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Empty Gestures: Immigrant Camp Evictions in France

The eviction of refugee camps near the port of Calais reflects broken immigration policies. Following the French far-right’s success in European Parliament elections, these policies will be harder to mend.

On Wednesday, May 28, French authorities evicted and bulldozed three immigrant camps located near the port of Calais in Northern France. The camps were housing as many as 800 immigrants fleeing disastrous humanitarian conditions in war-torn countries. Those expelled included Syrian, Sudanese and Afghan refugees.

The authorities’ ostensible concern over the camps was an outbreak of scabies – a contagious skin condition. Buses arrived on scene to take camp residents to community centers where they could shower and receive new clothes. Many refused, fearing arrest. Recognizing the impending closure of the camps, some immigrants made risky, impromptu attempts to cross the British Channel. Some hid, including a Sudanese refugee who died after concealing himself behind a bus located in a nearby supermarket parking lot.

This, of course, is not the first time police have targeted transient minority communities in France – a country whose government possesses a certain penchant for temporary, police-based solutions to immigration issues.

Discussing this latest wave of evictions, Jean Claude Lenoir, from the immigrant rights group Salam, remarked, “It is intolerable that once again these expulsions are being carried out without any alternative being proposed.”

Indeed, the evictions not only failed to address the tragic rootlessness of the refugees, but they also exacerbated the immediate situation in Calais. Authorities no longer have a centralized means for treating those infected from the scabies outbreak after the dispersal, posing further health risks for the evicted immigrants as well as other nearby communities.

Perpetual Displacement

Between July and August 2010, Nicolas Sarkozy’s government presided over a wave of anti-immigrant police actions: In the northeast suburbs of Paris, police violently evicted a predominately Ivorian squat (a harrowing video of the incident shows police dragging nonviolent protesters, including a mother and her infant child); additionally, the government oversaw the forced eviction of Roma communities across the country.

The Sarkozy government’s highly racialized, tough-on-immigration stance was an attempt to shore up support on the anti-immigrant far-right, whose allegiance has been shifting to the ascendant Front National from the center-right UMP (Union pour un Movement Populaire) for years. These practices, however, have continued under the socialist government of President François Hollande. The current government has perpetuated the displacement of ethnic Roma, much to the dismay of activists who hoped that a center-left government would behave differently.

Initially, an attempt to appease the far-right fringe, these aggressive and myopic policies targeting immigrant camps have since become normalized, enjoying the support of France’s political elite. Caught between violence in their home countries and a hostile government in France, refugees face an uncertain and dangerous future – especially in the wake of the 2014 European Parliament elections.

Controlling the Debate: The Electoral Victory of the Far-Right

Sadly, recent European elections indicate that these heavy-handed and self-defeating tactics in France are unlikely to change anytime soon. The current socialist government is embattled, plagued by ineffectuality and hampered by President Hollande’s widespread unpopularity. The government does not have the political capital to execute its progressive campaign platform, let alone the political capital necessary to shift immigration policy – rhetorically or otherwise – in France’s xenophobic electoral environment.

In the European Parliament elections in May, Marie Le Pen’s far-right Front National won its largest-ever electoral victory, with 25 percent of the vote, trouncing the center-right UMP and the Socialist Party. The Socialists experienced their worst-ever defeat in nationwide elections, attracting a meager 14 percent of the vote. The Front National will send 24 members (MEPs) to the European Parliament.

Voter turnout was low (abstention rate was 57 percent), and the results can be seen as the work of passionate, highly motivated euro-skeptic activists expressing frustration over economic stagnation and what they see as out-of-touch technocrats in Brussels. These factors, however, cannot obfuscate the growth of the far-right across Europe, as well as the probability that its representation in government – both at the European and national levels – will calcify elements of anti-immigrant discourse across the political spectrum. With the center-right and the center-left spending more political resources fighting to protect the European project, a strong, progressive push against anti-immigrant sentiment seems improbable.

Since the elections, Le Pen has nearly assembled an official parliamentary voting bloc that will serve as the anti-immigrant bullhorn of the European Parliament. European Union rules require 25 MEPs representing at least seven member states to form an official group. Le Pen has already collected support from the xenophobic likes of the Freedom Party of Netherlands (led by the boisterous Geert Wilders), Italy’s Northern League, Austria’s Freedom Party and Belgium’s Vlaams Belang. A couple of other rightwing parties with newly elected MEPs seem ripe for recruitment, including the Lithuanian Justice Order and Poland’s New Right Congress.

As xenophobic and nationalist politics become entrenched in the European mainstream, shortsighted and harmful policies such as those on display in the Calais refugee evictions will become harder to counter, leaving some of the most vulnerable demographics in Europe without help and support.

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