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The French far-right voter on trial for helping a migrant

She may once have voted for France's anti-immigrant National Front, but now she faces possible jail time for helping the Iranian refugee she fell in love with.

The French far-right voter on trial for helping a migrant
Beatrice Huret insists she has no regrets. Photo: Denis Charlet

Beatrice Huret insists she has no regrets and believes she has done nothing wrong.

On June 27th however, she goes on trial for offering aid to a foreigner and in theory at least, faces a jail term of up to 10 years.

It has been a long journey for someone who used to leaflet for the National Front, the far-right party that campaigns on a fiercely anti-immigrant platform.

Huret, a dark-haired woman of 44, lives in the Calais area of northern France, where in recent years thousands of migrants have gathered awaiting their chance to cross the Channel to England – legally or illegally.

For 20 years she was married to a police officer, a member of the border police and a National Front sympathiser like her.

“I lived a basic life and I voted FN (National Front), like my husband, without really thinking twice about it,” she said.

She worked nights as a carer at a retirement home, tended to the house and raised their child during the day. When her husband died of cancer she continued as best she could, moving into the field of adult education.

Her life really began to change one night in February 2015 when she gave a lift to a young Sudanese refugee, dropping him off at the camp near Calais known as “The Jungle”.

“It was a shock to see all these people wading around in the mud,” she said.

“The Jungle” was a squalid, makeshift camp, a kind of shanty town for the migrants and refugees who had travelled to the north coast of France. Between 6,000 and 8,000 people stayed there in desperate conditions until the authorities eventually moved in and dismantled it in November 2016.

Back in 2015, seeing their plight, Huret decided to volunteer there. It was a year later that she first met Mokhtar.

Love at first sight

Mokhtar was one of a number of Iranians who in March 2016 sewed their mouths shut in protest over French efforts to demolish the southern half of the camp.

When they first met, he spoke English but no French and her English was at best, rudimentary. “It was just 'hello, thank you, goodbye', so I didn't speak to him immediately,” she said.

“He got up to get me some tea. You got a sense of someone who was very gentle, very calm and then his look… it was love at first sight.”

And the language barrier proved no real obstacle.

“Our love story started there, with the help of 'Google Translate',” she explained.

Then a couple of months after their relationship began, another volunteer asked her to put up Mokhtar for a couple of days while they put together a plan to get him to England in a lorry.

But that plan came to nothing and he ended up staying with her, her 76-year-old mother and her 19-year-old son for a month.

Having endured eight months in the 'Jungle', Mokhtar had not given up on his dream of getting to England, and he enlisted her help in another, desperate plan.

She agreed to buy a small boat for €1,000 ($1,120) so that he and two friends could attempt the crossing by sea.

“If I hadn't done it, they would have found someone else to do it!” she said. “That was their objective and I couldn't have done anything to talk them out of it.”

So it was that on June 11, 2016, at 4:00 am she took Mokhtar in her arms and hugged him goodbye before he and his friends set off across the Channel for England.

 'I did nothing illegal'

It was two months later that the French authorities took her into custody – in the same station her late husband once worked – for her role in helping him.

“I told the whole truth because, for me, I had done nothing illegal,” she said.

Her companion Mokhtar had made safely to England, though not without a scare when their boat began taking in water.

The 37-year-old former teacher has now settled in the northern city of Sheffield and has even obtained a work permit.

She visits him every other weekend, taking the cross-Channel ferry denied the migrants still searching for a route over from France.

And her English has improved. “I understand everything, but I still have a bit of trouble speaking it,” she says with a smile.

She has written a book about their story, “Calais, Mon Amour”. In it, she celebrates Mokhtar's courage and dignity.

“Mokhtar gave me back the taste of forgotten love,” she writes. “But he gave me something even more precious, the taste of truth.”

It remains to be seen, however, how her truth will stand up to the truth set out in the prosecutor's papers.

Zoé Leroy

For members

2022 SWEDISH ELECTION

OPINION: The far right now dominates the immigration debate in Sweden

A televised debate between the party leaders last weekend showed how Sweden’s third party, the far-right Sweden Democrats, has shaped Swedish politics since the last elections four years ago, argues David Crouch

OPINION: The far right now dominates the immigration debate in Sweden

In the build-up to the 2018 elections, the world’s media descended on Stockholm, expecting a breakthrough by the Sweden Democrats (SD) who had been polling as high as 25 percent. In the end, SD took third place with around 18 percent of the vote.

Four years later, SD are hovering at around the same level in the polls. However, Swedish politics has been utterly transformed, as the other main parties have moved onto political terrain previously occupied by SD.

This would have been unthinkable just a few short years ago. When they first entered parliament, SD were treated as political pariahs, a racist party, held at arm’s length by the other parties who refused to cooperate with them in any way.

Attempts to bring the SD into the mainstream of Swedish politics fell flat. The leader of the centre-right Moderates lost her job after suggesting it was “time to stop demonising” the SD. Her replacement, Ulf Kristersson, said he would neither negotiate nor govern with them. After the elections, two smaller centre-right parties – the Centre and the Liberals – agreed to prop up the coalition of Social Democrats and Greens to prevent the SD gaining any influence in parliament.

It was clear, however, that the only chance for the centre-right to govern would be with SD support. After all, in Finland and Norway right-wing populist parties had entered government with the centre right. And in Denmark, the centre-right had governed with populist support. If it worked there, why not in Sweden?

In early 2019, the SD leader Jimmie Åkesson famously had meatballs for lunch with Ebba Busch, the leader of the tiny Christian Democrats, who acted as a bridge-builder. A few months later, Kristersson met the SD leader for the first time in his Stockholm office. By early 2021 the cordon sanitaire dividing the parties had been truly dismantled, and in the autumn the three parties presented a joint budget.

Meanwhile, the Moderates stepped up their rhetoric against immigration and crime. But perhaps the influence has worked both ways? Maybe the far-right have toned down their policies, compromising with the centre so the parties can work together?

On the contrary, Åkesson and other leading SD figures have stoked up the fire and brimstone in their anti-immigrant message. For the SD, the problem is dark-skinned immigrants from Muslim countries whose values conflict with Sweden’s and who should therefore be deported.

The response among the Moderates – and also the governing Social Democrats – has been a deafening silence.

After the Easter riots in six Swedish cities, the Social Democrat government proposed a package of coercive measures to help the police and social services crackdown on criminals.

A televised debate between the party leaders last weekend brought this out very clearly. More than that, it showed how the Sweden Democrats have shaped Swedish politics since the country last voted four years ago.

In the debate on Sunday, prime minister Magdalena Andersson talked about being tough on crime and boasted that Sweden now has one of the strictest immigration regimes in Europe.

It was left to the Green Party (polling 4 percent) and the Centre Party (6 percent) to challenge the SD on immigration. They pointed out that the violent minority is tiny, and that tens of thousands of recent immigrants hold down jobs, obey the law and contribute to Swedish society.

Centre Party leader Annie Lööf listed some of the SD’s more extreme proposals, including demolition of high-immigration neighbourhoods, dawn raids on refugees, and collective punishment for crimes committed by a single family member. This was “pure racism”, Lööf said – where were the “red lines”, beyond which the centre-right would turn against the SD?

All the parties agree that segregation along ethnic lines has gone too far in Sweden, that integration efforts have failed and that something must be done. But there is a paucity of bold ideas that could really make a difference.

Immigration will once more be a battleground at the elections in September, with key politicians competing to be the toughest in dealing with unruly “foreigners”. Meanwhile, the underlying problems that have fuelled disaffection among people with immigrant backgrounds are unlikely to be addressed.

A few weeks ago, Swedish journalist Janne Josefsson spoke to Ahmed, one of the stone-throwing youngsters who shocked the country at Easter.

“We are second class citizens. You let us in, but then Sweden doesn’t care about us,” Ahmed told him. “We are trapped here. I have studied, but will never get a good job. At least once a week we are stopped by the police. In the end, you feel hunted, like a quarry. Do you understand?”

It seems that Swedish politicians don’t really want to.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.

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Listen to a discussion on Sweden and immigration on Sweden in Focus, The Local’s podcast. 

Click HERE to listen to Sweden in Focus on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts.

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