Martine Landry, a 73-year-old pensioner working with rights group Amnesty International, faces up to five years in prison and a 30,000-euro fine in a trial that opens in Nice on Wednesday.
Landry is accused of facilitating the passage of two Guinean boys, then aged 15 and 16, into France from a Franco-Italian border post on 28 July 2017 so that they could have access to social services.
On Thursday a separate trial opens in the town of French Alpine town of Gap of two Swiss nationals, aged 23 and 26, and one Italian, 27, who accompanied migrants through a mountain pass on 22 April 2018.
They face up to 10 years in prison, 750,000 euros in fines and a ban from French territory.
In both trials, charges stem from a clause in immigration law punishing “any person who directly or indirectly facilitated or attempted to facilitate the irregular entry, circulation or stay of a foreigner in France”.
Solidarity and trafficking
Opponents of the law refer to this as the “solidarity offence”, pointing out that it applies to both humanitarian efforts and human trafficking.
“If I become friends with a migrant who has no papers and invite them to sleep on my sofa, I become a criminal, and if I become a trafficker and have Nigerian prostitutes come into France, I am a criminal under the same provision,” says Lucile Abassade, a lawyer in the Paris region.
“There is an exemption [for certain humanitarian cases], but it’s very narrow and it doesn’t apply to everyone who wants to give genuine help to people in need, who happen to be irregular migrants.”
As the trials open, France’s Constitutional Court is reviewing the law, following a request coming out of the trial of Cédric Herrou, an Alps region farmer convicted for helping migrants enter France via Italy.
The court will need to decide whether the law violates the French constitutional principle of fraternity.
“The Constitutional Court will have to decide what the fraternity principle is, whether it’s a principle, whether it’s legally binding, so this will be interesting for lawyers,” says Abassade.
“But the court will also have to say something about the text itself, in plain words, is it fair or unfair. That’s the underlying question.”
Such cases have become relatively common in France in recent years.
In 2016 Abassade successfully defended Rob Lawrie, a British man accused of trafficking for trying to bring an Afghan girl into the UK from the French port city of Calais.