Dust or Magic, Tuesday, June 30 2009

Calais No-Borders camp: the problem isn't migrants, but that "beau petit salopard" Sarkozy

Despite, maybe even partly because of, the barrage of demonizing rhetoric from the authorities and anti-immigrant media in the preceding weeks, and massive and aggressive policing, this weekend's trans-national demonstration in Calais may have won a significant public-opinion victory for No Borders and the 1,000+ migrants trapped in the Calais area by the British border controls that now operate on French territory.

The main demonstration, on Saturday, passed off without a scrap of trouble, making the government's massively expensive and disruptive response look hysterical and foolish. South Wales No Borders were there; you'll find their very fine report (with video) here.

The coverage from the regional paper, Nord Littoral (only in French unfortunately) is on the whole sympathetic and informative - in contrast to their earlier coverage.

It includes a very nice, full-page interview with one of the No Border activists, Romain, and another with a local doctor describing the suffering (and consequent medical expense) caused by the authorities' refusal even to provide showers for the men trapped in the Calais area, living rough in the "jungle", and struggling to keep themselves clean - sometimes with no other alternative than filthy canal water.

Migrating from one repressive regime to another

We met quite a few of these men - the Iranian and Afghani bits of "the jungle" were just on the other side of the autoroute from the camp. The men I spoke to were all Iranians, and all had left Iran because of the regime. None had much inkling of the regime awaiting them in Britain, should they succeed in getting onto a lorry undetected and surviving the journey.

One of the No Borders people who'd been at the camp all week thought that some of the agents/traffickers may actually encourage them to try for the UK, to get even more money out of them. But many of them clearly want to come because they already speak a bit of English, or have friends or relatives in Britain, who are waiting for them.

One man we spoke to, in his forties, is a member of the Communist Tudeh party. He had to live on the run for a year, never in his own home, before deciding to leave Iran, leaving his young daughter in the care of his elderly parents. He thought he would be able to get asylum in Britain and then send for her. But he has been fingerprinted not only by the French police (several times) but also by the UK border police (I suppose when attempting to get into the fortified area around the ferry terminal - which is now effectively UK territory for the first time since the middle ages). So even if he gets onto a truck and survives the journey his application for asylum will not even be considered, and he would be returned to France (as the first safe EU country he'd entered) under the Dublin Convention. We tried to explain that he could be better off applying for asylum in France, and found some activists from Lille who were keen to help him. But his heart had been set on England; and he knows no French ...

Also met a nice lad of just 16 years old. No living relatives; parents both dead; speaking quite good English. And another man in his forties or late thirties with a kind, weatherbeaten face, and his foot smashed and in plaster, after some kind of run-in with the police. And others - tantalizing glimpses of rich and poignant stories, and fragile hopes that powerful forces they know little of are determined and well-equipped to smash.

The authorities now want to bulldoze the jungle. Their only answer to these men's needs is to obliterate them. After they have obliterated them, the next plan is a UK-style immigrant-prison, operated on behalf of the UK by Frontex (the EU border enforcement agency), in which UK laws will apply, permitting indefinite imprisonment (which is not allowed under French law). So the UK will not only export its borders into France, but also its own legal regime.

Intimidation at huge public expense, but it doesn't fool the public

We were nearly deterred from going to the camp by the intimidating stream of propaganda (including some spectacular lies) from the press and the pro-Sarkozy mayor of Calais, Natacha Bouchart, and the unbelievable police response: more than 2,000 police, including the feared CRS, were drafted in from all over France and they seemed intent on provoking any response from the protesters that would justify wading in.

When we got to the camp on Friday, the area was ringed by roadblocks and most people were being searched as they went in and out, sometimes repeatedly. (We ourselves weren't : perhaps a benefit of being white and middle-aged). A helicopter clattered overhead from early morning till late at night, at some considerable cost. Lines of police vans and, occasionally, squads of CRS in full riot gear lined a nearby autoroute slip-road overlooking the camp. The day before, a number of people had been arrested simply for handing out leaflets in Calais town centre. One of the first people we met, a friend from Yorkshire, had just been roughed-up by police on his way to buy toilet paper for the camp at a nearby supermarket: without challenge, a cop rammed him against the wall with a hand to the face, handcuffed him and threw him into their van, saying "we're not your English bobbies!" He was sure he was going to get badly beaten, but after ten minutes he was released - these cops were going off shift.

On Saturday we drove to the demonstration's start-point where trade union and party delegations (Sud, NPA and CNT), had assembled to wait for the No Borders group coming on foot from the campsite. We waited for them for two hours while they were held up and searched at roadblock after roadblock. Eventually the combined demonstration set off, about 1,300 strong according to local media, surrounded by more than 2,500 police of various kinds - plus water-cannons at strategic points - almost the only things moving in Calais that day.

We didn't go with them, certain there would at least be tear-gas and we weren't up to running, so we went to the beach - which we had almost to ourselves, the town being almost completely closed off, with police at almost every street intersection (and, being all from other towns, none of them were any use for directions).

Some cafes were open however, and the proprietress of the one where we had lunch was thoroughly on our side. Indicating the shuttered cafe next door she said: "C'est fou! C'est de la politique! C'est notre ami Sarko - un beau petit salopard!"

Which I think translates as, "a right little shit".

... and probably represents a wider body of Calaisien opinion now than it did this time last week.

Posted by Bob Hughes on Tuesday, June 30 2009

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