SAINT-BAUZILLE-DE-PUTOIS, France — This town was never going to surrender without a fight.
Required by the French government to welcome 87 migrants evicted from the sprawling Calais “Jungle” this week, this rustic hilltop community of ancient stone houses and 1,800 people erupted in outrage. Before the migrants even arrived, protesters had scrawled graffiti on its scenic streets, and the mayor had already submitted his resignation in the name of liberty.
As authorities sent more than 6,000 migrants from Calais to more than 400 “welcome centers” throughout France, small, quiet towns like Saint-Bauzille-de-Putois have found themselves thrust onto the front lines of Europe’s ongoing migrant crisis. But in these environments, the flash point becomes intensely intimate, dividing ordinary people over what to make of the black and brown young men who arrive nearly every day.
By the end of the week, nearly all of the Jungle’s migrants were relocated elsewhere in France in a relatively peaceful operation. But French authorities said 1,500 unaccompanied minors were left behind in reception centers near Calais, many of whom are probably eligible for asylum in Britain. On Saturday, French President François Hollande called on British authorities to “take their share” of these children, an increasingly contentious issue between the two governments.
Across France, some communities have welcomed the newcomers, greeting incoming buses with posters and balloons. Others have not, exhibiting a nativism determined to highlight perceived differences between “us” and “them.” Sometimes, that exclusion has taken the form of a vote, as in Forges-les-Bains, where 61 percent of residents rejected welcoming migrants last month. But mostly it has come in the form of violence, as in the welcome centers set on fire in Loubeyrat this week and in Arrès earlier this summer. Authorities are still investigating those cases.
There has been no fire in Saint-Bauzille-de-Putois, but there has been no welcome, either. The town successfully demanded that the government reduce the number of incoming Calais migrants from 87 to 44. Early Thursday morning, 43 arrived — mostly single men, and mostly from Sudan. “Stop Migrants!” screamed one graffiti message on a main street in the town center. “Migrants! Get out!” yelled another, scribbled on a gate.
Nestled on the banks of the Hérault River in the heart of the scenic Languedoc region, Saint-Bauzille-de-Putois is a classic French village. The tallest structure in town is the humble church, and its residents are proud of their closeness to the land: fishing in the river, hunting stags in the hills and drinking the local wines. What matters here are roots.
In the words of Michel Issert, 69, the mayor: “This is a good place to be born, to live and to die.” Many here do all three, living, like Issert, in the same stone house where he was born and his grandfather was born.
Sitting in his office, flanked by the French flag, he pulled out a calculator and explained why he had no choice but to resign over the incoming migrants. The government had assigned 207 migrants to be resettled in the entire Hérault region, he said, and 87 of them were to be sent to Saint-Bauzille-de-Putois. His fingers tapped the keys of the calculator, and a number appeared: 42 percent.
“This is unjust, illegal,” he said, pointing at the figure on the screen, which is higher than the percentage of the town’s population in the region. “We are in a situation of mathematical inequality. And mathematical inequality,” he added, “is Republican inequality.”
“When I tell my co-citizens that we had to take in 40 percent of the migrants from the entire region, they don’t understand me,” he said. “The last liberty of an elected official is to resign, and this is the position of the mayor of Saint-Bauzille. This was my last liberty.”
He said he will remain in office until his resignation is processed.
Issert, trained as a lawyer, showed a poster from the town’s campaign to reduce the number of Calais migrants it would have to host: “87 Migrants, That’s Too Much,” it read.
“It’s exactly the same problem with digestion. When it’s too much, it’s too much,” Issert said, patting his stomach.
On Thursday afternoon, the day of their arrival, pairs of Sudanese migrants from the Jungle wandered down the country road from the welcome center into town. One young man from the Darfur region of Sudan, who would identify himself only as David, said that Saint-Bauzille had not been where he wanted to go. Like thousands of others from Calais, he still hopes to make it to Britain, he said.
“We don’t know anything about what’s going on, anything about it at all,” he said, gesturing to the town. “We just want our cigarettes.”
With two companions, David continued onto the local tabac, passing a cafe terrace where residents sat and stared as the young men passed.
At the Cafe de l’Union, Denise Guibal, 78, sipped an afternoon espresso after an English course in town, squinting in the bright afternoon sun. “If it was just families, that would be one thing,” she said. “But it’s single men — this can be dangerous for women and girls.”
Three young women, all sisters, were also sitting on the terrace, taking a break from their shift. Their mother owns the cafe, they said, and they bus tables and run the kitchen. The biggest challenge, they all agreed, had nothing to do with the migrants themselves.
“The hardest thing will be the relations between the villagers,” said Marine Madar, 19, smoking a cigarette.
Her sister Sandy, 21, agreed: “People here can be very racist.”
“We, for instance, are considered foreigners, because we weren’t born here and haven’t lived here for 55 years,” Marine said, noting that they had arrived from Paris as children.
But for Madame Guibal, what to do with these newcomers was neither a question of racism nor exclusion. “I think, sometimes, that I have a big house and could very easily host someone. But,” she paused, “it would not be wise — I don’t have a network to help them, and besides, there’s no work.”
Again, the issue was simply a matter of numbers.
“It’s exactly the same problem in the United States, where people are building a wall to keep out Mexicans,” Issert insisted. “And why do they do that? Because they can’t possibly welcome all the Mexicans who want to come.”