Planted in the middle of the Bourbonnais bocage, in the Allier, the village of Ygrande has no more than 800 inhabitants. But in the quiet streets of the town, between the 12th century Romanesque church and the museum of the writer Emile Guillemin, the locals have become accustomed to meeting Eritreans, Afghans, Syrians, Sudanese or even Iraqis, all supported by the town hall and local associations in their asylum application in France. Since 2015, the communist mayor of the city has made it his hobbyhorse: “We need places to welcome refugees, including in rural areas. So I said to myself ‘Why not'”, summarizes Pierre Thomas, ensuring that he has hosted “about fifty people” for seven years.
Many have resided between six months and a year in Ygrande, living in vacant communal accommodation while their asylum application is being processed, taking French lessons and participating in the economy of the commune. Some finally left to study in the big cities around, while others stayed, conquered by this new life in the countryside. “Almost all have kept in touch locally. There have often been great encounters with the inhabitants… Even if it was not always won in advance!”, explains the mayor. “You must not believe that it was done like that”, he reacts after the words of Emmanuel Macron, on September 15.
During a meeting with the prefects, the Head of State announced a bill on asylum and immigration for 2023, regretting a current “absurd, ineffective and inhuman” policy which consists “of putting women and men who arrive, who are in the greatest misery”, in the poorest neighborhoods. Pleading for a better distribution of foreigners received on the territory, the President of the Republic mentioned in particular “rural spaces”, which “are in the process of losing population” and in which “the reception conditions [des réfugiés] will be much better than if we put them in areas that are already densely populated, with a concentration of massive economic and social problems”. A far from unprecedented proposal, which aims in particular to relieve congestion in Ile-de-France, “which concentrates currently more than 40% of asylum requests on the territory”, according to Matthieu Tardis, researcher and head of the Immigration and Citizenship Center at the French Institute of International Relations (Ifri). “This question of the best distribution of refugee populations is over 20 years old. But since 2015 in particular, many rural municipalities have already decided to welcome asylum seekers”, recalls the specialist.
Author of a study published in July 2019 on the resettlement of refugees in small French towns and rural areas, Matthieu Tardis thus observed that “in their diversity, in terms of geography, climate and economic opportunities”, rural territories “can be a very appropriate space for some exiled people, and very often allow a stronger social bond than in the big cities”. But not for all profiles. And not in any condition. “For this to work, support and good coordination between social workers, local elected officials, volunteers and associations is necessary. The State must play its role, and be physically present on the ground.”
“You don’t have to welcome to welcome”
For Pierre Thomas, in Ygrande, the communication of the city and the associations was thus “primordial”. In 2015, the city councilor first refused to organize a specific meeting to announce the arrival of refugees in his village, for fear of “too strong a stigma”. But he then recounts having taken the time to discuss with the most perplexed inhabitants and tried to defuse their arguments. “Some people were very excited about the project, while others were very vocal. They immediately told me that I was going to bring in burglars or criminals… There was a lot of fear of the unknown “, he explains. Once the first refugees landed in the town, some concerns also reached the ears of the mayor. “Some were moved to see veiled women, others were worried that they weren’t learning French… But after a few weeks, it all went away,” he says. “At first, I was a little cautious: it changed our habits, we didn’t really know how it was going to be organized, says Dominique, the village grocer. But overall, everything went well. I don’t mind if they’re there.”
“They brought in the wood of the grandmothers during the winter, learned our language, integrated like any other inhabitant. And if there was a problem, we solved it by discussing”, adds the mayor . When an Afghan refuses, for example, for his wife to take French lessons, Pierre Thomas is categorical. “If she doesn’t learn the language, you won’t learn it either.” When another makes disparaging remarks about the dress of the women of the village, he firmly recalls that here, “they dress as they want”. “And that’s how there were open-mindedness, on both sides,” concludes the city councilor. A few kilometers away, Dominique Bidet, long mayor of the town of Bellenaves, confirms: “We must not welcome to welcome. We must supervise all that, it’s important!” From 2015, the councilor of this town of 1,000 inhabitants has chosen to welcome 20 to 25 asylum seekers per year. Unlike Pierre Thomas, the elected official warned his population upstream during a meeting, in order to reassure any circumspect residents. “It did not miss: the room was full, there were more people than for the municipal elections! And I would never have believed that it would go into a spin at this point.”
In the last rows, several rows of citizens then make “extremist” remarks, and refuse to welcome refugees “without giving any concrete argument”. “But we didn’t give up that much,” rejoices the former mayor, who brings together more than motivated volunteers around him. From the first day, Philippe and Michèle Jabaudon have been committed to the twenty asylum seekers settled in the small town. Michèle gives French or cooking lessons, while Philippe organizes a bike workshop to facilitate the movement of refugees. “We also mobilized the city’s football club, that gave us an extra team!”, Recalls this retiree, laughing. The thefts and violence predicted by the most virulent inhabitants never took place, the “Muslim prayer room” that some feared was never installed – or even mentioned -, and the feared tensions were quickly forgotten. “At most, there was a fight between ethnic groups in the center which quickly calmed down, and some residents who complained about the noise at night, when migrants had nightmares… But it’s never went further,” recalls Michèle. The retiree is especially pleased to still be in contact with some of the refugees she has taken in, whom she sometimes accompanies in the follow-up of their administrative files. “We’ve never had a bad encounter. If you come with a smile and you respect people, they respect you back,” she says.
Unexpected social bond
For Marie-Thérèse Boggaert, the experience of welcoming refugees goes even further. “It created a social bond in the territory that I never imagined. I met people who had lived next to me for twenty years and whom I had never seen!”, Explains this 82-year-old retiree . With her husband Claude, she was one of the first to respond to the call of the former mayor of Loubeyrat, Jean-Marie Mouchard, to accompany asylum seekers settled in her town. From October 2016, this small town of 1,500 inhabitants, in Puy-de-Dôme, began to welcome around thirty refugees of different origins in the unoccupied buildings of a congregation of nuns. “To my great surprise, the response from the inhabitants was very positive: people took their cars to take the refugees to their appointments at the prefecture or to the doctor, volunteers took charge of the French lessons… elected, it’s the most beautiful thing that I could put in place”, he explains.
And yet, the first reactions were sometimes extremely violent. Three days before the arrival of the migrants in the town, the elected official organizes a public meeting to inform the population: of the 150 to 200 people present, a “core of around fifty people” from Loubeyrat or surrounding towns manifest strongly its opposition. “They were afraid of child rape, kidnappings… Anything big. All of this was motivated by primary and deep, rooted racism. It was lamentable,” recalls Jean-Marie Mouchard. In the days that followed, the mayor also received insulting letters, threats from extremist groups, anonymous promises of violence against his house or his family. The day before the reception of the refugees, around 11:30 p.m., he was even contacted by the firefighters. “There had been an attempted fire on the site, which fortunately was quickly taken care of. The refugees arrived the next day, and the forty months that followed proved to the inhabitants that there was absolutely nothing to fear. ”
Asylum seekers are thus quickly involved in the daily life of the town, attend celebrations for the end of year celebrations, even find a few work contracts once their asylum application has been accepted. “At one point, we had 15 fixed-term contracts at the same time!” Rejoices the former mayor. Some residents, for their part, form a lasting bond with the refugees. “I took a team of nine people to the mosque every Friday, I went back and forth to shop with them… We forged strong ties,” says Claude. “There is a 29-year-old young man whom I accompanied to French lessons for months, whom I took to the doctor when the health of his leg was deteriorating, with whom I had a long discussion… Since then, he has gone to live his life, but we are still in contact with him almost daily”, abounds Michèle. “If we didn’t already have three children, I could have happily adopted him,” she jokes.
“The advantage of rural areas is this important network of solidarity in terms of employment, reception, integration, learning the language or certain social codes, analyzes Matthieu Tardis. Adaptation is different than in big cities, where the anonymity of refugees does not always work in their favour.” The researcher wants to debunk received ideas: despite some stormy reactions, the rural population is ultimately not so closed to diversity. “I have often heard that a small hard core remains hostile to the arrival of refugees, but it is observed that this hostility subsides after several weeks. But for this to work, it is necessary to go through information and appropriate communication, and affirming the role of the State in the coordination of the various actors.”
Above all, the researcher favors a reception adapted to the different profiles of refugees. “The countryside will certainly be much more suitable for families with children who wish to live in rural areas than for a young man accustomed to big cities. Obviously, this must be taken into consideration”, adds Matthieu Tardis. Marie-Thérèse Boggaert is perfectly aware of this: for the majority of migrants whose paths she crossed, the reception at Loubeyrat was far from ideal. “Many did not want to remain isolated in the countryside: it remained a place of transit. Systematically, they wanted to return to the city.”
“Like the rest of the French population, this public needs infrastructures allowing them to easily carry out their administrative procedures, to go to see a doctor, to do their shopping… And despite everything, these villages are in decline, with services that This is something to take into account,” concludes Cyril Resseguier, former head of the Forum Réfugiés association for emergency accommodation for asylum seekers in Bellenaves and Ygrande. “If the State is counting on campaigns to welcome more asylum seekers, it must not forget to provide the means.”