In the middle of the night from Sunday 23 to Monday 24, a group of locals in the southern town of Séméac quietly constructed a concrete wall around the entrance of a disused hotel in protest against plans to turn it into a shelter for migrants. The wall – nicknamed “the wall of shame” by some residents – became a symbol of anti-migrant rhetoric, and divided opinions in the small town, before it was eventually demolished on Wednesday morning.
About 30 protesters in the “Collectif Séméac” (the Séméac Collective) built the wall, which measured 1.8 metres high and was about 20 metres long, across the entrance to the Formule 1 hotel in the dead of night. When locals discovered the wall in the morning, it generated quite a buzz in the Pyrenean town and across France, and shed a light on how smaller, more rural French towns are dealing with the arrival of migrants.
The protesters say that they are not against migrants per se, but against the opaque way in which local authorities have gone about setting up the migrant centre. The hotel previously belonged to the AccorHotels group and was sold to Adoma, a company that manages social housing. The town says that 85 migrants are expected to arrive in August – around 40 of which will be children – and locals are worried about how the town is going to cope with the added strain on infrastructure.
One member of the collective, who preferred to remain anonymous so we have given him a pseudonym, firmly rejected insinuations that members of the Collectif Séméac are racist.
'The wall was symbolic – not anti-migrant'
The wall was symbolic. It wasn't against migrants. It was a symbol for the state, to tell them that you can’t just sell off a building like that without talking about it first, without reassuring locals and telling them what’s going to happen to it. There was a huge lack of information, and that’s what we’re protesting against. This is not xenophobia. We’re not scared of foreigners, we’re just scared of what’s going to happen. People are writing on Facebook that we’re racists, and it’s not true. Politically, this is a left-leaning town [Editor’s note: In the 2017 presidential and legislative elections, Séméac came out with strong support for far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon and for centrist, now-president, Emmanuel Macron]. I don’t think people are scared of migrants, but it’s not the same culture – it’s more a worry about cohabitation.
The collective was careful to stay entirely within the law when building the wall – even going to the length of renting the parcel of land in front of the hotel and sending off a request for planning permission, which was granted within 24 hours.
But other locals expressed their disgust on social media at what they perceived as a racist provocation, drawing comparisons between the West Bank barrier in Israel, the Berlin Wall and even US President Trump’s proposed border wall between Mexico and the United States.
Catherine, a resident of the town who lives near the Formule 1 hotel, said that there has been a lot of discussion in the town about the wall.
“It’s going to shake up the town, that’s for sure, but I’m not against that”
Photo sent by our Observer Catherine.Photo sent by our Observer Catherine.
The people who live in the town are quite divided in opinion. There are lots who agree with them, but lots who condemn what they’ve done. In Séméac, you never meet foreigners.
Many locals aren’t happy about the migrant centre because we were informed at the last minute. The hotel is in a residential area, and they didn’t know what was going to happen. We’re not going to leave migrants in the street. But we don’t have the infrastructure to welcome them at the moment. We have one primary school, with 12 forms, with up to 30 children in each form. And now we are going to have 40 more children? It’s going to shake up the town, that’s for sure, but I’m not against that. These are people fleeing war, they’re not future terrorists. I want to live in a humane town.Photo sent by our Observer Catherine.
The collective decided to tear down the wall themselves after some of their members received threats. But Catherine thinks that, with tensions inflamed in the town, this won’t be the last of it.
There’s no more physical wall, but people’s feelings haven’t changed. I spoke to members of the collective and they are still just as resentful against the arrival of the migrants. I just hope that this wall isn’t a precedent. The wall should never have been there – so I’m glad it’s come down.