Yvan Benedetti at an anti-immigration rally in Calais
“I was told to calm down,” shouted Yvan Benedetti, a figurehead of France's far-right, after yelling so loudly that the PA system tapped out. “But how can I keep calm,” he blared, “when the situation is so terribly serious!”
The crowd – made up of around 350 locals and far-right supporters – gathered at yesterday’s anti-immigration rally in Calais gave him a rapturous round of applause. Organised by the local nationalist group Sauvons Calais (Let’s Save Calais), the demonstration was a response to the estimated 1,300 refugees currently sleeping rough in the French town, the vast majority making the trip there with the intention of illegally crossing the Channel into the UK.
This was the hometown nationalists’ big day. A relative newcomer on the French far-right scene, Sauvons Calais consists of about a dozen core members and had so far only taken part in small protests outside migrant squats, or organised “security patrols” around the town.
Now, they were taking to the podium in front of such far-right luminaries as Thomas Joly, general-secretary of the nationalist Parti de la France, and Benedetti himself, who used to head up the far-right L’Oeuvre Francaise movement until it was dissolved in 2013 following the killing of a young antifascist by activists allegedly linked to a number of far-right groups.
“The media says our collective is racist, but that’s not true – we’re nationalists and patriots,” said Kevin Reche, leader of Sauvons Calais. Unfortunately for the 20-year-old, the fact that he was standing next to a flag bearing a Celtic cross – a symbol associated with the kind of white people who traditionally kick up a fuss about stuff like bloodlines and racial purity – meant his argument fell a little flat.
Demonstrating his intimate understanding of the issue, Reche told me over the phone that he’s only spoken to a migrant once. “I don’t need to [speak to them],” he argued. “I know their situation already: they have a war in their countries and they’re not very happy. But French people aren’t very happy, either.”
Someone performing a Nazi salute behind Kevin Reche during the anti-immigration rally (Screengrab from an upcoming VICE News film)
Reche is no stranger to controversy; a picture of his chest tattoo – which looks a lot like a swastika – was published in the local press not too long ago. “These are all nationalist symbols,” he claimed during an interview at the rally, while someone performed a Nazi salute behind him.
The Sauvons Calais family portrait
Another speaker issued a warning to the French president. “Hollande, listen to us,” he demanded, “or the people may soon grab you by the throat.”
Migrants demonstrating in Calais
At a squat in a disused scrap metal plant just outside the town centre, migrants were aware that the far-right were in town and were worried about how the rally might end. “I’ve fled war – my village was entirely burned down,” said a Sudanese refugee who shares the squat with a few hundred other migrants. “I know what violence is and I don’t want it.”
Since the 2002 closure of the Sangatte camp, which used to house up to 2,000 refugees, the migrants have been living in squats or “jungles”, the makeshift encampments spread throughout the outskirts of the town. Most of those living here are men from Sudan, Eritrea and Syria, but women and children also make up a small percentage of the town's migrant population.
According to local charities, the number of migrants arriving in Calais has increased over the summer, all of them winding up stuck here as they try to work out how to cross over into Britain. “I’ve travelled thousands of miles, through the Sahara desert, but these last 20 miles are a very big barrier,” added the Sudanese man.
Last week the extraordinary storming of a ferry gate in Calais by over 200 migrants demonstrated that tactics might be starting to evolve from clinging onto a wheel axle or trying to sneak into the back of a lorry before it leaves the port. “That technique is a way to circumvent human traffickers through collective action,” explained Philippe Wannesson, a local activist and blogger. “They are getting organised among themselves.”
On Friday, 400 refugees – a third of the total migrant population in Calais – held a protest of their own against police violence, which they say is on the rise. Many of them, including a 15-year-old boy from Eritrea with a broken arm, were wearing bandages.
Abdellah, a 28-year-old refugee from Darfur, told me his foot was injured after he was found hiding under a lorry with other migrants. Now using crutches to walk, he explained that the police violence is still preferable to the dangers he faced at home. "If I’d stayed in Darfur, I could be dead," he told me. "I knew there were real dangers. I just hoped I could find protection in Europe."
During the terrifying boat journey that took him from Egypt to Italy, smugglers set fire to the vessel's engine to pressure refugees into paying more money for the trip.
French class at the migrant squat in Calais
The next day, the same refugees who'd been chanting against police violence were listening to a French class given by Maki, a Sudanese refugee who's been living in Calais for four years and volunteers to help the new arrivals. He was taking the group through French grammar: feminine and masculine articles, and possessive pronouns. One of the students, a Syrian refugee, was adamant that his son will study law at Oxford, but told me "Cambridge would be fine, too".
Food was being prepared in another area of the large open-air squat, and elsewhere people were showering and going about their daily routine. In May and July of this year police cleared two previous migrant camps with barrages of tear-gas. This place is under a similar threat.
As the class moved on to typical French idioms to practice pronunciation, Maki made the 30 students repeat one phrase several times: "Vouloir c’est pouvoir."
"To want is to be able to."
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