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A French village mobilizes to help Ukraine — this time

Paul Taylor, a contributing editor at POLITICO, writes the “Europe At Large” column.

SAINT-REMY-DE-PROVENCE, France — Oh what a difference a nationality makes, especially when it comes to refugees and the country in which they’re seeking shelter. 

On a windy winter evening, a week after Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, more than 100 residents turned up to a little advertised meeting at the town hall of this small village in southern France. They were there to volunteer and help Ukrainians.

Several people offered to take in refugees. Two business owners offered storage space for public donations of food, clothing, medicines, bedding and necessities. A Russian teacher offered her services as an interpreter. And the mayor promised the town council would provide staff and facilities to support the relief effort. 

“I could not bear to watch the killing and destruction on television without doing something, anything, to help,” said Isabelle, a retired social worker. She articulated the feelings of shame, powerlessness and frustration that drove many volunteers to action. 

Within a week, residents had collected and packed enough aid to fill four vans, which set off from Saint Remy and the suburban town of Allauch, near Marseille, on the 2,100-kilometer drive across Europe to Poland’s border with Ukraine. Deputy mayor Yves Favergeon was among the volunteer drivers, and four days later, they returned to France having delivered their loads to a collection point and with 15 Ukrainian refugees — all mothers and children. 

Similar meetings have been taking place across the country as well, as ordinary citizens, horrified by images of war and destruction beamed into their homes 24/7, joined together in a spontaneous outpouring of solidarity and started organizing. 

In Saint Remy, retired businessman Philippe Rambaud and his wife, Veronique Julienne-Rambaud, a business coach, set up the “collectif Ukraine Solidarité” — an ad hoc group that doesn’t require cumbersome legal registration — to organize volunteers. 

Within days, 80 people — many of them retirees — were connected via a WhatsApp group and a roster was organized to staff the makeshift warehouse from 9 in the morning to 6 in the evening, in order to receive, sort and package aid donations. Volunteers offered free French lessons for newcomers, assistance in filling administrative forms, and practical equipment such as strollers and bicycles. 

A local supermarket donated moving boxes, pharmacies donated medicines and first aid kits, a secretarial services company provided free photocopying and printing. A group of volunteers collected carts of food and toiletries donated by shoppers at the supermarket checkout. Another group organized a lottery to raise funds for the refugees. Two weeks later, a second convoy packed with aid left for the Poland-Ukraine border and to bring back another eight refugees. 

Far from being a one-off burst of generosity, the local effort in Saint Remy has morphed into a sustained effort, fostering a team spirit and civic pride often lacking in daily life in France, where grumpy pessimism and waiting for the state to take charge are default attitudes. 

The only stain on this picture of altruism is the question of why no similar grassroots effort took place in 2015-16, when over 1 million mostly Syrian refugees poured into Europe. Or last year, when hundreds of thousands fled from the hardline Islamist Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan, as the United States-led NATO peacekeeping force was withdrawn amid heart-rending images of Afghans desperate to escape, clinging to the wings of planes. Faced with scenes of distress as harrowing as any in Ukraine, the French mostly closed their doors and their hearts. 

“People weren’t so generous then,” Julienne-Rambaud acknowledged. “It’s easier with mothers and children than with [the] mostly male refugees from Muslim countries.” 

Manuel Valls, who was France’s prime minister at the time of the Syrian refugee crisis, dissociated himself from then German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s welcome policy, branding it “untenable” and refusing to admit any more people than the European Commission’s allocated quota of 30,000.  

But this time it’s different. Sensing the changed public mood, President Emmanuel Macron has already said France is ready to take 100,000 refugees — still only a fraction of the 3.67 million who have fled the war so far. 

Isabelle, the retired social worker, said that when Syrian refugees set off for Europe, “people here were afraid. It shouldn’t be like that, but it’s true. People were scared of terrorism, of Islamism. But Ukrainians are Europeans.” 

In Saint Remy, the municipality now provides chairs, tables and a coffee machine for the warehouse and a meeting room for the refugees to get together, while town clerk Sonia Borel coordinates placing the new arrivals in suitable homes and getting their children into local schools. For now, she has more offers of accommodation than refugees. 

Long-standing social welfare associations, such as Saint Remy a tout coeur (Saint Remy with a big heart), organized separate collections of toys and clothing. In total, more than 100 people in a town of 9,100 residents are now involved in the effort in different ways. 

“No need to thank me,” said Lara, the Russian teacher, in response to praise she received on the volunteer WhatsApp group. “I volunteered my services to the town hall and I’m just keeping my word, not looking for glory or recognition,” she said. “We’re all a bit excited in this strange situation, but everyone is working toward the same goal — helping Ukraine and its refugees.” 

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