NICE, France — At times it was hard to know who was on trial, the smuggler or the state.
The defendant, Cédric Herrou, 37, a slightly built olive farmer, did not sit in the accused’s box. He did not deny that for months he had illegally spirited dozens of migrants through the remote mountain valley where he lives. He would do it again, he suggested.
Instead, when asked by a judge, “Why do you do all this?,” Mr. Herrou turned the tables and questioned the humanity of France’s policy of rounding up and turning back Africans entering illegally from Italy in search of work and a better life. It was “ignoble,” he said.
“There are people dying on the side of the road,” Mr. Herrou replied. “It’s not right. There are children who are not safe. It is enraging to see children, at two in the morning, completely dehydrated.
“I am a Frenchman,” Mr. Herrou declared.
The trial, which began on Wednesday, is no ordinary one. It has been substantially covered by the French news media for its rich symbolism and for how it neatly sums up the ambiguity of France’s policy toward the unceasing flow of migrants into Europe and the quandary they present.
France, foremost among European nations, prides itself on enlightened humanitarianism, fraternity and solidarity. And yet, perhaps first among them, too, it is struggling to reconcile those values with the pressing realities of a smaller, more globalized world.
The contradictions are being played out in courtrooms, in politics and in farmers’ fields, on the sidewalks of Paris and in train stations from the Côte d’Azur to the northern port of Calais, where the government demolished a giant migrant camp in the fall.
On the one hand, politicians in this year’s presidential election are competing to see who can take the toughest line on securing France’s borders. Most are promising a crackdown on migrants with admission reserved only for clear-cut cases of political persecution. Terrorist attacks have exacerbated anti-migrant sentiment.
But in these parts, Mr. Herrou, who has led a kind of loosely knit underground railroad to smuggle migrants north, many destined for Britain or Germany, has become something of a folk hero for his resistance to the state and his stand that it is simply right to help one’s fellow man, woman or child.
Others in this region seem to agree. In the square outside the pastel-colored courthouse, hundreds of sympathizers gathered and shouted, “We are all children of immigrants!”
Mr. Herrou got a hero’s welcome as he descended the steep steps late in the evening, trailed by television cameras.
Inside, not even the prosecutor, Jean-Michel Prêtre, seemed to want him there and praised his cause as “noble.” He asked for an eight-month sentence, but quickly reassured the court that it should be suspended, “of course.”
Still, the law is the law.
“He’s demonstrated a manifest intention to violate the law,” Mr. Prêtre told the court. “One can criticize it, but it’s got to be applied.”
The verdict, which will be made by the panel of three judges who heard the case this week — there was no jury of peers — is scheduled to be announced on Feb. 10.
It was normal that Mr. Herrou was not in the accused’s box — he was not a criminal in detention, after all. Still, that he stood or sat directly opposite the presiding judge throughout only seemed to underscore his special status.
The appeal for leniency was both an acknowledgment of widespread discomfort with the law, as a well as recognition of Mr. Herrou’s growing status in the region around Nice and its mountainous backcountry, the Roya Valley.
Mr. Herrou was voted “Azuréen of the Year” last month by the readers of the leading local newspaper, Nice-Matin, to the fury of regional officials.
“I am Cédric,” read one of the placards in the crowd. “Long live the righteous of the Roya,” read another.
The courtroom Wednesday was filled with people from the mountain — the men bearded and pony-tailed, the women in duffle coats — who had come to support Mr. Herrou and who were convinced right was on their side.
The notion that Mr. Herrou is trying to uphold what he sees as basic French values, rather than violating the law, is much of the reason he appears to enjoy a considerable measure of popular support. The argument formed the essence of his lawyer’s defense strategy.
Remember the last word in the French Republic’s motto, “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité,” his lawyer, Zia Oloumi, told the court.
“They are saying M. Herrou is endangering the Republic,” Mr. Oloumi told the three judges. “On the contrary, I think he is defending its values.
“You see, you have got this value, Fraternity, and the dictionary is quite clear,” Mr. Oloumi said. “Think about the impact of your decision on the practical application of the idea of fraternity.”
Mr. Herrou was not making any political points, Mr. Oloumi insisted. He was merely responding to a humanitarian crisis in his own backyard — the Roya Valley had become a way station for migrants.
The judges did not respond. But the lightness of the sentence called for by Mr. Prêtre suggested that the concepts invoked by Mr. Oloumi had resonance.
Mr. Herrou’s accusers seemed most taken aback by his stubbornness. Not every migrant Mr. Herrou picks up is by the side of the road. He finds many outside the migrant camp across the Italian border at Ventimiglia, on the lookout especially for women and children.
The presiding judge, Laurie Duca, reminded him that he had first been arrested in August, near his mountainside home at Breil-sur-Roya, with a van full of migrants.
At that time, the prosecutor released him, suggesting that Mr. Herrou’s humanitarian motivations absolved him. But that first arrest was evidently merely a warning.
“After August, you said you knew it was illegal,” Ms. Duca remarked in court. No matter. Mr. Herrou persisted, describing his migrant-smuggling work to journalists last fall and even occupying a disused summer camp owned by the state railroad when his own modest homestead became overwhelmed.
At that point — in mid-October — the authorities decided they had had enough of him. “You were there, and you were extremely active,” the judge said. “Why so much press?”
Mr. Herrou replied: “It is right that society should know about all this.”
The judge and the prosecutor suggested that this time, Mr. Herrou would not get the humanitarian pass he had benefited from previously. The local political establishment is furious with him.
“At the very moment when we need strict controls, Mr. Herrou’s ideological, premeditated actions are a major risk,” Eric Ciotti, the president of the departmental council and a leading right-leaning member of Parliament, wrote in Nice-Matin.
Mr. Prêtre suggested that Mr. Herrou’s persistence and openness had been his undoing.
“Mr. Herrou acknowledges everything,” Mr. Prêtre said, with astonishment. “This trial springs from a communications strategy for a cause that I totally respect.”
And yet, “this is what he told the police. He said: ‘I am violating the law.’ But I am the prosecutor. I must defend the law.”
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