Genoa - Some call him a hero, others a traitor. Some compare him to Robin Hood, and others send him so many threatening letters that his mail has been stopped. He, Cédric Herrou, a 38 year old farmer, refuses overblown labels and shrugging his shoulders, says, “I am just in politics. Not the sort of politics tied to the need to win votes, but the sort that is action.” In three days a trial is awaiting him in which he could face up to five years in jail for having illegally transported migrants from Italy to France. How many? “Hundreds. Officially I helped 200,” he says with the serious and soft voice of a French professor, round eyes and a wild beard, he smirks as if to say: it would be even more, but let’s not make our lives any more difficult. Besides helping the migrants to cross the border, he takes care of them until they are ready to continue their journey: food and lodging are free. Some stop for a few days, some for a month at his factory, which is just downstream from Breil-sur-Roya, the river which curiously doesn’t form the border of France and Italy, but rather crosses the border back and forth, doing precisely what the migrants are not allowed to do. Men and women on the run are housed in four tents and two campers. They are often kids between the ages of 12 and 16, and Eritreans in particular. “People who should be allowed to cross the border. There is a right of asylum, and the obligation to take unaccompanied minors into custody,” Herrou explains with irritation while he unloads heavy sacks of fodder from his truck, “But they don’t pay any attention to our rights at the border and the policemen often do what they can, carrying out orders from on high.”
And he recalls discouraging episodes. “Recently three kids who were taken into custody in Nice were brought to the border police and from there they were shown the road to Ventimiglia [i.e. Italy]. The Italian police officers sent them back, which was the right thing to do, but the French put them back on a train headed for Italy.” And it is Italy, which is reaching an agreement with Libya for the repatriations, that Herrou is concerned about: “That agreement could mean the end of hope for these people. Furthermore, it is already now prohibited to provide food at the border, there are 350 of them and for now only the Red Cross can support them, and the Red Cross is leaving in a week. That’s why I’m not too concerned about my sentence.” In any case, on Friday at the court in Nice, there will be groups of his supporters from Italy and France. Loved by the left and by Catholics, Herrou says that he’s also supported by people on the right. “Yes, some local representatives of the National Front are attacking me. But not many. Good people are everywhere.” But he doesn’t identify with any of France’s presidential candidates. He rejects Marine Le Pen, and calls Fillon a “thief”. What about the left? “Chaos.” Except for the former Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira, who is out of the game. He rejects “voting against” Marine Le Pen: “It doesn’t make any sense.
The parties were worried about the middle of the country that wouldn’t vote because they don’t identify with any of the candidates. I know only that we are the fifth largest economy in the world, there is plenty of wealth, and no one does anything. Furthermore, many believe that migrants equal terrorism. And yet the migrants are coming from Italy, and how many attacks have there been in Italy? And then, let’s say it, why should ISIS give €250 to a smuggler and take the risk that its people could be arrested?” Herrou doesn’t ask for any money. And he made the majority of his journeys of hope last spring. “In the winter there are fewer people, and now there is also more surveillance.” He started a year and a half ago, “because I could no longer watch groups of kids risking their lives at three to four in the morning, walking on the train tracks or along the side of the road. We started to go back and forth with the minibus, it was very easy.” The first times we were able to accommodate 60 people at a time. “And no accidents,” says the shepherd who moved to the valleys after working as a mechanic in Nice. He smiles as he fills the tank of a forklift and heads for his olive groves. There, among the trees, he had two campers dropped directly by helicopter, like in a Fellini film. Was it expensive? “No.” Herrou makes it all sound easy, he can boast that even the prosecutor who is supposed to be bringing charges against him, Jean-Michel Prêtre, is one of his supporters. Prêtre recognised the “nobility” of his motivations, however adding that the law “can be criticised, but must be applied.” Herrou recalls that if all the laws were applied, the borders would be open to migrants. And there would be no need for his assistance, nor for him to be in court.