October 08, 2016 - 9:21 AM
PIERREFEU, France - French villagers are protesting the arrival of migrants who are being dispersed around the country as the government shuts down the slum-like camp in Calais that has become a flashpoint in Europe's migrant crisis.
Competing rallies were held Saturday in Pierrefeu in Provence in southeast France, under watch of gendarmes.
The mayor led several hundred people protesting a government proposal to house a few dozen migrants in an abandoned wing of a psychiatric hospital while they apply for asylum or study other options.
Left-wing activists answered with their own, smaller rally to welcome the migrants — but then were drowned out by yet another gathering organized by the anti-immigrant, far-right National Front party.
The National Front is making the Calais relocation plan a nationwide cause, urging mayors to resist and organizing protests across the country. Resistance to immigration is central to the campaign platform of National Front leader Marine Le Pen in her bid for the French presidency next year.
President Francois Hollande has pledged to close the Calais camp before winter and relocate as many as 9,000 migrants living there to 164 sites around France while their cases are examined. The Calais camp has been an embarrassment to the French government and symbol of Europe's failure to find solutions to the migrant crisis.
Authorities are already busing migrants out of Calais in small numbers ahead of what aid groups expect to be a larger operation starting in the next couple of weeks.
Pierrefeu residents hostile to the migrants say they fear the newcomers will threaten their security and worry about potential tensions with psychiatric patients. The government is considering sending up to 60 migrants to this town of 6,000 for up to five months.
"Even if we can understand the dismantling of Calais ... our small towns are not the solution for this dismantling. We are too small to host so many people," said Mayor Patrick Martinelli.
At the National Front rally, residents wore French flags on their shoulders. Some shouted "France is for French people!" and said they feared terrorists would be among the migrants.
National Front Senator David Rachline came to Pierrefeu to push Le Pen's presidential bid.
"French people will have to choose at the presidential election: Do they want — yes or no — to continue with those crazy immigration policies?" he declared.
Pro-migrant locals called for solidarity.
"I am ashamed because we repress the poorest. They need us, the people who are coming from abroad and are dying in the seas. We have everything here, we are a rich country, we have a rich village," said Pierrefeu resident Laure Paul.
National Front politicians were also at a protest Saturday in Forges-les-Bains, south of Paris. About 200 people marched through town to protest the arrival of about 40 Afghan migrants relocated from Calais to an unused building.
In Forges-les-Bains, villagers largely said they were not hostile to the migrants themselves — they just don't want them in their towns. Posters at the march read "Not against migrants, but against the state" and "Plan imposed from above = mounting anger."
Angela Charlton in Paris and Christophe Ena in Forges-les-Bains contributed.
News from © The Associated Press, 2016