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Refugee blues in the Pyrenees

Migrants on the southern border are causing France to re-examine its own history

A young migrant who has just crossed the Franco-Spanish border walks towards the town of Cerbere. Photo: RAYMOND ROIG / AFP

The southern end of the Balitres tunnel is in Catalonian Spain. The northern end, coiled round with razor wire, emerges at Cerbère train station in France. Built in 1876 at the height of the railway boom, the kilometre-long tunnel runs under the Pyrenees, at the point where the mountains tumble down to the Mediterranean at Portbou, on the Costa Brava. The well-trodden coastal route across the Catalonian highlands follows a branch of the old imperial via Narbonensis, which was laid down when Rome was at its height, fish was plentiful and borders were notional rather than national. The knee-slicing schist, prickly pear and dangerous cliffs, however, still predominate. Despite these dangers, in 2021, 13,000 migrants attempted to cross the border through the Balitres tunnel, or by heading up and over the steep hiking paths along the cliffs. Either way, they took their lives in their hands.

Signs of these refugees are scattered on the ground at the French entrance to the tunnel: torn identity documents, toothbrushes, t-shirts and towels. One resident, who lives at the Cerbère end, had his laundry filched from the line and a pair of trainers from his doorstep, only to spot a migrant wearing them in the village the next day. David Cerdan, a railway union representative at Cerbère, has seen the growing number of refugees at first hand. “On some nights there might be fifty or sixty crossings through the tunnel.”

Clandestine crossings increased by a third after tighter checks were introduced on the main motorway crossing at le Perthus, a little way inland on the French side. In 2021, the authorities stopped 12,864 undocumented migrants who were attempting the road crossing, and now the more roundabout, dangerous coastal route is back on the map. 

According to Frontex, the EU border patrol force, a total of 228,000 migrants entered Europe illegally during the first nine months of 2022. In the UK, cross-channel numbers by the end of October stood at 39,430. Many Maghreb and West African migrants have family and connections in France and so see it as a natural destination. Haragas – the Algerian term for people who burn their identity papers – take the risky sea crossing from Mostaganem in western Algeria to Spain, and from there up to the French border. With no identity papers to show, they can hide their identity from the authorities.

Razor wire on the French side hasn’t put them off. Neither have the 4,800 French frontier police, who patrol the long mountainous border, and who’ve turned the roads and hiking paths around Cerbère into semi-militarised zones, using spot checks and drones. Mountain passes that used to be open to traffic are now blocked by boulders. First it was terrorism that gave an excuse to limit cross border freedom of movement. Then it was Covid. Now it’s migrants. 

Locals are not happy with the hardening of the border. Catalans on both sides of the Pyrenees have been trying to shift the boulders that now block the mountain passes, as a matter of both regional pride and economic necessity. Pierre Becque is spokesman for the pressure group Albères Without Borders – Albères is the local mountain range. The group wants to reopen the pass at Banyuls, which was blocked by order of the prefecture in 2020. “The pass at Banyuls was an escape route in both directions for Jews, resistants, Allied pilots, during the Retirada and World War 2,” says Becque. “Many Banyuls people have family connections across the border. During the wine harvest, casual labour crosses from Catalan villages on the southern flank of the Albères, a distance of 18 kilometres as opposed to forty or fifty by the coastal route. It’s a cultural fact – for us this region is one, not two.”

Similar struggles play out all along the mountain range. For Catalan and Basque, national boundaries are arbitrary. Europe’s mosaic of regions and transnational histories – the Basque country, Catalonia and also Ulster, among many others – cut across the arbitrary borders you might find on a map.

Becque notes that the “border controls”, initially introduced by President Macron to counter terrorism, have now been prolonged indefinitely. “A few boulders will not stop terrorists crossing into France… Those responsible for the 2015 Paris attacks came from Belgium. And yet the Belgian border hasn’t been closed.” Becque sees clandestine immigration as a spurious excuse, as the Banyuls pass is too remote for migrants.

Hervé Cazaux, border patrol division chief in Perpignan, has his hands full. “Numbers have skyrocketed since 2020,” he says. “The typical profile is a twenty-something male from the Maghreb – Algerian or Moroccan – with quite a few minors crossing as well.” 

On any given day on the pass, unmarked French police cars drop migrants back into Spain. Such push-backs are common. The young men, clutching holdalls, make themselves scarce in the shrubbery, determined to try again. 

As elsewhere on Europe’s borders, the argument hinges on the distinction between a refugee – entitled to asylum – and the economic migrant, who is not so. Marine Le Pen, figurehead of the French hard right, has a house nearby in Millas, and she visited Cerbère in January in the run-up to the French presidential elections. Le Pen called for tougher border measures, and attacked what she saw as the EU’s laissez-faire attitude to migrants. Advocating “dissuasive immigration”, Le Pen’s views on refugees recall Theresa May and Priti Patel’s aim of creating a “hostile environment” for immigrants, a policy that is now apparently endorsed by Suella Braverman. 

Le Pen’s tough-on-immigration stance has garnered massive support. In France’s legislative elections, held in April, 58.6% of Cerbère’s inhabitants voted for the Rassemblement national, Le Pen’s rejigged National Front. Other communes on this stretch of coast also voted for the RN. Their concern seems to be that France, as they know it, is being lost.

When José Gonzalez, the 79-year-old RN delegate for the Bouches-du-Rhône, addressed the National Assembly in June, he drew on the strong sense of nostalgia for a lost France that is felt by many pieds-noirs – inhabitants of the former French colony of Algeria. On leaving Algerie franćaise, he said, “I left behind a part of my France. I am a man whose soul has been torn apart by a feeling of abandonment.” While an estimated 30% of voters for the RN in the Languedoc-Roussillon and Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur départements are thought to be pieds-noirs, this alone does not account for the party’s growing appeal in the south. High unemployment, concerns about immigration and crime (often linked) and an older population contribute to the RN’s success. In addition, just like the UK and US, France suffers from a potent mix of nostalgia, distrust of elites and alarm at a perceived immigration crisis.

The memory of Algeria looms large over the French-Spanish borderlands of the Mediterranean coast. The first colonial-era settlers in Algeria were Catalans from Minorca and Roussillon. Albert Camus, the French-Algerian Nobel laureate, was French on his father’s side, but his mother was Catalan – her family was from Minorca – and he was brought up by his maternal grandparents speaking Catalan patois. Camus had no illusions about the colonial experience in Algeria. The quality of life enjoyed by French Algerians, he wrote, “though superior to that of the Arabs, fell below the standard of metropolitan France.” Some pieds-noirs voters may now long for the lost certainties of the past. What they forget is that, for most French Algerians, those times were very tough.

Port Vendres, an hour from the Spanish border, boasts a sizable pieds-noir population. For over a century this pretty sea-going town (Portus Veneris, after the goddess Venus) welcomed colonists and troops from Algérie française, plying the steamer routes between Algiers, Oran and Marseilles. The colonies were good business. Troops bound for the Algerian war shipped out from Port Vendres and following independence Catalan and French pieds-noirs were repatriated to the region. In August 2022 a memorial to the 652 Port Vendres combatants who died in Algeria and whose bodies were never returned was inaugurated, sixty years after the war’s end. 

Louis Aliot, the mayor of Perpignan is vice-president of the RN and from pieds-noirs Jewish roots. For ten years, until 2019, he was Marine Le Pen’s partner. In the region’s capital, arguments about colonial history turn on its manipulation for political ends and on the funding of divisive memorials in the city. Josie Boucher left Algeria when she was 14 and is the member of an association committed to telling what it calls “a non-falsified Algerian history”. 

“My parents were poor Spaniards, driven by hunger, who went to Algeria in the 1880s,” she explains. “My mother was a seamstress and my father a workman. Despite their poverty, they were aware of their privileges. Even though money was tight, they could have a housemaid… I remember the Algerian town and the French town separated by security railings and that the Algerians couldn’t leave their area after eight at night… There was a river of blood between the two communities. It was only afterwards that I realised colonial society was riven with racism.” This is precisely the part of France’s history that Le Pen, Aliot and many nostalgic pieds noirs chose to ignore.

They also overlook the fact that France has had migrants before, quite recently and in far greater numbers than at present. Following Franco’s push northward in the Spanish Civil War, camps were erected on French beaches at Argelès-sur-mer, Port Vendres and Collioure to deal with the influx of refugees. In the second week of February 1939 more than a quarter of a million people crossed into France, in what was one of Europe’s largest refugee crises. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that those refugees – European, white, Christian – were more welcomed than those crossing today.

And yet France’s story of wartime immigration soon took a dark turn. As Vichy France developed its racial policies, the camp at Rivesaltes, on the bleak salt plain north of Perpignan, began to accommodate gipsies from Alsace, Jews fleeing Germany and other “foreign undesirables”. Five thousand Jews were held at Rivesaltes between August and November 1942. It had become a holding centre for transport to Auschwitz. At the conclusion of the war, it became a work camp for collaborators, Axis prisoners, Austrians, Hungarians and Soviet prisoners. 

In the cold winter of 1962, after French forces had been defeated in Algeria, the camp sheltered a total of 21,000 harkis, Algerians who had fought on the French side and who had been evacuated. Later in the decade, the camp became home to French Guineans, as well as Vietnamese who were fleeing the new Communist government in Hanoi. The camp’s Nissen huts were demolished at the end of the century. Today Rivesaltes is a memorial to the trauma of the sixty thousand victims of history who have passed through it. The striking memorial, funded by the EU, offers a stark contrast with the secure holding centres in obscure mountain villages for today’s migrants.

Portbou, on the Spanish side, is similarly adept at finessing the politics of the past. Signs, bumf and brochures direct tourists to the sea-facing cemetery where the German philosopher Walter Benjamin lies buried. A dramatic memorial by Dani Karavan takes the visitor down a tunnel to a glass wall over the waves. Benjamin fled from the Nazi advance on Paris in July 1940. Reaching Port Vendres, the forty-eight year-old with a heart condition hiked over the mountains into Spain at Portbou, where the Guardia Civil found he lacked a French exit pass and threatened to return him to the hands of the Vichy government. Like millions of others, paperwork got him in the end. Choosing suicide, he took the morphine he had been carrying since Berlin’s Reichstag fire of 1933, when as a Jew he first fled the Nazis. The little two-star hotel in Portbou where he ended his days has a plaque commemorating the whole sordid business. 

In life Benjamin was spurned, in death he becomes salutary, iconic – and lucrative. The politics of memory proceeds by selective amnesia, while today’s refugees and migrants climb the hills between France and Spain, and penetrate the tunnel to what they hope will be a better life. W. H. Auden’s “Refugee Blues” says it best:

Went down the harbour and stood upon the quay,

Saw the fish swimming as if they were free:

Only ten feet away, my dear, only ten feet away.

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