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A French farmer is on trial for helping desperate immigrants sneak into his country

French farmer Cédric Herrou speaks to the press as he arrives for his trial at the court of Nice, France, on January 4, 2017, for allegedly assisting migrants to enter and remain illegally in France. Herrou faces up to five years in prison and a fine of 30,000 euros.

The popularity of French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen is pulling much of the French political class to the right, with candidates across the spectrum now speaking openly about limiting the number of refugees who can enter the country and radically altering the open border policies that have defined modern Europe.

But at a moment when European headlines are filled with talk of closing borders and keeping out immigrants, Cédric Herrou, an olive and poultry farmer from the mountains of southern France, is being put on trial for doing the opposite.

On Wednesday, French prosecutors at a criminal tribunal in Nice charged Herrou with illegally aiding undocumented migrants, primarily from sub-Saharan Africa, to make their way over the border from Italy to France.

If convicted, Herrou faces a maximum of five years in jail and a €30,000 fine. Any punishment will certainly be milder — the prosecution asked the court for an eight-month suspended sentence and probation — but the trial itself is a real-time illustration of France’s increasingly fractious division over whether to welcome migrants or try to keep them out.

The quirky French farmer at the center of the brouhaha

Herrou, 37, is an unlikely entrant into that debate. He spends nearly every interview wrapped in a massive scarf, his beard full, his eyes shielded by thick round glasses beneath a newsboy cap, a small bun at the nape of his neck. He looks more Brooklyn bartender than symbol of resistance to what he and his supporters see as inhumane government policies.

Late Thursday, Herrou’s public profile rose even higher when he used a televised appearance with former French prime minister (and current presidential candidate) Manuel Valls to accuse the politician of adopting hard-line policies based on cherry-picked statistics on terrorism and ignoring the plight of young, often unaccompanied minors.

The implicit critique was of Valls’s political positioning: The presidential hopeful represents the left-wing Socialist Party but has used nearly right-wing talking points about refugees “destabilizing” Europe.

Herrou has also tried to build on his support among parts of the French public. On the steps of the Nice courthouse on Wednesday, he turned to face a crowd 300 deep shouting, “Solidarité!” and raised a fist. In court, he spoke of the horrors he has seen, including children, weak and thirsty, who were desperate for safe harbor in the West.

In an op-ed published in Le Plus de L’Obs on Friday morning, he echoed French singer Edith Piaf, saying, “Je ne regrette rien et je continuerai,” French for “I regret nothing, and I will continue.”

“Farming is what I do, my job is feeding people"

The Herrou saga began on October 20, when he was caught sheltering 57 migrants, including 29 children, on property owned by the French railway company SNCF. The majority of the migrants were seeking passage through France, on their way farther north. October was not the first time Herrou was caught helping migrants: Back in August, he was picked up with eight Eritreans in the back of his truck.

Those he has helped, Herrou told reporters outside the courthouse Thursday, have been children, families, “good people. I am proud to have received them.”

Further, Herrou explained, “It's not up to me to make a distinction between black and white, people with or without papers. It's not my job. Farming is what I do, my job is feeding people."

It's a bit of a calculated response: It is clear to most that these are not migrants coming through legal channels.

Herrou likens his efforts to those made in World War II to shelter Jews and anti-fascists. He hails from the town of Breil-sur-Roya in the Valle de la Roya, a mountainous region on the Italian border.

It was controlled by the Italians during the war and only came under the French flag in 1947. Jews fleeing German-controlled France were harbored there, for a time. Further, many who have settled in this region have family roots from Italy; they are migrants of another era.

Herrou is an anomaly in France’s increasingly anti-migrant climate

Jean-Yves Camus, a political analyst at the French Institute of Strategic and International Affairs and an expert on the French far right, told me in an interview Thursday evening that Herrou doesn’t represent a broad swath of French voters.

“If tomorrow you would ask the question to the average French citizen, ‘Is this guy right to shelter those refugees?’ Only a small minority would agree,” Camus said.

Camus said that reflects France’s continuing move to the right. He said Le Pen’s position on closing borders now has echoes in the country’s centrist political platforms, and that if Le Pen does well in the first round of voting this spring — as polls suggest she will — her likely opponent, François Fillon, who served as prime minister under former President Nicolas Sarkozy, will probably move further to the right in response.

The terror attacks in Paris in 2015 and in Nice in 2016, he added, have made such positions appear less extreme.

“There has been a significant increase in the number of people who say the only way to stop the terrorist issue is to close the borders,” he said.

Polls conducted last spring by IFOP, a French polling company, showed that as much as 72 percent of the French public was willing to end the open border policy of the Schengen Agreement, which allows free, unchecked passage among European Union countries. And in September, the Pew Research Center found that 70 percent of French citizens were unhappy with how the European Union was currently handling the refugee crisis.

Still, Herrou has clearly struck a nerve with those uncomfortable with the crackdown on refugees, and with many of the migrants themselves. A 14-year-old female migrant named Zahra who was traveling with an infant niece told CNN that Herrou is “like our father, our mother ... he is very kind and he helps us.”

A petition circulating on Twitter to dismiss the charges against Herrou had more than 27,000 signatures by Friday morning. Cédric Herrou is not a criminal, it read, but merely a man determined not to close his eyes.

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