Violence of Defend Europe in Briançon, France

Defend Europe arrived in Briançon, France, at the border with Italy on April the 21st, 2018. Some of these facts Defend Europe performed are related here. In this contribution I also propose questions about the relationship of the state with this far-right group.

I am a lecturer in health economics at the School of Advanced Studies in Public Health in Rennes, France. I did not go to Briançon by chance, this region represents in my life course a particular element. My interest is mainly in health and migration issues. One result of the research is that the production of good health is less impacted by the health care system and more by determinants of health (housing, food); this result is found in Briançon. That said, it is not the object of this text which is particularly interested in the actions of the identities during the period end of April, beginning of May 2018.
In order to get to this field of research I went through networks of solidarity with migrants. There is not really any rational choice but the ease of getting into these networks by sharing the same sensitivity as these actors.

Most of my results come from these actors of solidarity. Thus, what I write below will not be surprising to the reader who follows what is happening in Briançon on migration issues. The bet of this text is that it will not have the same effect, I do not believe the researchers more legitimate than other actors, but it is possible that a text written by researchers is perceived differently.

From Briançon, on can get to Italy by two roads. These two roads go through two passes, Montgenèvre at 1850 meters and Échelle at 1762 meters. At Montgenèvre, the border is on the pass. While at Échelle, the border is before the climb to the pass. A regular bus service serves the Italian town of Clavière a few hundred meters before the border of the Montgenèvre pass. The passage through Montgenèvre therefore implies that migrants can arrive a few meters from the pass by bus.
Coming from Italy, by the Échelle, the border is located before the climb of the pass. The last Italian city Bardonneche is served by buses and trains. Public transport does not allow to pass the pass which must be crossed on foot or by car. The Col de l’Échelle is also closed to road traffic during the winter (this year, it opened May 25), because it is not a major road.

The two passes form plateaus a few kilometres long each.

On Saturday, April 21, 2018, a Defend Europe group arrived at the Col de l’Échelle by 4 by 4 cars, snow shoes and a helicopter. The same day, residents of Névache (the nearest village) went to observe Defend Europe, climbing the pass with snow shoes, the residents were able to see the material and in particular the fact that the group came with chainsaws. Defend Europe built a fire whose remains are visible on the picture

Feu des identitaires au Col de l'échelle/ Remains of Fire built by Defend Europe © Jean-Baptiste Combes Feu des identitaires au Col de l'échelle/ Remains of Fire built by Defend Europe © Jean-Baptiste Combes
. To be able to make a fire whose hearth represents about 3 meters wood was needed. In French Forests harvesting wood is regulated regulated. The identities came with chainsaws and after their departure, tree stumps were found. They are still visible today, the stumps are 1,50 meters high, the height of snow that day
Souche d'un arbre coupé à 1,50 mètre de haut/ Remains of tree cut at 1.50 meters of height © Jean-Baptiste Combes Souche d'un arbre coupé à 1,50 mètre de haut/ Remains of tree cut at 1.50 meters of height © Jean-Baptiste Combes
. It can be assumed that Defend Europe cut wood to make their fire. The cut is made only by two types of actors in a communal forest. Either the National Forest Office or the inhabitants according to the right of “affinage”.

The day after their operation, residents of the village of Névache came to observe in which condition Defend Europe had left the pass. They could observe the cut stumps. The neck of the ladder is a plateau 2-3 km long. On this plateau, there is a shelter. The inhabitants had left in the shelter, for the winter, food and clothing. This shelter after the passage of Defend Europe had been ransacked. The remains of the clothes and the food were found in the hearth of the fire. Also, Defend Europe have left their waste on the spot. When we hike in the mountains, a good civilized practice is to bring back own waste down to the valley. It should, at least, be explained to Defend Europe that, in Europe at least, one does not leave his waste on the spot; we do not cut wood in a wild way.
Defend Europe placed their barrier on the pass, which is 4-5 kilometers from the border. Since the Second World War, the border is no longer on the pass but lower, on the Italian side. Since January 2018 at least, the passage through this pass was no longer passable. Indeed, the Italian side of the pass is very steep and two avalanches during the winter made the passage impossible. The French side remains accessible by snowshoe or ski.

In short, the Col de l'Echelle is not an external border to the EU nor is it a border line between EU countries and it was not a crossing point during the winter by migrants; this does not prevent Defend Europe from declaring on their website that "it was enough for a hundred young people determined to prevent any entry of illegal immigrants by the Col de l'Echelle. ". Had Defend Europe not come, it is very likely that that day, nobody would have passed by the Col de l'Echelle.

Border controls were reintroduced by France ahead of the COP 21 climate summit in 2015. They were reinforced following the attacks in Paris on the 13th of November.

Then, Defend Europe remained in the region, we can assume that they stayed at least a fortnight in Briançon in May. According to testimonies collected on May 13, Defend Europe tracked and pursued migrants. In two cases, they arrested them before attempting to hand them over to the Border Police (PAF).
In the first case, 3 people testified out of a group of 5 migrants. Before their arrest by Defend Europe, for fear of a car following them, these five migrants crossed the Durance River twice before their arrest by Defend Europe. Migrants crossed by making a human chain and with wood sticks. These are fairly extreme risks in this period when the Durance even before the confluence with the Clarée River is high. Then, they were arrested by Defend Europe in Briançon city, 2 people ran away and 3 could not managed to escape. Defend Europe discussed whether they should call PAF. At that moment, realising that men in front of them are not the police, one of the remaining trhee migrants fled. To escape the migrant said that he jostled with Defend Europe. This event has at least two lessons. First, Defend Europe being dressed in blue, manage to pose as police to the migrants. Secondly, some migrants, when arrested by what they believe to be the PAF, stop and did try to escape. Following the death of Blessing Matthew in the river Durance at the beginning of May, activists / volunteers who welcome the migrants before the crossing of the border advised migrants to accept to be arrested by the PAF because it is less dangerous. This area is a mountain area, so dangerous, a fall may be fatal, as evidenced by the two deaths in May. Moreover, the police pressure is often calmer than in Ventimiglia. For example, at the time when I made the observation (May 2018), the PAF for at least 2 weeks did not bring back to Italy people who declared themselves to be minors and presented themselves as such to the PAF. Thus, it seems more reasonable to avoid death to be stopped by the PAF than to die in the mountains. Once returned to Italy, migrants can try their luck the next day. It is often the advice given by volunteers in Clavière, better to be stopped by the police than to die in the mountains.
The second event that I can relate, concerns a group of migrants who were arrested just after crossing the border. None of these migrants tried to flee. Defend Europe called the PAF after stopping the identities. PAF officials on arrival told Defend Europe "Thank you guys, good job". Here, what will interest us is at least the familiarity of the police towards Defend Europe. Note that this type of talk is reported quite commonly by migrants. Is the PAF really satisfied with the work of Defend Europe? Defend Europe allow the PAF to make arrests that they can then count in their activity? However, is this free activity, which the PAF can then record, also not superfluous work? In fact why thank someone who adds work? One may wonder if there is a collision of views between the police Defend Europe. Do PAF officials thank but like-minded people? What's on is that the tone is used by the officials is familiar. The friendly tone between officials and Defend Europe questions at least the fact that the PAF accepts un-sworn substitutes doing their job.

These facts question one of the definitions of the state as institutions with a monopoly on legitimate violence (Weber, 1959, 2002). Given that the French State, via the prosecutor of the republic, has not (yet) pursued Defend Europe, and that, through its ministers, the state has not (yet) condemned the actions of Defend Europe, one can question whether France still in charge of its own borders or whether allow willingly marginals to operate in place of the PAF.

Migrants are not formally authorized to stay in France when they have just crossed the border. However, they have the right to seek asylum and therefore they can only cross the border to be able to seek asylum in Europe, and they have the right to do so (The Guardian Weekly, 15/06/2018). They are not foreigners in an irregular situation, but people with a default authorization to stay on the territory.
This text is surely marginally interesting. Readers will also be able to consult here and here researcher articles on the issue of violence at the border and the book by Kobelinsky and Courant (2017).

Giliberti, Luca. 2018. « La militarisation de la frontière franco-italienne et le réseau de solidarité avec les migrant·e·s dans la Vallée de la Roya. » Mouvements (93): 149155. doi:10.3917/mouv.093.0149.

Kobelinsky, C., Courant, S.L. (Eds.), 2017. La mort aux frontières de l’Europe : retrouver, identifier, commémorer. Le Passager Clandestin, Neuvy-en-Champagne.

Weber, Max. 2002. Le savant et le politique. Traduit par Julien Freund. s.l.: 10 X 18.


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