saint-Dalmas-de-Tende, the Cretons sit down to lunch with two young men – Yassir, 22, and Amir, 17, both from Sudan’s Darfur region.

When Yassir arrived three weeks ago he didn’t speak, Alain says. Now, the young man, who refers to Alain as “Baba Blanc” (father white), is practicing his French over lunch. Yassir says “merci,” flashing a grin as Camille passes him a pitcher of water.

“How many politicians are really thinking of a solution?” Camille, a geologist and local mountain guide, asks in between bites. “It’s only when many people believe in creating a humanitarian solution that it happens, that politicians are forced to make it happen.”

Alain nods slowly, brushing his tangled hair back from his face and taking a sip from his glass of red wine.

“We will continue helping them until there’s a solution,” Alain says.

“We aren’t saving them…they’re saving us.”