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Episode 5: Le paysan (The Countryman)

By Duolingo on Tue 23 Jul 2019

Cédric Herrou lived a quiet life as an olive farmer on the border between France and Italy until he began to offer shelter for hundreds of migrants struggling to cross into France. But when the French state took him to court for his actions, it would take Cédric and a small community of volunteers to convince a nation that freedom should know no borders.

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Ngofeen: There was a time when Cédric Herrou wouldn’t have considered himself an activist. He’s a small-scale olive farmer, or paysan, high up on a hill in the Vallée de la Roya, in the Maritime Alps. But that was before 2015, the year everywhere he turned he started seeing migrants: he saw them struggling up the mountain roads, looking for something to eat or somewhere to sleep.

Cédric: Je me sentais responsable. Je devais aider. À mon avis, un paysan doit être responsable de son territoire. Je devais surtout aider la Vallée de la Roya, parce que c’est un espace public.

Ngofeen: The migrants were mostly from Sudan, Eritrea, and Ethiopia. They’d crossed over the border from Italy on foot, which was just a few kilometers away. Cédric got to know some of them and found himself offering them shelter on his farm. Soon, hundreds of men, women and children started showing up at his house.

Cédric: Même si ce n’est pas très confortable, tout le monde se sent bien ici. On ne pose pas de questions aux gens sur leur passé. Ma principale motivation, c’est l’intégrité et la reconnaissance de tous. Ce sont des personnes, pas des « migrants ».

Ngofeen: This principled view of migrants as individuals with rights would lead Cédric down a difficult path. He would challenge his neighbors, his fellow citizens, and end up in court, defending the values enshrined in the French Constitution.

Ngofeen: Bienvenue and welcome to the Duolingo French Podcast — I’m your host, Ngofeen Mputubwele. Every episode, we bring you fascinating true stories to help you improve your French listening and gain new perspectives on the world. The storyteller will be using intermediate French and I will be chiming in for context in English. If you miss something, you can always skip back and listen again — we also offer full transcripts at For this episode, Cédric’s narration is read by a voice actor.

Cédric: Je m’appelle Cédric Herrou. J’ai 40 ans. Je cultive 350 oliviers dans la vallée de la Roya, dans le sud-est de la France, à quinze minutes en voiture de l’Italie.

Ngofeen: He doesn’t like to be called a “farmer,” because to him, that’s a job, and a job is to make money. That’s not what Cédric is about. That’s why he calls himself “un paysan.”

Cédric: Je préfère « paysan » parce que j’appartiens à la terre. Il y a un deal entre la terre et moi. Pour moi, un paysan c’est quelqu’un qui ne fait pas beaucoup, mais qui est pragmatique. Je développe un mode de vie simple, indépendant, dans la nature.

Ngofeen: Cédric hadn’t always lived in the countryside. He was born in Nice, where he and his brother grew up in l’Ariane, a poor neighborhood with mostly French Muslim families and recent immigrants. He noticed early on that his neighborhood had outsider status within Nice, and a lot of that had to do with money and skin color.

Cédric: On formait des groupes de jeunes, pour protéger notre territoire, notre quartier, notre identité. J’ai appris à me battre. J’ai vite compris que le reste de la société allait toujours nous condamner parce que nous venions de l’Ariane. Même moi, un blanc, je sentais que les gens qui représentent la « vraie France » ne m’acceptaient pas.

Ngofeen: As a child, Cédric despised school. He felt like his teachers were hypocrites for telling students they all had an equal chance to succeed, when he could see, looking around, that it wasn’t true.

Cédric: Alors souvent, je n’allais pas à l’école. Je roulais à vélo, je faisais des cabanes dans les arbres. Aujourd'hui, mon rêve est devenu une réalité : je vis dans une cabane géante, au milieu des arbres.

Ngofeen: Cédric’s 150-year-old farmhouse made of simple stone with a broken tile roof, is up a narrow and winding mountain road.

Cédric: On voit que c’est pauvre, artisanal, avec des imperfections. On a l’impression d’être sur une île, comme Robinson Crusoé. On est loin de tout, mais aussi au milieu de tout.

Ngofeen: Cédric lived far from issues that affected mainstream France until November 13, 2015, when terrorist attacks killed 130 people in Paris. Many of the attackers came from outside of France, and far-right politicians used the attacks to speak out against migrants. Police started boarding trains and spot-checking passports.

Cédric: Officiellement, on justifie la fermeture des frontières comme une mesure anti-terroriste. Le gouvernement ne dit pas que c’est pour empêcher l’immigration. Mais la vraie raison est anti-migratoire.

Ngofeen: That autumn, refugees started pouring into France, mostly across the Italian border. One day, Cédric was driving on a road by the Mediterranean. He saw young men standing on boulders, threatening to jump into the sea as police tried to catch them. It shocked him, but he drove on.

Cédric: De plus en plus de personnes essaient de passer en France. Et je vois que de plus en plus de policiers viennent dans la région.

Ngofeen: But a few months later, Cédric saw a family of migrants hitchhiking on a mountain road near his home. He stopped for them and asked where they were trying to go.

Cédric: Deux parents et leurs enfants. Je les emmène avec moi, ils ne parlent pas français.

Ngofeen: Cédric thinks they were from Sudan or Eritrea, but can’t quite remember. They had passed through Libya and managed the dangerous Mediterranean crossing before arriving in Europe.

Cédric: J’arrive à comprendre qu'ils veulent aller à la gare dans le village près de chez moi. Je les emmène. On ne parle pas la même langue, mais nous nous entendons bien. Je commence à comprendre leur situation.

Ngofeen: Cédric understood they were afraid they’d get picked up by the police. He brought them to the train station to take a train headed for Nice. Then he gave them his phone number. “If you’re in trouble, call me,” he told them.

Cédric: Ils n’arrivent pas jusqu’à Nice. La police vérifie leur identité et les arrête en chemin.

Ngofeen: The police raided the train, picked them up, and deported them to Italy. Later that day, the family called Cédric from the Italian border town of Ventimiglia, which the French call Vintimille.

Cédric: Ils m’appellent et me disent : « On est à Vintimille, dans une église, l'église San Antonio ». Le responsable de l’église s’appelle Don Rito. C’est un prêtre colombien. Il a ouvert les portes de son église pour les plus fragiles, les familles, les femmes, les enfants. Je pars à Vintimille pour retrouver cette famille et les emmener quelque part.

Ngofeen: In Vintimille, Cédric witnessed the severity of the migrant crisis. There were so many people. Families crammed into converted bedrooms with strangers, or sleeping in the open air. He saw parents who were powerless to help their children, even to make them something to eat.

Cédric: Ça doit être très difficile pour eux. Quand on est petit, on regarde ses parents comme s’ils pouvaient tout faire, comme s’ils pouvaient s'occuper de nous. Et là, les parents sont bloqués, sans pouvoir décider de leur futur. J'ai de la sympathie pour les parents. Quand je les regarde, je vois leur confusion, et leur honte.

Ngofeen: Cédric found the family he had driven to the train station, and he brought them to his house, where they stayed for a week. He contacted a local nonprofit, “Roya citoyenne”, and together, they organized a trip for the family to go north, where people are more welcoming to migrants than at the border.

Cédric: Je dois les aider à partir de ce lieu sains et saufs. Ici, les policiers ne respectent pas le droit. Ils arrêtent les gens et les renvoient en Italie. Ici, il y a beaucoup de personnes d’extrême-droite, de néo-fascistes. Donc, on essaie d’envoyer les gens vers d’autres départements.

Ngofeen: That was the first time Cédric helped a family cross the border, or frontière, but it wasn’t the last. On the French side, evading the police was a challenge. He had friends who would drive ahead to report back on which roads were open. He used a cell phone signal scrambler to keep his location hidden and avoid surveillance.

Cédric: Je sais très bien comment aider les gens à passer. Nous sommes très bien organisés. À chaque passage, il faut éviter la police, prendre une décision très vite… J’aime cette énergie et cette montée d'adrénaline.

Ngofeen: But one day, Cédric was driving towards his home with a car full of men, women and children when the police started following them.

Cédric: J'entends leur sirène. Ils me forcent à stopper le véhicule. Ils me disent : « Ne bouge pas ! Montre-nous tes mains ! » Ils pointent une arme vers moi. Je leur dis : « Il y a des enfants à l'intérieur ! On n'a pas d'armes ! »

Ngofeen: For the first time, Cédric was detained for 24 hours by the police, which is called une garde à vue in France. He was searched, left in a cell with the light on all night, interrogated at random. He lost track of time in there. He was alone and afraid.

Cédric: Bien sûr, ils prennent mon téléphone, ma montre. Ils cherchent la méthode la plus adaptée pour me faire parler. La méthode brusque. Les deux policiers qui jouent les rôles du méchant et du gentil. Pendant cette première garde à vue, j'ai peur.

Ngofeen: The police especially wanted to know whether Cédric had been paid to help the refugees, either by an outside group or by the migrants themselves. He told them the truth: no. He hadn’t.

Cédric: Je dis clairement pourquoi je le fais : « J'habite dans cette vallée, et en bas de chez moi, je vois des personnes, des enfants, qui risquent leur vie. Je les emmène pour les protéger, pour qu’ils gardent leur intégrité, leur dignité. »

Ngofeen: Cédric was finally released without any charges. In France, it is legal to assist refugees for humanitarian reasons, as long as money is not exchanged.

Cédric: Alors, parce que je suis assez sûr de moi, je continue de transporter des personnes.

Ngofeen: As word of Cédric’s civil disobedience started to spread, he worried about what his neighbors would say. But instead of confronting him, locals simply asked, “Why are you working alone?” They even took up a collection and helped him buy a nine-passenger van.

Cédric: Je comprends de plus en plus que l'État français agit de façon illégale. Et je suis horrifié. Obliger des familles à se mettre en danger pour des raisons politiques, je trouve ça absurde et choquant. Les gens essaient toujours de venir en France, même s’ils risquent leur vie.

Ngofeen: People were deported for entering France without a visa — the legal term is “en situation irrégulière.” Some also died in the process. Since 2016, at least nineteen migrants have died in the border valley where Cédric lives.

Cédric: Des migrants sont électrocutés sur le toit des trains. Ils sont tués par des voitures. Ils tombent dans des précipices. Il y a aussi des personnes qui sont mortes, mais qui n’ont pas été identifiées.

Ngofeen: The real breaking point, for Cédric, came with the death of Milet Tesfamariam, a 17-year-old Eritrean girl who was killed by a truck inside a tunnel as she was trying to cross from Italy into France. She was with her family.

Cédric: Voir cette scène, c’est ce qui m’a le plus marqué. Je ne connaissais pas cette fille. Après la mort de Milet, je me suis dit : « OK, maintenant je m’engage complètement. Je dois faire quelque chose. »

Ngofeen: That’s when Cédric started letting people stay at his home. At first, just a few found their way to his remote cabin outside of town. He didn’t turn anyone away. But then another 10, another 40…

Cédric: Ils sont de plus en plus nombreux. Je ne sais pas quoi faire, on n’a pas le nécessaire pour tout le monde. Un matin, je me lève. Il pleut. Je vois, à l’extérieur, environ 80 personnes autour de ma maison. Ils ont dormi sous la pluie, par terre. Je me dis : « C'est pas possible. » Je n’y arrive plus.

Ngofeen: Fortunately, a friend moved in with him to help — a woman named Lucile. She helped reassure the young girls who were staying there. They found a nurse to care for people’s injuries. They established house rules and meal times. And they spent hours building cases for asylum. Between April and September 2017, 1,400 people crossed Cédric’s threshold. On the busiest day, 250 people showed up.

Cédric: Les gens dorment par terre, sur le toit, partout, partout. Ils cuisinent tous sans s'arrêter. Ils recommencent à faire des gestes simples. Par exemple, préparer de la nourriture pour leurs enfants, ou décider de l’heure du repas. Ils retrouvent leur dignité.

Ngofeen: With the help of volunteers, Cédric erected an open-air kitchen. Then in 2018 they helped to build five wooden cabins and added an extra outdoor bathroom. When Cédric ran out of room, neighbors stepped up to house the migrants. Everybody helped: punk anarchists and middle-class professionals, lawyers and retirees.

Cédric: Je comprends que chacun le fait pour des raisons différentes. Parfois, aider les autres, c’est compliqué. Il y a des limites. Mais à un moment, une centaine de personnes m'aident concrètement. Ils hébergent des gens chez eux.

Ngofeen: Meanwhile, the authorities were turning up the heat on Cédric. Between 2016 and 2018, he was taken into police custody ten times and subjected to six search and seizures. Once, they even sent 40 officers to raid his property. They used battering rams to smash campers and cut down tents.

Cédric: Ils entrent en tenue de protection, avec des grosses armes à feu. Comme s'ils entraient chez un terroriste.

Ngofeen: Cédric has had phones, computers, money and documents seized. Police took his van. But the action that finally got him charged with a crime was one he organized with other activists in October 2016. It was born of an overwhelming feeling of desperation and exhaustion.

Cédric: Je dors deux heures par nuit, je suis si fatigué que je ne me rappelle plus ce que j'ai fait le matin même. Je passe mon temps à faire des allers-retours en voiture vers Nice et Marseille. Je n'arrive plus à réfléchir. Je ne sais plus quoi faire. Je dis à Lucile : « Il faut qu'on arrête. »

Ngofeen: Cédric, Lucile and their fellow activists were spending most of their time helping two groups of people that should, by law, be under the care of the French government: minors, or mineurs, and asylum-seekers, or demandeurs d’asile. Instead, these vulnerable people were being deported.

Cédric: C'est illégal d'arrêter et d'expulser des demandeurs d'asile. C'est illégal de renvoyer des mineurs isolés, séparés de leurs parents. C'est grave. Ce sont des enfants qui essayent d’échapper à la guerre.

Ngofeen: They formed a plan to make some noise about what they were seeing. To get the word out in the press, and get the attention of politicians. They would take over an abandoned building, a squat, and stage a political action there.

Cédric: Ce squat, c'est une action politique. On veut que l’État s’occupe des mineurs qui sont seuls et des demandeurs d'asile. On veut le respect de la loi, tout simplement.

Ngofeen: They snuck into an old building near the railway station at night with all the unaccompanied minors who needed care from child social welfare services, or l'Aide sociale à l'enfance. They tipped off the press. The next morning, at 7 a.m., police came to evacuate them all.

Cédric: L’évacuation se passe dans le calme. Un bus arrive et prend tous les jeunes. L'Aide sociale à l'enfance s’occupe d’eux.

Ngofeen: Cédric’s action landed him in the New York Times and made headlines across France. The children were taken into the care of the state. That was the goal. But Cédric told the police that he had helped hundreds of migrants cross into France. So the cops arrested him.

Cédric: Moi, je dis que je suis fier. J’ai aidé 200 personnes à passer la frontière. Mais je suis arrêté. Ce squat est à l'origine du procès que tout le monde connaît.

Ngofeen: In the lead-up to his trial, Cédric received about 30 death threats in the mail with graphic and disturbing imagery.

Cédric: Les reportages m'ont aidé, mais ça peut être dangereux aussi. Des menaces racistes arrivent, des messages envoyés en ligne et des lettres écrites à la main… Je comprends tout de suite que cela vient des groupes d'extrême-droite, qui sont nombreux dans les Alpes-Maritimes.

Ngofeen: Cédric was ultimately charged with aiding foreign persons to enter France without legal standing. Colloquially, French activists call this “le délit de solidarité” — the crime of solidarity.

Cédric: C’est-à-dire qu’aider les autres devient un crime. Malheureusement, c’est devenu de plus en plus fréquent ces dernières années.

Ngofeen: In his first court appearance, in early 2017, a sympathetic judge levied a fine of 3,000 euros and let Cédric go. But the prosecution appealed the sentence. At the appeal, with hundreds of supporters gathered outside the courthouse, Cédric made his stand: “I am a Frenchman,” he told the court.

Cédric: Des visiteurs viennent ici pour une certaine image de la France. La France, c’est le pays des droits de l'homme. Nous avons des valeurs à défendre.

Ngofeen: In August 2017, the appeals court delivered their verdict. They found him guilty, but his sentence was suspended to prevent him from serving any jail time.

Cédric: C'est une victoire, et je suis libre. Mais ce n'est pas fini.

Ngofeen: Cédric wasn’t the only activist in France facing fines and prison time for helping migrants. In 2018, he asked for a hearing before the Conseil Constitutionnel, a nine-person group that can intervene if a French law doesn’t adhere to the Constitution.

Cédric: J'ai le droit de poser une question au Conseil Constitutionnel : « Est-ce que le délit de solidarité n’est pas contradictoire avec nos valeurs républicaines ? Après tout, elles sont basées sur la devise française — Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité — notamment le mot “fraternité”. »

Ngofeen: “Doesn’t this so-called crime of solidarity contradict what our French Republic stands for: Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity?” he asked. Cédric and his lawyers argued that the way the law had been interpreted ran counter to those values. And in August 2018, the constitutional court agreed with him.

Cédric: Le Conseil Constitutionnel répond favorablement ! C'est formidable ! Cela signifie : on ne peut pas incriminer des personnes qui transportent des gens sur le territoire français, même des migrants sans-papiers.

Ngofeen: The court suspended Cédric’s previous sentence. In their decision, the judges stressed the principle of Fraternité in the French Constitution. They wrote that it should shield the actions of humanitarians. It set a major precedent for anyone wishing to help migrants inside France’s borders — but not for activists helping them cross the border, which is still illegal.

Cédric: Aujourd'hui, les jeunes sont moins systématiquement renvoyés en Italie. Et c'est en partie grâce à nous.

Ngofeen: Today, things are on better footing for Cédric. He and his friends created their own nonprofit and for the first time, they are well funded. They offer social, legal and professional assistance to migrants. What Cédric wants more than anything is for people in Europe to stop pretending that the migrant problem will go away if Europe closes its borders.

Cédric: Expulser les gens qui aujourd'hui voudraient venir chez nous, c'est être complice de meurtre. Les gens meurent en Méditerranée. La France ne peut pas se permettre ça.

Ngofeen: Cédric Herrou faces a new trial in the upcoming months over his actions at the squat in 2016. His lawyer hopes to have the case dismissed. He and his friends continue to work with their nonprofit, which is called “Défends ta citoyenneté”, or Defend Your Citizenship.

Ngofeen: This story was produced by Cerise Maréchaud, a journalist based in Paris. Cédric Herrou’s narration was read by French actor Jacques Obadia.

Ngofeen: We’d love to know what you thought of this episode! Send us an email with your feedback at And if you liked the story, please share it! You can find the audio and a transcript of each episode at You can also subscribe at Apple Podcasts or your favorite listening app so you never miss an episode.

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The Duolingo French Podcast is produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media. I’m your host, Ngofeen Mputubwele — à la prochaine!


This episode includes recordings from clapclapcinoeil under the Creative Commons Attribution License.

This episode was produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media.

Narrator: Jacques Obadia
Scriptwriter: Cerise Maréchaud
Senior Editor: Julia Scott
Editor: Natacha Ruck
Sound Designer: Samia Bouzid
Mixing & Mastering Engineer: Luis Gil
Executive Producer: Martina Castro