As Migrant Routes Shift, a French Mayor Offers Shelter

BAYONNE, France — The government in Paris disapproves. yet the local mayor doesn’t care. He says he will continue sheltering the Africans crossing the Spanish border into France.

For Jean-René Etchegaray, mayor of Bayonne, a quiet in addition to refined city inside French Basque Country, 22 miles through the border, the item can be a matter of necessity in addition to humanitarian obligation.

Since Italy all yet closed its borders to migrants in addition to France has tried to close its border to migrants coming through Italy, Spain has become the prime gateway into Europe for migrants through Africa, with more than 57,000 arriving last year.

Many are at This particular point crossing into France in addition to transiting through Bayonne, a place where “everything can be reasonable,” Stendhal wrote inside mid-19th century.

yet what Mr. Etchegaray sees as his reasonable stance has put him at war with the government of President Emmanuel Macron, even as the mayor has become a case study inside front-line management of Europe’s migration crisis in addition to its contradictions.

The mayor doesn’t necessarily want these young men, predominantly through French-speaking West African countries like Guinea, Mali in addition to Ivory Coast, hanging around forever. He also doesn’t want them camping out on his streets of tall, old, half-timbered Basque houses nestled along slow-moving rivers.

yet he wants the migrants to exist, while in his city, in a “condition of dignity,” as he put the item. “I don’t think I can do less,” he said.

So Mr. Etchegaray took the young men off the streets, requisitioned an old military barracks near the train station, put camp beds inside item, brought in hot meals in addition to keeps the place heated.

The young men greet him warmly when he shows up, many times a day.

“Great man,” said one of his temporary guests, Abdul Sylla, a 29-year-old through Guinea who harbors vague hopes of studying. “Close to the people.”

Official France keeps wagging its finger at the city’s mayor.

the item can be “absolutely out of the question” that will the state “would likely give the slightest aid” to the mayor’s shelter, Gilbert Payet, who until recently was Mr. Macron’s regional representative for the Inner surface Ministry, testily told local reporters last month.

The mayor was unfazed.

“I saw that will the frontiers were closing, in addition to as far as I’m concerned, there are some fundamental rights that will can’t be trampled on,” Mr. Etchegaray said, evoking Bayonne’s heritage as a refuge for Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition in addition to as the birthplace of the great Jewish jurist René Cassin, who helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The French state’s attitude toward the mayor illustrates Mr. Macron’s own ambiguities on the subject of migration.

“Look, I’m not some kind of radical crazy person,” he continued, noting that will most migrants stay a few days then move on.

He even moved a bus stop for low-cost travel services in front of the shelter, to make the item easier for migrants to leave. in addition to he went to war with the bus company because its drivers were demanding, illegally, that will the Africans produce identity papers.

“We are the only squatters in France supported by City Hall,” Ms. Etcheverry said, grinning.

“that will mayor, he’s in deep against the prefect, in addition to visibly against the Inner surface minister,” said Ms. Etcheverry, a law student. “the item’s truly kind of extraordinary.”

A self-described “radical pro-Basque independence leftist,” she has found herself in political opposition to the 66-year-old center-right mayor before. Not This particular time.

The migrants come in addition to go at the center all day, most often arriving in inconspicuous cars with traffickers. The local police say the seedy district around the train station inside nearby Spanish border city of Irún has become a hive of trafficking.

One recent day, a group of six young African men with backpacks hurried in single file across a plaza in Irún in addition to down a flight of stairs.

They were bundled into a waiting car that will quickly drove off. Watching through the plaza above were several spotters talking furtively into their phones. All of the item happened right under the noses of a group of Spanish police officers 20 yards away who did not stir.

French in addition to Spanish officers wait on opposite sides of a bridge crossing the river that will separates Spain in addition to France in This particular corner. The border can be open, unless you are a migrant — in which case you might get stopped, checked in addition to sent back.

If the migrants make the item to the shelter in Bayonne, however, they have a temporary refuge.

The local police do not enter the courtyard that will was converted into the shelter, where a long, low hall can be staffed with volunteers in addition to stocked with donations of food in addition to clothing. The young men staying there play scrabble or lie quietly on camp beds, grateful that will the worst seems behind them.

“I never want to see the sea again,” said Ibrahima Doumbia, a young Guinean who crossed the Mediterranean by boat. “I had the fright of my life.”

With the arrival of cold weather inside fall, he knew the growing migrant population in Bayonne could no longer stay in one of the city’s main squares, where people had been camping out.

“the item was cold in addition to raining,’’ Mr. Etchegaray said. ‘‘We couldn’t leave them there anymore. They were cold, sick in addition to hungry.”

The mayor formed plans for the initiative quickly. “He came directly to the square,” Ms. Etcheverry recalled, adding that will she remembered him saying, “I’ll be back in a half-hour.”

When he returned, he led volunteers in addition to migrants to an underground parking lot for the municipal police — a temporary solution until something better could be found.

“He accompanied them, in addition to showed them where the toilets were,’’ Ms. Etcheverry recounted. ‘‘He saw that will they were quiet, in addition to that will we were just young people helping some other young people. yet we never imagined that will the item would likely end like This particular, in a center financed by the municipality.”

the item can be a mayor’s duty, Mr. Etchegaray said.

“The state just doesn’t want to know,’’ he added. ‘‘yet me, I’ve got to know. in addition to This particular was an emergency.”