On Sunday 25th June, the mayor of Calais, Natacha Bouchart, brought 1000 tourists from Britain to Calais in an attempt to “reinforce the historic links between Great Britain and Calais”. In actual fact, this was a shameless endeavour to mask the reality of the situation in Calais.
3000 British people applied for the subsidised trip and 1000 people were selected to participate. The tourists were treated to a guided shopping tour of the city, and were then taken to the inauguration of two new statues, one of Charles De Gaulle, and the other of Winston Churchill. With great aplomb, in the presence of a gaggle of government bureaucrats including the Minister of Public Action and Accounts, the President of the Region, the Ambassador of Great Britain and the granddaughter of Winston Churchill, the new statues were unveiled to the sound of applause and the patter of rain.
Bouchart’s aim with this spectacle was to create a sanitised image of Calais. A town reaching out, proud of its historical righteousness, and encouraging more visitors (as long as they have the right citizenship status and money to spend). This is an utter facade but not without irony. The significance of these two figures, De Gaulle and Churchill, used as symbols of Calais is fitting. Not because of their heroic status for nationalists and those who see the history of empire and colonialism through rose tinted spectacles but because of their status as mass-murdering racists. Churchill had an outspoken hatred of the subjects of the British Empire, considering them sub-human. In Britain he was equally ruthless, in the face of organised resistance he deployed gun boats and tanks onto the streets. De Gaulle led a post-war authoritarian government so unpopular that it was nearly overthrown in 1968. He is also considered an architect of the colonial war in Algeria which devastated the country. What better figures to represent the state backed apartheid in Calais? The town where those without papers are denied access to donated food and clothes, where people on the move are denied entrance to libraries, swimming pools and other municipal facilities, where the police, supported by neo-nazi gangs, have embarked on a program of violence and harassment, and where at least 46 people have died trying to cross the border since the beginning of 2015.
To maintain this spectacle, any protest or criticism of the situation in Calais is ruthlessly shut down by the state and this is precisely what happened. Two protestors approached the mob of British tourists with signs saying “Open your hearts, welcome refugees” and “Calais doesn’t want your £, we need your solidarity”. After a short time standing outside the town hall holding these signs, the two were approached by the Deputy Mayor, Phillipe Mignonet, who ripped the signs from their hands. Shortly after this, several police officers arrived and began harassing the two sign holders, arresting one for not having ID. After one hour of identity verification the arrested protestor returned to attend the inauguration speech, closely watched by security agents.
This suppression of dissent shows the lengths that Calais officials will stoop to cover up the apartheid at work in Calais. The two protestors who raised their voices on that day, against the continual appropriation of De Gaulle’s legacy by the Calais town hall, are not the first, and they will not be the last.