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Is it a crime to save lives?

Libre (To the Four Winds)
Regissør: Michel Toesca

France sentenced its own citizens to prison for assisting people in need. Europe is letting the tangled remains of its morals and ethics drown in the Mediterranean. Libre follows a man who is protesting.


Every day, migrants cross the border from Italy to France. Minors and asylum seekers are entitled to support, but the fact is that they are regularly transported back to the Italian side, accused of breaking French law.

However, opposition to this practice is increasing. In the Roya Valley, a French enclave in Italy, the farmer Cédric Herrou opened his home and began offering migrants a place of rest, food and protection, and more forward-looking assistance, such as completing an asylum application – all funded by human rights. Recognizing people in need, and helping them, was for him the most basic human act. Today, this has just as completely become a criminal act in France, despite the fact that Herreou can cite French law in his defense.

Le citoyen

Herrou was not the only one – other peasants also opened their doors and lands, thus confronting the political apathy that has transformed injustice into normality. They revived the perhaps most important institution of French political history, which had been suppressed: la citoyenneté – the enlightened citizen with confidence – who actively participates in the defense of the rights of others, especially those who have lost voting rights. Protecting asylum seekers, young children, young people without parents and disabled people are obvious duties. Transporting back to Italy would only have increased their vulnerability and caused new risks. Recognizing a problem and then acting – not waiting for government response or help – is (the potentially anarchist) driving force for the citizen: a positive form of disobedience, to do what must be done when rights are violated. An independent responsibility that refers to the most important virtues of the French Revolution: freedom, equality and brotherhood.

Herrou was indicted and sentenced in court, but this did not scare him. The case reached the media, and Herrou received support from several teams. Documentary filmmaker Michel Toesca followed him for three years, observing an everyday life that didn't give Herrou much time to farm. IN Free We see Herrou in a TV discussion with Prime Minister Manuel Valls, among other things, and that he declares to the prosecutor and the police chief that he and his fellow activists, after the violent and incompetent actions of the authorities, had no choice but to oppose.

Political apathy has turned injustice into normality.

Toesca filmed without much equipment and crew, improvised with a handheld camera, and in some conflict situations he used his cell phone. Before he started working on the film in 2015, he was already living in the Roya Valley, and he met Herrou as early as 2000. They quickly became friends. Filming and activist participation became inseparable activities. Festivities and outbursts, as well as contemplative moments in this precarious life, also found their way into the film, which is now shown in Cannes.

Human Game

Local authorities in the Italian neighboring town of Ventimiglia, which at the same time as the Roya Valley experienced steady waves of newly arrived migrants, in 2015 banned the distribution of food to weary travelers. Improvised camp areas were mowed down. In 2016, when Herro's own land area housed over 80 people and had become too small, they occupied an empty state building. It only took three days for 200 police officers to come and empty the house. Herrou was jailed for the third time. He was released again, against a bail of 3000 euros.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Adam Nossiter of the New York Times wrote an article in which he presented Herrou as the protagonist in opposition to political practice. The extensive media coverage gave the farmer a position – and the prime minister was forced to take a position. But this did not change the practice – the constant and illegal deportations continued. They simply served the "public interest".

In April 2017, there appeared to be a positive change in sentiment: The county governor and local police were convicted by a district court of "the serious misconduct of failing to respect asylum rights". The outcome, on the other hand, was modest – the county governor allowed Herrou from then to bring ten asylum seekers a day from Roya to Nice – all other relief measures would still lead to prosecution. It seems that not even the French judiciary is able to enforce French laws and rights.

In the idea that there is only one god, something elevated and infallible lies, and this can easily overturn militant intolerance.

Herrou and his associates decided to conduct a three-day march from Roya to Nice, along with 100 migrants. Soon after, his property was surrounded by military and police. The entire overcrowded valley was under permanent surveillance. Again, France demonstrated its contradictory legislation and sentenced the marchers to prison sentences.

Massive police checks caused migrants to change their routes and move through other valleys. Some of them stayed on Herro's farm and tried to help. They wanted to start a new life there. Herrou started a new organization whose goal is to implement social and economic projects for the migrants. The organization seeks to challenge the political status quo by constantly engaging in debates with specialists, politicians, lawyers and celebrities.


In the Roya Valley we find the European paradox of legally institutionalized injustice in crystal clear form. For several centuries, the Western world has benefited from underdevelopment in the "Third World" and collaborated with dictatorial regimes to promote its own interests. As these tyrannies disintegrate, it has become common practice among established powers not to help the impoverished countries to gain sovereignty, but on the contrary to further profit by selling weapons to military groups.

Hundreds of thousands of victims from these ruined areas now stand at the borders of the for-profit. They risk once again "the death of the failed," instead of organizing a modus vivendi to protect lives. Of course, the arrangement that the country a migrant is first registered in should have the responsibility for him or her, fails, as it reinforces the extremely uneven burden-sharing among European countries. What is presented in Free, is just a snippet of what happens at many European borders.

The perverted ethic recently reached its climax when the captain of the rescue ship "Lifeline" was accused of saving lives at sea, instead of merely informing the coastguard of a ship in distress and then sailing relentlessly. Even life saving has been criminalized. The observation aircraft – which are easier to detect ships in distress and assist in rescue operations – are on the ground. Why continue to observe a self-inflicted accident?

Europe is dropping its position as moral authority and defender of human rights in the Mediterranean. Just corresponded to the citizen remains.

Dieter Wieczorek
Dieter Wieczorek
Wieczorek is a critic living in Paris.

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