CHAMPTERCIER, France — Residents of Champtercier fear their hamlet in the foothills of the Alps is about to become a new flashpoint for Europe’s migrant crisis: Its population of 800 is slated to grow sharply when it takes in 100 migrants from an overflowing camp in Calais next month.
Hundreds of suspicious residents are petitioning to keep the newcomers out and a minor presidential candidate has taken up their cause. Similar resistance has surfaced in other towns as the government prepares to shut the Calais camp and send as many as 9,000 migrants to 164 sites around France where they can apply for asylum and get reliable shelter, food and medical care.
The mayor, who agreed to accommodate the migrants in a shuttered vacation resort on the edge of Champtercier, is distraught at what she sees as an irrational, overblown reaction.
“It’s a question of humanity, a question of solidarity toward Calais, toward those people who are victims. They are victims first of war, of trafficking, of all they had to live through” in Calais, Mayor Regine Ailhaud-Blanc told The Associated Press.
She initially offered to take in two or three refugee families, and was taken aback when the regional administration announced that it would instead be 100 single young men from Sudan and Eritrea.
But the mayor remains committed to the idea of helping those in the so-called jungle camp in Calais, a filthy slum home to a growing population of migrants from the Mideast and Africa trying to cross the English Channel and reach Britain. The camp has become a symbol of Europe’s botched response to the migrant crisis, and a disgrace for the government of France.
So the government is sending the migrants to places like Champtercier, nearly 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) away. Those who come here will not be in the center of town but in a cluster of small buildings and bungalows unused since 2010.
Panicked about the arriving migrants, Champtercier’s residents created a Facebook page and online petition to ask the mayor to reject the migrants, due to arrive Oct. 15. The vacation center’s management company, Villages Club du Soleil, will receive 18 euros a day to care for each migrant, according to the regional administration. The migrants will also have 7 euros a day in pocket money.
The town hall and regional administration held a meeting Monday to address the concerns. Instead of calming tensions, the meeting turned into a forum for expressing fear and hatred of migrants. Anti-Muslim sentiment was pervasive, even though roughly half of Eritreans are Christian. Many complained that taxpayer money would go to foreigners instead of needy French people.
Security is a prominent, but vague, fear.
“I’m afraid. If I take the children to school, I take my daughter alone to school, if my husband is not there what is going to happen? If some of them are sitting there, if we refuse to give them cigarettes or stuff like this, this may cause problems,” said Caroline Sorriaux.
Another concern is the relatively large number of migrants.
“I think, as human beings, we have the same values. I am very open to hosting strangers. My concern is the number — around 100 people — and how it will take place,” said craftsman Bernard Perez.
Others were less accommodating.
“We know very well that gathering people like this, you create problems,” said teacher Nathalie Davin-Baro. “You think the blue sky and lavender will change their behavior?”
The regional administration, or prefecture, said authorities chose to put 100 people in one spot because it is cheaper. In addition to food and shelter, migrants will have access to French classes and medical care, and a free shuttle to travel 10 kilometers (six miles) to the nearest administrative center to pursue the lengthy process of asylum applications.
President Francois Hollande says migrants will stay in the reception centers for up to about four months while authorities study their cases.
As in the U.S. elections, immigration is emerging as a key campaign issue for France’s presidential race. France has seen rising support for the nationalist views of far right candidate Marine Le Pen of the National Front, which is resisting the plan to spread Calais’ migrants around France.
Former President Nicolas Sarkozy, also a candidate, increasingly espouses similar views. A minor conservative candidate, Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, took up the cause of the suspicious Champtercier residents, visiting and posting an online video urging them to “resist.”
Despite resistance, the mayor wants to stay optimistic.
“These fears are completely irrational. It’s the fear of the stranger, fear of what we don’t know,” she said. “That’s why I invite people to come and meet them, talk with them and maybe know more about their stories. To understand.”
Angela Charlton in Paris contributed.