France upset as director likens illegals to wartime Jews

11th March 2009, Comments 0 comments

The French government is upset over the director’s comments that the French police resemble the police of Vichy while illegals immigrants in Calais are like Jews during WWII.

PARIS – A French film-maker, whose new movie depicts a Kurdish refugee hoping to swim the Channel to Britain, has angered the government by comparing its policies on illegal immigrants to Nazi-occupied France's repression of Jews.

"To suggest that the French police are like the police of Vichy (the wartime French collaborationist regime), and that Afghans are hunted down, are the target of roundups ... is intolerable," said Immigration Minister Eric Besson.

Film-maker Philippe Lioret "more than overstepped the mark when ... he says that 'the illegals in Calais are the equivalent of Jews in 1943'. That sort of thing is completely intolerable," he told RTL radio last weekend.

Lioret made the comparison in an interview he gave about the new film titled Welcometo La Voix du Nord, a newspaper based in a northern French region in which lies the port of Calais.

Calais became a destination for migrants from across the world in the late 1990s with the opening of the Sangatte refugee camp, right next to the entrance to the Channel Tunnel linking France and Britain.

The camp was finally closed in 2002 but migrants still come to Calais in their attempts to get to Britain. Every night, some try to hide in trucks and trains using the tunnel or in cross-Channel ferries.

"If tomorrow you help a bloke who has no papers, you're guilty under the offence of 'helping a person whose papers are not in order'," Lioret told the paper.

"What country are we living in? I have the impression that we're in 1943 and that we've hidden a Jew in the cellar," he said.

French officials helped round up around 75,000 Jews who were deported during the Nazi occupation of France between 1940 and 1944. Most of these Jews died in extermination camps. Only 2,500 returned to France after the war.

In Lioret's film, which opens in French cinemas on Wednesday, he denounces a law here that punishes anyone who has helped an illegal immigrant with up to five years in jail.

"Welcome" tells the story of Simon, a just-divorced swimming instructor and former swimming champion, who becomes involved in the lives of illegal immigrants.

He meets a Kurd from northern Iraq called Bilal, played by Firat Ayverdi, whose previous attempt to cross the Channel in the back of a lorry has failed.

Like many of his counterparts in Calais, Bilal now wants to try to swim to Britain as he perceives it to hold a brighter future than France.

Simon tries to dissuade him. But he is touched by Bilal's determination and agrees to give him swimming lessons.

The Frenchman's eyes are slowly opened to the grim realities of life for illegals in his country, and to the racism to which they are subjected.

The film also probes the ambiguous attitude of the French authorities, who allow charity groups to help illegals, but who also enforce legislation that punishes citizens who accommodate undocumented migrants.

Vincent Lindon, the actor who plays Simon, has also condemned a situation in which "illegals are sometimes treated worse than dogs".

He told Le Parisien newspaper that when he went to Calais, he found "a town in a state of siege", dotted with giant barbed wire fences.

AFP / Expatica

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