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Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité: France’s National Motto, Now Codified, Safeguards Humanitarianism

Assisting undocumented immigrants is now defensible and protected under “the principle of fraternity” recently enshrined in the French constitution by the nation’s highest constitutional tribunal. The move is a significant symbolic display of solidarity, but it could it also be indicative of a shifting political climate in France.

In a landmark decision last month, France’s Constitutional Council ruled that “fraternity is a constitutional principle”, thus grounding in law the third and final virtue from France’s national motto: Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. In a nation that professes freedom and equality for all, as well as fraternity without regard to class, creed or colour, France’s government is making strides to walk the walk when it comes to welcoming migrants and outsiders. According to the Council, “The principle of fraternity confers the freedom to help others, for humanitarian purposes, without consideration for the legality of their stay on national territory”.

The ruling comes in the midst of another tense summer in the European Union, where individuals and aid groups helping migrants face threats, obstruction of their operations – including seizure of rescue ships – and even criminal prosecution. France has also recently seen a large upsurge in legal proceedings against ordinary citizens for helping immigrants, colloquially referred to as “crimes of solidarity”. Under French law, smuggling foreigners into the country is punishable by up to five years in prison and fines as high as 30,000 euros. Though intended initially to prevent human trafficking, the scope of the law has significantly expanded since the onset of the forced migrant crisis in Europe.

Over the past two years, a farmer named Cédric Herrou generated considerable press after being convicted of shepherding hundreds of asylum seekers across the French-Italian border. Herrou, whose olive farm lies in the Roya Valley – a popular route for refugees looking to evade border controls – was fined 3,000 euros for assisting the undocumented migrants. He quickly went from local folk hero to the nationally known leader of the “French Underground Railroad”. A 2012 law protects citizens who provide migrants with necessities such as food, water and shelter – presupposing humanitarian intent.  Herrou provided aid beyond these parameters by collecting migrants in his home and coordinating groups of volunteers to lead them through French mountain passes. Today, Herrou’s numerous convictions are covered under the constitutional principle of exercising fraternity toward others.


Current French law does not permit the collection of data based on race, ethnicity or religion, as a way to safeguard against unequal treatment. However, critics are calling for a change to this outdated rule, which leaves minority groups vulnerable and with a lack of adequate representation. Copyright: 1bingo/Shutterstock.com

Despite growing nationalism, the Council’s ruling may be indicative of a slowly shifting political landscape in France – one that views foreigners in a more favourable light. The recent World Cup victory of the French national team, on which 19 of 23 players are migrants or the children of migrants, prompted a tremendous display of national pride, for example.  The French President, Emmanuel Macron, seems to be making efforts to embrace this new, more multicultural world order. Macron appointed Yassine Belattar, a French comedian with two Moroccan parents, to be a formal advisor on issues faced by France’s immigrant communities. Prior to the announcement, Macron noted that “white males” are not best placed to solve the serious problems faced by immigrant communities in many French cities. During the Aquarius crisis, Macron also provided support to Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and offered migrants the option to claim asylum in France. And, during the recent June EU Council meeting on migration, France was at the forefront of promoting solidarity measures and pushed for repeated coordination through the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to safeguard human rights.

Nevertheless, much of the French electorate remains resistant to migrants and to perceived threats to French identity. According to a report by the French National Consultative Commission on Human Rights (CNCDH), 44% of French citizens believe that Islam threatens their national identity, while 30% find Muslim prayer incompatible with French society. Additionally, a recent law aimed at expediting asylum claim processing and introducing new safety mechanisms for some of the most vulnerable refugees, has been castigated by some aid groups for favouring accelerated procedures at the expense of fairness.

Whatever the broader momentum, codifying fraternity has symbolic significance nationally and internationally, as well as concrete importance for benevolent French citizens like Mr. Herou. The law will not apply to individuals who intend to traffic migrants for money and, the courts reiterated, “No constitutional principle guarantees foreigners the right to enter or remain in the country, and fighting illegal immigration is a legitimate government function”. At the end of the day, it represents a victory for humanitarian principle and the potential for solidarity in individual initiative. Celebrating the ruling, Mr. Herou wrote on twitter, “In the name of fraternity, we will remain united”.

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Tori Travers

Tori is a freelance writer focused on international diplomacy and forced migration. She holds a dual BA in Public Policy and Global Studies from the University of Virginia and spent the past year resettling refugees in the US and assisting asylum seekers in Greek island refugee camps. Currently, she lives and works in Geneva.

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