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  • Cedric Herrou, with supporters, outside the courthouse in Nice, France. Jan. 4, 2016

    Cedric Herrou, with supporters, outside the courthouse in Nice, France. Jan. 4, 2016 | Photo: AFP

Published 5 January 2017

"Our role is to help people overcome danger, and the danger is this border," said Cedric Herrou before his trial began on Wednesday.

On Wednesday, in the southern French city of Nice, the trial of farmer and migrant rights activist Cedric Herrou began for "helping undocumented foreigners enter, move about and reside" in France.

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Despite facing up to five years in prison and a US$26,000 fine if convicted, Herrou was unrepentant, using the trial as an opportunity to challenge the morality of France’s increasingly harsh treatment of migrants.

"I did it because it had to be done. There are people who have died on the highway, there are families who are suffering. There is a state that has put in place borders and has absolutely no control over the consequences," said Herrou to a group of almost 300 supporters outside the courthouse.

"Our role is to help people overcome danger, and the danger is this border," he said, adding that the border is "established in the name of terrorism." He insisted that if he is forced to break the law to benefit people, the cost is worth it.

The trial is the most recent attempt by the French state to crack down on Herrou and a growing network of solidarity activists throughout the country engaged in direct actions challenging France’s anti-migrant policies which have seen the deportation of thousands and the violent destruction of the Calais refugee camp in northern France.

In August, Herrou was charged with “human smuggling” for helping eight Eritrean migrants cross the French-Italian border, where Herrou has an olive farm. Those charges were dropped after prosecutors accepted that he was acting on "humanitarian grounds."

The latest charges stem from an action in October which saw Herrou and other activists occupy an abandoned vacation retreat owned by the state railway company, opening it to a group of migrants fleeing Western-backed wars in North Africa and the Middle-East.

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In court Wednesday, the prosecution explicitly acknowledged Herrou’s efforts to use the trial as an opportunity to highlight the government’s treatment of migrants, saying, "We are in the situation of a trial which has been sought out, which proceeds from a communication strategy to carry out a militant cause."

Prosecutor Jean-Michel Prêtre all but admitted the immorality of the law itself, telling the judge, "It is not up to justice to decide to change the law,” while going on to request an 8-month deferred sentence, much lighter than the maximum penalty available.

A decision in the case is expected by Feb. 10, just two months ahead of April’s Presidential elections, where the two leading candidates – Marie Le Pen of the extreme-right National Front Party, and Francois Fillon of the far-right Republican Party – are both running on xenophobic anti-migrant platforms.

It was in this context that Herrou told the assembled crowd of supporters outside the courthouse, "What I do is not a sacrifice, it is an honor."

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