Bourges: Migrants in the middle as left and right face off

With its chocolate-box old town and a 13th century Gothic cathedral, Bourges is a long way from Kabul.

But amid Europe's migrant crisis — which reached its peak in the summer of 2015 — it is to cities like Bourges that refugees from Afghanistan, Sudan and Syria flocked with the hope of a new start.

This sleepy city on the banks of the Yèvre has become the frontline as France faces its most unpredictable presidential election since the Second World War. In November 2016, scores of Marine Le Pen's National Front supporters faced off against opposing antifa marchers as they protested the arrival of 100 migrants from the Jungle migrant camp in Calais.

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Fleeing the Taliban

Kalim, Ahmadi, Tahir, Said and Naim are five of those migrants. They lived in the makeshift shelters of Calais before they arrived to the three-room apartment they share in the centre of Bourges. Aged between 19 and 22, the Afghans don't know much about French politics. They say François Hollande has been good to them and hope if the French people decide to elect Le Pen, she will be good to them too.

All five of the group had to leave Afghanistan because they had offended the Taliban in some way. Said was an interpreter for the British Army and as such was declared an unbeliever, his life threatened and his family beaten. "They came to my home and they beat them and they said if I didn't stop working for them they would kill me," he recounts.

Tahir, the youngest of the group, worked as a model in neighbouring Pakistan. His crime, he says, was "show-business."

The journeys from their homes to the centre of France have lasted from between nine months to three years. Said has not seen his family since 2014. Their trek across Asia and Europe, a 5,500km journey, has brought them through Iran and Turkey, up into Europe through the Balkans and finally to France.

Le Pen, who has said she would cut migration to France by 80% to 10,000 a year if elected, has described political refugees as an "ultra-minority". The Afghans have already felt first-hand the sting of European populism and its attitude to immigration, in Hungary under the right-wing government of Victor Orban. "If the police catch you they will beat you, they will take all the things off you, they will take your mobile or they can keep you a prison for six months," Tahir explains.

Now in France they want to stay, although they will likely move to Paris. All four know they need to take whatever work they can get, possibly in restaurants through people they know in the French capital.

Said and Kalim have been granted protection status under French law which, as under-25s, entitles them to stay for ten years in France, a path to citizenship. Tahir and Naim face greater uncertainty. Tahir had his first asylum application rejected but has the right to appeal. Naim is essentially starting from scratch with the procedure after French authorities discovered he had first registered in Germany. However, after German officials did not respond to queries, he is now permitted to reapply in France.

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None of the group has experienced any of the anti-immigration sentiment whipped up during France's long election campaign and have nothing but praise for the refugee association that has housed them and advised them. "On the journey we were all scared, every country, every time and when we arrived in France we were very happy. I thought 'I have found my destination now'," Tahir says.

Christians and Calais

In Bourges, other work to help arriving migrants is undertaken by the diocese of the Catholic Church. It provides meals and French lessons to those who need them. As Le Pen's influence over the polls has brought the question of immigration to centre stage, so too have issues of the role of Islam and the Church in France.

Beneath the vaulted ceilings and in the quiet hush of Bourges' Carmel monastery chapel, Father Joël Massip (a senior priest within the diocese), Jane Martin (a young mother active in the church) and Jacques Feuillet (a journalist devoted to his faith) discuss the way religion has entered into the presidential elections in France, a country that has long prided itself on its legally enshrined secularism.

For Massip, how Christians relate to migrants or refugees is straightforward, but he says the intolerance he has seen leaves him unimpressed. "Christians have to take care of those people, like migrants, like discriminated people. Some Catholic believers' behaviour regarding migrants have been unacceptable as far as I am concerned. I am so disappointed," he admits.

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The trio is generally in agreement, but Feuillet believes relentless media coverage of the migrant crisis has blown it out of proportion, leading voters feeling it is a greater threat than is actually the case. "I think that some people are perverted, or at least knowingly or unconsciously manipulated, by this television where they say: 'Migrants here, migrants there, Calais.' And then we say: 'Evil is coming to us.'"

Le Pen has presented the FN as the natural protectors of French values, which chimes with some traditionalists. Massip is sure most Catholics disagree with her, as he does. Nevertheless, the FN's positioning can be "a comforting message to them because it can contribute to the recreation of a piece of a dream, a perfect so-called Christian civilisation which never existed," he feels.

Le Pen is not the only candidate to have sought favour among Christian voters. François Fillon, who was the most likely contender to win the keys to the Elysée Palace before a scandal over alleged illegal payment of thousands of euros in public funds to his family led to a criminal investigation, has appealed to France's traditional religious base.

The right-of-centre candidate opposed gay marriage in 2012, but said he would not overturn laws allowing it. He did, however, say he would place restrictions on same-sex adoption. The subject divides the small gathering in the chapel and all three look to avoid the subject. Martin says a loving family of any kind should be free to adopt, Feuillet is evasive. Massip explains that the Catholic church is against adoption by same-sex couples, but recalls that the issue divided his own parishioners and put him under pressure to make pronouncements on a topic he felt was a matter for individuals to decide on their own.

If at one point Fillon had been able to win over Catholic voters, there is little feeling for him now in the convent. Martin, who is holding her new-born baby in her arms, says the man makes her wants to "puke". Referring to Fillon's scandal she explains: "I remember a priest talking to me about social justice, respect and so on. And now this from people claiming to be part of the Catholic Church... it is unbelievable."

Strikes and struggles

For the hard French left the issue of immigration is not one of national character or religion, but of wages. At the CGT Union for Cher, the area surrounding Bourges, members see the phenomenon of mass immigration to France as an opportunity for exploitation by their old adversaries: employers and directors.

In the group's offices above a row of shops to the south east of the city's old town hangs an old union flag for the region. A fading red trimmed with gold, its lettering reads 'The Departmental Union of the Syndicates for the Workers for Cher'. The CGT or General Federation of workers is the second largest union in France and represents over 700,000 members.

With a history of radicalism dating back to the 19th century, in 2016 the group was the driving force behind widespread strikes against France's working laws. The measures, which looked to curb overtime hours — threatening the French 35-hour working week — have been seen by the CGT as a frontal assault on the country's post-war social contract.

Sébastien Martineau, a hospital worker and General Secretary for the CGT in Cher, explains he has sympathy with the refugees who, like roughly 10% of France's population, struggle to find work. "We can see them in Bourges, they are taken care of by some organisations. They are learning the language. It's going to be hard for them to find work, because it's not like we're living in a dynamic district," he says.

"Maybe they are going to pressurise them into accepting low wages and therefore lower everybody's wages. New workers come in, [directors] exploit that to lower the wages. It has always been like that," he adds.

She explains how Syrian doctors, studying to meet French healthcare standards, can be paid for nursing work despite essentially taking on the responsibilities of a doctor. "They are working full time as doctors, more than the others because they are afraid of losing their jobs, yet they are paid €2,000 a month, with full night-time duties," she says.

Yves Thonniet, a construction manager and CGT member, attempts to inject humour into the proceedings. "The poor lads, can you imagine that, fleeing your country that is at war and ending up in Bourges, how terrible is that," he says, but the conversation returns to the CGT's overriding fear: "From the employers' point of view, it's more possible exploitation," says Nicolas Lepain, an electrical mechanic and CGT member.

Martineau explains how for Bourges and Cher the last 20-30 years have led to the destruction of employment opportunities. The local airport, a local Citroën plant and Bourges Military base have all cut their workforce by roughly three quarters. Thousands lost their jobs in the process. Bourges itself has stagnated, he adds. The high street shops and local business have been the same for ten years, or even closed.

Martineau says mass immigration to France is here to stay but it in its current form it doesn't benefit workers. "By dismantling the Calais camps, [the government] has chosen mass immigration. They did exactly what the right wing and far right want." He says. "These people are not free to go wherever they want for their well-being. They are being pushed on one side in Syria and Libya by Western countries' actions, and particularly France. Now some shortages of manpower are being solved in this way. We should be able to welcome anyone who wants to come in."

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