French farmer convicted of helping migrants to cross border

Bringing people across border is ‘an honour, not a sacrifice’, says local hero Herrou

Over the past year Cédric Herrou, a 37-year-old former concert organiser turned organic olive oil and egg farmer, has transported hundreds of migrants from Ventimiglia, in Italy, across the border to his farm in Breil-sur-Roya.

He gives many of them shelter and food before taking them to a train station to continue their journeys. On Friday he was housing five minors: four Eritreans and a Sudanese.

At the same time he was appearing before a tribunal in Nice, which convicted him of facilitating the illegal arrival of foreigners in France and imposed a suspended fine of €3,000.

At Herrou’s trial on January 4th, prosecutor Jean-Michel Prêtre had recommended a suspended sentence, confiscation of Herrou’s lorry and restrictions on his driving licence.


But the tribunal took a more lenient view of Herrou’s actions. Judges emphasised the mental and physical distress of the migrants in Ventimiglia, some 300 of whom have been taken across the border by the farmer.

“No one could be reproached for opening the door, for listening to them, for allowing them to wash,” the judges said, excusing Herrou’s behaviour.

Herrou earns €600 a month as a farmer. He will have to pay the €3,000 the next time he’s caught, but he has made it clear that this will not deter him. “We’ll continue. Threats from a prefect and insults from politicians won’t stop us,” he said after the verdict.

Helping migrants all his life

Some 250 supporters gathered outside the Palais de Justice in the rain to cheer Herrou. In just a few short months, he has become the symbol of the pro-immigration cause, a spokesman and hero.

Initially, Herrou was merely a sympathiser, donating leftover eggs to the Roya Citoyenne organisation that helps migrants. "In the beginning, I saw black people walking on the road, so I took them to the train station. Little by little, I got interested in the problem," he said.

In June 2015, France closed the border, trapping hundreds of mostly African migrants at Ventimiglia. Some hiked along the railway line that leads to Herrou’s garden. He had two used caravans flown in by helicopter. Dozens slept in tents between the olive trees on the terraces of his farm.

“We were a host family for 25 years,” Herrou’s mother Jacqueline (66) wrote in an open letter to the prosecutor, published on Facebook. “Cédric was five when the first children arrived. He and his brother shared their toys, food, house and parents with 15 neglected children of all origins. So when he tells you the children he sees on the roads of the Roya Valley are his brothers and sisters, he’s not lying.”

‘Silence makes us accomplices’

Herrou was arrested last August for transporting Eritreans. The court let him off. Éric Ciotti, the conservative Les Républicains president of the Alpes-Maritimes department, where the extreme right-wing Front National is powerful, complained to the justice ministry that Herrou was a "trafficker" who should not have been cleared.

The New York Times titled a front page article about Herrou "fraternity in action". Readers of Nice-Matin newspaper elected him Côte d'Azur resident of the year.

Ciotti then published an open letter in Nice-Matin, denouncing the honour bestowed on Herrou. His "superficial generosity endangers the Republic", Ciotti wrote, because it "favours dangerous Islamic sectarianism that creates profound divisions in our society".

It was possible, Ciotti concluded, “that future terrorists are among the hundreds of migrants who Monsieur Herrou boasts of having got through”.

Herrou says helping migrants is an honour, not a sacrifice. Just before Friday's verdict, he denounced the government's "failed policies" and condemned "the race to arrest black people" on Europe 1 radio.

Ciotti called the statement “scandalous” and said the government should prosecute Herrou, to defend the honour of the border police.

Herrou says he’s fighting terrorism. “The five-year-old kid who is repeatedly sent back across the border and who’s afraid of the police; what will happen to him 20 years from now? Poverty creates terrorism, and they are creating poverty.”

At least seven migrants have been killed crossing the border from Italy to France, run over on the A8 highway or crushed by trains. "Silence makes us accomplices," Herrou told Le Monde. "History is being written every day, and I really don't want us to be ashamed, 20 years from now."

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe is Paris Correspondent of The Irish Times