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Circle of silence

Photo courtesy Teresa Maffeis/RESF

Someone once told me that if you are under thirty and not a leftist, you have no heart, while if you are over thirty and still a leftist, you have no brains. Even though it makes less and less sense to talk about left and right politics these days, I have despised the proverb ever since. Thus, on my thirtieth birthday, I made a point of attending a leftist (or actually humanist) rally.

It was in Nice, France. The organiser was Réseau Education Sans Frontières – education without borders – RESF, a nation-wide organisation that protects refugee or migrant families at risk of deportation. This risk can be due to various reasons – such as the French government’s aim to deport a set number of people each year, more or less with no regard to their specific situations.

Politically, Nice and its département, Alpes-Maritimes, comprise a somewhat special part of France where the extreme nationalist party, Front National (FN), enjoys great electoral support. However, there is also strong resistance.

I happened to be in Nice in 2002, when Jean-Marie Le Pen, the then-president of the Front National, went on to the second round of the presidential elections. Le Pen had received the most votes in Nice proper, but thousands of people filled the central square that night when the results were announced, to protest against the FN. The second round of the elections saw Jacques Chirac as the victor.

A few days before I attended the RESF rally on March 22, the FN had won between 21%-35% of the vote in the first round of cantonal elections in the region – more than ever before. This high support for the FN was in part due to a low turn-out at the elections, although that of course is not the entire explanation.

A week later, the second round of the elections took place. This time with a much poorer outcome for the FN, which ended up not having any of its candidates elected into office. So Nice seems to repeatedly find itself in such push-and-pull situations with the extreme right-wing. In light of the results of the cantonal elections only days earlier, it was extra-important for me to be there with RESF.

RESF emerged in Paris, after the school holidays in summer 2006, when French parents discovered that their children had lost many classmates. They had been deported during the summer, when no one noticed. The parents got organised into RESF, and the organisation grew very quickly. It now also enjoys the support of a number of celebrities.

When a family is known to be at risk of deportation, RESF forms a circle of protection around the family made up of godfathers and godmothers – people who work on raising awareness about the situation and getting the necessary papers so that the family can stay. The children involved in many of these cases are born in France and know no other home.

I spoke to sixty-four-year-old Annie and seventy-six-year-old Aloys Carton – a retired couple active in the Alpes-Maritimes chapter of RESF since the beginning. According to them, there are more than 500 people on the mailing list of their chapter, people who are active in the network to varying degrees.

RESF in Nice has been organising circles of silence every Tuesday for three years. For half an hour, the activists stand in a circle in the largest central square, Place Masséna, holding banners and posters, while a few of them hand out leaflets to passers-by.

This method was introduced by the Franciscan priest Alain Richard, who in 2007 formed the first circle of silence to draw attention to the plight of undocumented migrants in a detention centre outside Toulouse. This is based on the philosophy of nonviolence and has spread all over the country and beyond. Now, there are about 160 regular circles of silence across France.

“When everybody talks, no one listens. So, we stand silent,” Aloys replied when I asked him about the reason RESF chose this method. It definitely draws attention, as I was able to witness first-hand.

The reactions of the passers-by vary, I was told. However, most people agree that when children are involved, it is objectionable to treat the families the way they are treated. That evening I encountered only positive reactions from people who stopped by the circle. Some of them walked around the entire circle to read the posters carried by the activists.

As I looked around, everyone was perfectly silent and solemn – I was proud to be there, and the thirty minutes flew by. After the event, Annie and Aloys told me about some of the cases the organisation had been involved in.

Like the case of a Nigerian girl from Dijon who was handcuffed by the police and transferred to a detention centre for undocumented migrants in Nice, on her eighteenth birthday. Her aunt – a French citizen – was not even notified. Why would they take her so far away like that, I asked – because the police realised that their job was much easier when people they detain had no one there with them, Annie told me.

Luckily, RESF in Dijon quickly found out what had happened, and passed the information on to RESF in Nice, which then made sure the girl was released, given a bed to sleep and a ticket back to Dijon. Annie could not tell me what happened to the girl afterwards.

RESF tries to raise awareness in many ways – publishing educational materials, books, and music. They have combated ethnic profiling of students; convinced schools to ban the police from arresting students on their premises; provided shelter for those in need; and, even made efforts to keep vigil around schools where they knew there were children at risk of being picked up by the police and getting deported.

But the police and other government agencies have learned to circumvent the efforts of networks like RESF. For one, their resources are much greater than the activists’. Apart from transporting people to far off detention centres so that they have no one to stand by them, the police started using charter or military planes to carry out the deportations. Lesson learned after passengers and pilots of commercial planes started protesting deportation of people against their will.

Many local officials in Nice are also being aggressive or unpleasant, and even threatening RESF with legal action – “for the crime of solidarity,” as Aloys told me. “In 1998, a group of us helped some Kosovar refugees and the then-prefect of Nice invited us to thank us. Now we are doing the same thing, but what do we get? Threats.”

The struggle is still steep ahead, but by now certain things have become slightly easier. The network is broad and strong and communicates well. It cooperates with other similar networks. After a rough start, the French media is now more willing to listen to what the group has to say. RESF had made a name for itself.

As we parted, I told Annie about the much hated proverb dealing with leftists over thirty. She nodded towards her husband, “look at him, he is seventy-six and still leftist.” Then, she smiled, “You have got nothing to worry about, dear!”


Amila Jašarević is a human rights activist and writer.

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