Calais Belle Ma Ville
On a blustery day in June 2017 at the entrance to Parc Richelieu, two figures, separated by more than a foot in height, stand shrouded in the French Tricolour and British Union Jack flags.
Roads have been closed, and occasional passers-by give in to curiosity and approach the two men. The rustling of leaves in the trees overhead is broken by the coarse twang of the tumbi riff in Panjabi MC’s “Mundian To Bach Ke” (“Beware of the Boys”) being carried on the breeze from a stereo in the white apartment block opposite. Crowds begin to gather, some sheltered beneath umbrellas.
“This is an historical day for Calais,” Mayor Natacha Bouchart decrees from a perspex lectern set atop a raised wooden platform. “Calais is about to reconquer its city and place in this coastline region.” A member of the centre-right Les Républicains party, Bouchart was first elected as mayor of Calais in 2008 and later re-elected in 2014. Flanked by a selection of French and British officials, she stands level with the microphone, her shoulders hunched forward, and reads a prepared speech charting her vision for the city’s future. Her words are defiant and optimistic, but delivered with little theatricality. “What matters is this vital link between our ports of Calais and Dover. What matters is the technical feat of the Channel Tunnel … What we want to restore and develop is this reflex action to come and go more frequently between the Cote d’Opale and Kent.”
The national anthems of France and the United Kingdom are played and, to broken applause, the covers are pulled away, revealing statues of Charles de Gaulle and Winston Churchill – two wartime leaders often in opposition to one another, but united against Nazi Germany – stood side by side. In front of them, a gateway of white steel structures traces the contours of France. Within each structure, the northern border gradually recedes – sculptor Patrick Berthaud’s rendering of the mayor’s aspirations. But it could just as easily have been groups of Chinese tourists attending the statue unveiling that day. According to a local news report from October 2016, titled “A Statue of Mao in Calais?” City Hall had explored the possibility of commissioning a sculpture which showed a fictitious meeting between De Gaulle and Chairman Mao when De Gaulle formally recognised the People’s Republic of China in 1964. The city also reportedly considered a contract with a tour operator that would bring Chinese tourists to Calais. “It could be compensation for the crisis in our city,” the mayor is reported to have said. The idea was not pursued. As those that had gathered for the unveiling drift away, copies of one of the local newspapers are handed out free of charge. “All You Need is Calais” reads the headline in English.
It is a day that City Hall has been building towards for some time. One thousand free day trips from Dover were offered in a prize draw as part of “Calais Celebrates Summer”, an effort to showcase what the city has to offer in a tentative first step towards rebuilding a troubled tourism industry. Coaches rolled on to early-morning ferries at Dover – the port city just across the English Channel, or La Manche (“The Sleeve”) as it is known in French – bringing the winners of the prize draw over for the day.
But walking along the Rue Royale, one of the city’s main commercial streets, the slogan “All You Need is Calais” rings hollow. As light rain falls from a matte grey sky, scattered groups of British visitors – easy to spot with their “Discover Calais” baseball hats and “Welcome to Calais” tote bags – wander largely empty streets. Some shops are open and have laid on special discounts for the weekend’s visitors, but others are shut and have notices pasted on the windows that read “fermé définitivement” – definitively closed. At its northern end, the street opens out onto Place d’Armes where Union Jack flags hang from the awnings of the restaurants and bars that dot the edge of the square. But they are mostly filled with bemused Calaisians, unsure of what to make of the imitation red telephone boxes that have suddenly appeared on street corners and the scale model of Tower Bridge, made from bamboo and wicker, installed in the middle of the roundabout by City Hall.
Revitalising the city’s troubled tourism industry will not be an easy task. Although not mentioned by the mayor – and noted only in passing by the British Ambassador, Ed Llewellyn, who commented on the improved “security situation” compared with the previous summer – in the minds of many potential visitors Calais has become known for one thing: the presence until October 2016 of Europe’s largest shanty town – the “Jungle” – and the daily attempts of its residents to reach the UK.
The following day, a short distance across town on a dusty strip of land at the edge of an industrial estate, pop music plays from the front of a van. A large group of men and boys stand in line as volunteers from the Refugee Community Kitchen unload metal dishes of vegetable stew, arranging them on a fold-out table set between two towering electricity pylons.
After the demolition of the “Jungle” in October 2016, most of its former inhabitants left Calais. But many have now returned – between 350 and 800 depending on who you ask – taking shelter wherever they can find it, within the woods that surround the easternmost edge of the city.
There is a sense of excitement in the air. It is Eid – a Muslim festival which marks the end of the month of Ramadan – though many of the Christians among the largely Eritrean and Ethiopian crowd have planned to celebrate too. But mobile phone batteries are flat, and the generator provided by one of the volunteer organisations has broken down, throwing hopes of phone calls that evening with families around the world into doubt.
Two police vans arrive and the handing out of food comes to an abrupt halt. “Allez, c’est fini” (“Leave, it’s finished”) one officer shouts repeatedly, his baton held tightly to his side as those who had gathered are told to disperse. A recent mayoral decree had banned “repeated, prolonged gatherings”, effectively criminalising the distribution of food to migrants, but was subsequently suspended by a Tribunal in Lille. When asked if the distribution of meals was often interrupted, a long-term volunteer said that it used to be, but not in the weeks since the ban was overturned, and so she didn’t know why it was happening again now. As people edge slowly backwards, away from the police, a palpable sense of tension hangs in the air. But it does so in such a way that suggests both sides know how the encounter will end. The disruption feels performative; familiar to all those involved, and enacted as much to keep up appearances as it is in pursuit of any particular outcome. There is a resigned humour in the air. “But I’m hungry,” one man jokes as he is pushed firmly back. Then, as quickly as they had appeared, the officers turn and walk back to their vans. There are cheers and waves as people race back into line.
An hour or so later, after a series of fine adjustments by an Afghan mechanic, the generator finally sputters into life. Shortly afterwards, a volunteer arrives with a box of four-way plugs which are immediately seized upon and daisy-chained one to another, and a multitude of phone chargers are quickly plunged into their sockets.
Nearby, in the back of the Refugee Info Bus — a volunteer-run transit van converted into an information centre on wheels — maps are studied and fingertips run across the borders of northern Europe. Faced with the enormity of just how impenetrable Britain’s border has become, other more fanciful destinations are floated. Greenland is mentioned. Yonas*, a sixteen-year-old who has travelled alone from Ethiopia, stares at the map. “Do you think it is possible to reach the UK by boat from Portugal?” he asks. “Where would you like to go?” he asks the others. Another boy closes his eyes and brings his finger down at random on the map. Everyone laughs.
Outside, a seventeen-year-old Tigrayan boy sits alongside several friends, each with half an eye on their mobile phone as the battery gauge slowly fills from the generator. His ankles are bare, and from beneath a pair of black jogging bottoms matted in dust, a pair of clean, shiningly bright turquoise green jeans cling tightly to his skin. We ask about them, presuming he does this to keep warm – temperatures here fluctuate wildly, and frequently drop below zero during the winter months. But they serve a different purpose. These, he explains, are his “England trousers” – something saved for his eventual arrival in the United Kingdom, but that must be worn each day on the possibility that it might be the day he successfully crosses the Channel in the hope of starting a new life.