France accepts migrant ferry boat it finances but goes on warpath against Italy

Migrants on board the humanitarian ship Ocean Viking heading to France with 234 migrants saved from the Mediterranean Sea, Thursday, Nov. 10, 2022. France will let the migrants disembark in Toulon. (AP Photo/Vincenzo Circosta)
By Olivier Bault
10 Min Read

France will welcome the Ocean Viking and its 234 illegal immigrants “on an exceptional basis,” President Macron’s Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin announced on Thursday, Nov. 10, after several days of wrangling with Italy. Darmanin also said that a third of the passengers would be “relocated” in France after disembarking in the port of Toulon.

The Ocean Viking flies a Norwegian flag but is chartered by the French NGO SOS Méditerranée, whose headquarters are in Marseille. It had been waiting for 20 days for permission to dock in an Italian port, but the Meloni government refused. The French interior minister has described this refusal as “incomprehensible” and “selfish.” On Nov. 11, France’s EU Affairs Minister Laurence Boone further said that “trust is broken” with Italy.

The French government has also called Italy’s stance “unacceptable behavior” and suggested, through its spokesman Olivier Véran, that this could in the future have an impact on NextGenerationEU funds paid to Italy. Olivier Véran said on the public radio France Info: “There are clear European rules accepted by the Italians who are, in fact, the first beneficiaries of the European financial solidarity mechanism.”

However, as the Italian newspaper Il Giornale pointed out on Nov. 9, Italy has taken charge of three of the four boats that requested to disembark illegal immigrants at the beginning of November. The blackmail involving the Italian recovery plan was well understood on the Italian side, and all the more so that the very same funds continue to be used to blackmail Poland and Hungary, the only two EU countries that have still not received a single cent of NextGenerationEU money.

On Nov. 8, as the Ocean Viking had finally decided to head for the French coast, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said the Italians appreciated “France’s decision to share the responsibility for the migratory emergency, which until now has rested on the shoulders of Italy and a few other Mediterranean states, by opening its ports to the Ocean Viking.”

In an interview with Corriere della sera, Italian Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Edmondo Cirielli stressed that “France welcoming a ship every four to five years is nothing extraordinary, but it is still good news.”

However, France’s interior minister on Thursday announced retaliatory measures against Italy for not allowing the disembarkation of 234 illegal immigrants aboard the French NGO SOS Méditerranée’s ship: France is canceling the relocation agreement under which it was to take charge of some 3,000 asylum seekers from Italy by the summer of 2023, and it will strengthen controls at the Italian border. Worse still, the French government is asking its European partners to suspend relocations from Italy as well.

“France lectures us, but turns away 80 migrants a day in Ventimiglia,” ran the headline in Il Giornale on Thursday. From the beginning of January to the end of October this year, 85,041 immigrants landed in Italy according to official figures, compared with 53,246 in 2021 and 27,203 in 2020. The relocation mechanism in which France and Germany participate only provided for 10,000 relocations of asylum seekers among those who will have landed in Italy, Spain, and Greece for all of 2022.

And as Il Giornale pointed out in another article published on Nov. 11, while Italy has witnessed the landing of over 60,000 illegal immigrants over the course of the last five months, France has accepted the transfer from Italy of only 38 asylum seekers during that period.

“So the decision to break promises had already been made,” Il Giornale wrote. “All that was missing was the excuse to make it official. And it is also clear that Paris’ retreat does not stem from our government’s choice to initiate a more assertive confrontation with the NGO ships.”

In addition to all this, it has to be said that the Ocean Viking’s free shuttle service for illegal immigrants making the trip from Libya to Italy is not only run by an NGO based in France but it is mostly funded by left-wing local governments in France, including the city of Paris. It is a large boat capable of taking aboard several hundred immigrants at a time (it had well over 500 on some occasions) and costing €14,000 per day to operate.

The French alternative media outlet La Lettre patriote has just published an internal document of SOS Méditerranée that can be seen here and which shows the subsidies they have received recently from French municipalities, departments, and regions.

“On its website, SOS Méditerranée lists a total of 83 partner local governments,” comments La Lettre patriote. “In addition to major cities such as Lyon, Paris, Grenoble, Bordeaux, and Strasbourg, the NGO can count on significant financial support from nine departments, including Ille-et-Vilaine (€50,000 in 2020), Haute-Garonne (€100,000 in 2020), and Loire-Atlantique (€200,000 in 2020). On top of this, there are regional grants from Brittany (€75,000 in 2020), Burgundy (€50,000 in 2021), Centre-Val de Loire (€50,000 in 2021), and Occitania (€75,000 in 2020). Unsurprisingly, all these departments and regions are governed by left-wing majorities.”

To make matters worse, the French Alt-Right website notes, “in February 2017, SOS Mediterranée received the label of ‘great national cause‘ directly from the prime minister. This has enabled it to broadcast its communication campaigns free of charge on public radio stations and television channels.”

In January 2021, an appeal was launched by 28 French left-wing local authorities to provide moral and financial support to SOS Méditerranée and its 69-meter-long and 15-meter-wide Ocean Viking ship. Of course, these 28 local governments committed themselves to providing such support. The mayors of Paris (Anne Hidalgo), Lyon (Grégory Doucet), Marseille (Benoît Payan), Lille (Martine Aubry), Bordeaux (Pierre Hurmic), and Grenoble (Eric Piolle) were among the signatories.

“By accepting for the first time that a boat disembarks migrants in a French port, Emmanuel Macron is sending a dramatic signal of leniency,” Marine Le Pen tweeted on Nov. 10. “With this decision, he can no longer make anyone believe that he wants to put an end to massive and anarchic immigration.”

Back in 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron twice refused to allow the Aquarius to dock in Marseille with more than 600 migrants rescued in the Mediterranean. With the Ocean Viking, however, it would seem logical that France should take full responsibility for its passengers as it finances its operations.

But Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, unlike the other major French parties, does not condemn Italy’s attitude. Speaking on France Info on Nov. 10, the spokeswoman for her parliamentary group praised the firmness of Giorgia Meloni’s government and said that if NGO ships pick up people in distress near the Libyan coast, they must take them back to their port of departure. Otherwise, Laure Lavalette added, the nearest safe port is in Tunisia, not in Italy.

“Our firm policy on immigration is the only one that can prevent men and women from risking their lives to reach our continent. We must refuse to be accomplices to the smugglers and to allow the Ocean Viking to dock in France,” Marine Le Pen tweeted on Nov. 9.

As for Giorgia Meloni, she recalled on Nov. 8 that “in matters of security and the fight against illegal immigration, the Italians have expressed themselves at the ballot box by choosing our program and our vision. (…) Our goal is to defend the law, security, and every person’s dignity. To do this, we want to curb illegal immigration, prevent further deaths at sea, and combat human traffickers. The citizens have asked us to defend Italy’s borders, and this government will not betray its word.”

Two days earlier, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán thanked his Italian counterpart in these terms: “Finally! We owe a big thank you to Giorgia Meloni and the new Italian government for protecting the borders of Europe. Grazie Giorgia!”

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