FRANCE: criminalisation of solidarity in Hayange – interview to the local Secours Populaire

While France has a lively civil society able to operate freely, tougher policies and narratives on migration have contributed to shrinking the space for associative movements to provide help not only to migrants but also to other vulnerable people. We interviewed the President of Secours Populaire Hayange, Anne Duflot-Allievi to share how the working environment has evolved.

Tell us something about your organisation. For example, what kind of services does it provide to migrants and why are they important?

Secours Populaire is an NGO of recognised public utility. Secours Populaire helps the most vulnerable people: the centre is open to anyone who is in need, regardless of social or ethnic background, not especially helping migrants. Activities include

1 – Fooding, through products collected in Metz. These diaries come from FEDA (European Fund for most Helpless). For fresh products, it is more complicated as we did not have any electricity to store it. Otherwise, we buy some food.

2 – Clothing: sharing clothes for visitors of the centre, bed linen, furniture coming from donations.

3 – Providing entertainment to children, such as the organisation of holidays, Christmas parties… But also providing help to fund children’s studies

4 – Helping elderly: lotto, trips, exhibitions, visiting them in special reception centres…

Besides collecting donations and providing assistance, Secours Populaire also works with juvenile delinquents who serve a mission of general interest instead of going to jail.

Has your organisation experienced a deterioration of the conditions of the working environment?

It all started in March 2016 with the Mayor’s circular, informing us that we could not accept children whose parents do not receive social welfare, which discriminates migrants and asylum-seekers from French citizens. We accepted the decision, although we were against it. Then, a journalist from Liberation contacted us for an interview, to check whether the information was true or false. We confirmed that it was the Mayor’s decision not to let children of migrants participate in the breakfast we were organising. This episode stirred tensions, and since then, the Mayor wants to shut us down or force us to move to another city.

Since then, there was no dialogue at all with the Mayor, and he still wants to kick us out of our premises. From our side, there were numerous attempts to reestablish dialogue with him, but he refused it and simply started to reduce our operational means. Lately, he has banned us from public gatherings, thinking that we would have no choice but to leave Hayange.

These measures have several impacts on our organisation. For instance, we can no longer attend municipal events and receive in-kind donations at these events. We are therefore obliged to go to other cities’ associative activities, to continue fulfilling our mission. Also, we do not receive any public funding from the city anymore.

In late 2016, the Mayor decided to cut the electricity, gas and water in the building where we are based. This even worsened the conditions, because we welcome many people every day and it is impossible to do it properly when you are working in the dark and do not have access to water. He also opened a lawsuit against us, to kick us out, given that we were not surrendering.

On 19 December 2017, the judge ruled that we were in total legality and that the mayor should give us back electricity, water and gas. Following this decision, we received many threats from ordinary citizens, sometimes using fake accounts. People were spreading hate messages, threatening to arson our offices and “disinfect” the place.

We decided to bring it to justice and try to identify the authors of the messages. All this came as a follow-up of the mayor’s statement on Facebook, where he argued that we were only helping migrants and not French people. The police identified some of the authors, and they were mostly supporters of the mayor.

The paradox is that many cities and NGOs showed their support and expressed solidarity to our cause. This encouraged people to give even more presents and furniture than before.

Aside from the mayor’s office and his supporters, we have very cordial relationships with all other actors (local police and city’s staff members).

Do you think this is a general feeling among the NGOs working in the field of solidarity to migrants?

The climate of fear and suspicion towards NGOs is very present in cities led by Front National in France. We have received reports from some of them, saying that they suffered similar attacks from the local representatives. The problem is that such attacks against one NGO scare the others and prevent them from showing solidarity or standing against the mayor. They heavily depend on local public funding, and they are sure that the mayor will take revenge by “punishing” them too if they stand with us.

What has contributed to such an oppressive environment?

Generally, in France and especially in this region, electoral abstention is high, and current FN mayor used the distrust of citizens to win the local elections.

The economic and social environment made it possible for such a populist figure to take the city and give him power. Although the problem we are facing is very local, the general negative narrative about migrants helped the election of the current mayor.

How can the European institution improve EU migration policies to encourage cooperation between civil society and public administration?

Primarily, we need regulation at the national level for not-for-profit (status of volunteer, associations…), European level would come afterwards, with good practices. One of the first steps would be strengthening the solidarity between CSOs when such things happen.

Also, the Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived (FEAD) is insufficient in its current form (EUR 3.8 billion in the 2014-2020 period). We heard that there were tough negotiations to maintain it at this level in the 2021-2027 MFF, but we need more than this.

Eventually, Europe should have a say and protect human rights’ defenders, defending their causes when States are oppressing them. To start having such protection from the EU, we need a framework for associations and organisations at the European level.

Featured image by PIERRE HECKLER / MAXPPP