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The French far-right voter on trial for helping a migrant

Beatrice Huret, the widow of a French police officer and a former activist of the far-right Front National party, poses in her home in Wierre-Effroy, northern France, on June 7, 2017. AFP / DENIS CHARLET

WIERRE-EFFROY, France: She may once have voted for France’s anti-immigrant National Front (FN), but now she faces possible jail time for helping the Iranian refugee she fell in love with. Beatrice Huret insists she has no regrets and believes she has done nothing wrong.

On June 27, however, she goes on trial for offering aid to a foreigner and, in theory at least, faces a jail term of up to 10 years.

It has been a long journey for someone who used to leaflet for the National Front, the far-right party that campaigns on a fiercely anti-immigrant platform.

Huret, a 44-year-old dark-haired woman, lives in the Calais area of northern France, where in recent years thousands of migrants have gathered awaiting their chance to cross the Channel to England – legally or illegally.

For 20 years she was married to a police officer, a member of the border police and a National Front sympathizer like her.

“I lived a basic life and I voted FN, like my husband, without really thinking twice about it,” she said.

She worked nights as a carer at a retirement home, tended to the house and raised their child during the day. When her husband died of cancer she continued as best she could, moving into the field of adult education.

Her life really began to change one night in February 2015 when she gave a lift to a young Sudanese refugee, dropping him off at the camp near Calais known as “The Jungle.”

“It was a shock to see all these people wading around in the mud,” she said.

“The Jungle” was a squalid, makeshift camp, a kind of shanty town for the migrants and refugees who had traveled to the north coast of France. Between 6,000 and 8,000 people stayed there in desperate conditions until the authorities eventually moved in and dismantled it in November 2016.

Back in 2015, seeing their plight, Huret decided to volunteer there.

It was a year later that she first met Mokhtar.

Mokhtar was one of a number of Iranians who in March 2016 sewed their mouths shut in protest over French efforts to demolish the southern half of the camp.

When they first met, he spoke English but no French and her English was at best, rudimentary. “It was just ‘hello, thank you, goodbye,’ so I didn’t speak to him immediately,” she said.

“He got up to get me some tea. You got a sense of someone who was very gentle, very calm and then his look ... it was love at first sight.”

And the language barrier proved no real obstacle.

“Our love story started there, with the help of ‘Google Translate,’” she explained.

Then a couple of months after their relationship began, another volunteer asked her to put up Mokhtar for a couple of days while they put together a plan to get him to England in a lorry.

But that plan came to nothing and he ended up staying with her, her 76-year-old mother and her 19-year-old son for a month.

Having endured eight months in the “Jungle,” Mokhtar had not given up on his dream of getting to England, and he enlisted her help in another, desperate plan.

She agreed to buy a small boat for 1,000 euros ($1,120) so that he and two friends could attempt the crossing by sea.

“If I hadn’t done it, they would have found someone else to do it!” she said. “That was their objective and I couldn’t have done anything to talk them out of it.”

So it was that on June 11, 2016, at 4 a.m. she took Mokhtar in her arms and hugged him goodbye before he and his friends set off across the Channel for England.

It was two months later that the French authorities took her into custody – in the same station her late husband once worked – for her role in helping him.

“I told the whole truth because, for me, I had done nothing illegal,” she said.

Her companion Mokhtar had made safely to England, though not without a scare when their boat began taking in water.

The 37-year-old former teacher has now settled in the northern city of Sheffield and has even obtained a work permit.

She visits him every other weekend, taking the cross-Channel ferry denied the migrants still searching for a route over from France.

And her English has improved. “I understand everything, but I still have a bit of trouble speaking it,” she says with a smile.

She has written a book about their story, “Calais, Mon Amour.” In it, she celebrates Mokhtar’s courage and dignity.

“Mokhtar gave me back the taste of forgotten love,” she writes. “But he gave me something even more precious, the taste of truth.”

It remains to be seen, however, how her truth will stand up to the truth set out in the prosecutor’s papers.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 13, 2017, on page 6.

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