Controversy has broken out in France over the first full-length feature film to explore the miserable existence of the hundreds of asylum-seekers who try to reach Britain through Calais.
The French Immigration Minister, Eric Besson, accused the movie’s director of "crossing a red line" today after he compared the experiences of the migrants – and those who try to help them – with the persecution of Jews during the Second World War. M. Besson said the comparison was "intolerable". He added: "I have the impression that the film’s promoters are committing a deliberate slur, no doubt with the intention of increasing publicity for the film’s release."
The movie, Welcome, tells the story of a lifeguard at a swimming pool in Calais who tries to impress his estranged wife by teaching a young Kurd how to swim the Channel to England. The film’s director, Philippe Lioret, has pointed out in interviews that it is a criminal offence under French law to help illegal immigrants in this way. "To see that a decent guy can all of a sudden be charged and that he can go to prison is crazy," M. Lioret told the French newspaper, La Voix du Nord. "It feels like it’s 1943 and we’ve hidden a Jew in the basement." But M. Besson said: "To suggest that the French police [of today] are like the police of the [wartime] Vichy administration – that the [asylum-seekers] are hunted and rounded up – is intolerable."
Watch a trailer for the film
In fact, as M. Besson should know, this is exactly what happens periodically in Calais. But the comparison with Jews in wartime France ends there. The illegal migrants are sometimes deported to their home countries. More often, they are taken to detention centres far from Calais, from which they abscond and make their way back to the Channel. The law threatening French people who help illegal migrants with a five-year jail sentence is applied unevenly. Since the closure of the Sangatte Red Cross camp in 2002, charitable organisations feed the migrants in the Calais docklands every night. Police raid, but not often.
Welcome, which won a prize at the Berlin film festival last month and opens in France tomorrow, is the first "fictional" movie to draw on the decade-long cat and mouse game between migrants and authorities on the French coast. When Sangatte camp closed in 2002, the then French interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, claimed that the problem had been solved.
The numbers of asylum-seekers did drop initially but they have now risen again to reach levels of up to 500 people, mostly Kurds and Afghans, sleeping rough in Calais at any one time. The migrants risk their lives by cutting through wire fences to enter the Calais ferry port and try to jump aboard lorries bound for Britain.