CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1“A village in the Drôme faces the reception of migrants”, [1] “Burgundy welcomes dozens of migrants from the Calais camp”, [2] “Reception of refugees. Trégunc (29): two rallies go head-to-head”. [3]

2When the Calais “jungle” and the camps located between the Jean Jaurès and Stalingrad metro stations in Paris were dismantled in the autumn of 2016, there was extensive media coverage of the way exiles were handled and of their arrival in areas far from the major French cities. This arrival, seen as unprecedented, was raised to the level of an “événement” (event). [4] Newspapers all depict it in the same way: village populations are divided (“pro-reception” versus “anti-reception”), foreigners arriving by bus in unknown places and appearing disoriented.

3This research note seeks to go beyond the media’s description of the reception-event (Bensa and Fassin, 2002). It examines the ways in which people find their place in the host society and looks at the issues of geographical isolation, access to services and administrative procedures in areas far from the major French cities. It also explores the duration of reception and highlights the idea that rural areas are transitory spaces, suitable for temporary reception. To this end, it presents an ethnographic study carried out between March 2017 and May 2019 in the village of Lasalle in the Gard region of France, a municipality that simultaneously sheltered an Afghan family supported by a group of inhabitants and a group of eight Afghans assisted by an association mandated by the state in the framework of a CAO (centre d’accueil et d’orientation - reception and orientation centre). The following study analyses the conditions under which long-term reception is possible in a small municipality in a low mountainous area and suggests ways of answering the following questions: How do the forms and methods of reception of exiles influence their spatial and social practices? How do exiles experience and appropriate their new living space and according to what time frame?

4The aim of this survey was to compare the daily spatial practices of exiles - viewing them as individuals who are actors in their own lives and not as people in “transit”, “objects of treatment” (Felder, 2016) - and the actions of people (activists, retirees, Protestants, [5] employees) who are involved in reception. The analysis is based on approximately twenty interviews with exiles hosted in these areas, with employees of a state-mandated association, a group of activists in Saint-Jean-du-Gard, volunteers [6] from a support group in Lasalle [7] and with the Mayor of this village. The interviews and field observation were analysed in the light of the academic literature on the migratory pathways of individuals hosted in France (Mekdjian et al, 2014), on the host society and the commitment of hosts (Masson-Diez, 2018; Berthomière and Imbert, 2019), on daily cohabitation between French people and exiles (Gotman, 2001; Gerbier-Aublanc, 2018; Gerbier-Aublanc and Masson-Diez; 2019) or on so-called “villes refuges” (sanctuary cities) (Bontemps et al., 2018; Boudou, 2018). This work was further supplemented by the analysis of documentary films, in particular that of Sarah Limorté entitled Dans l’attente (Waiting), which directly relates to the Lasalle area. [8]

5After comparing two visions of the reception of exiled people in rural areas, that of the state and that of citizens, we will explore how the modalities of reception condition the way that individuals settle into [9] the territories. We will also pay particular attention to the profile of the inhabitants who support them and to the way their commitment (political, emotional, religious) manifests itself, and we will show that reception in Lasalle resembles a ritual, since the village has sheltered foreigners and persecuted individuals for centuries.

Reception by the state and reception by citizen volunteers: a dual vision of reception

Lasalle, a dynamic village with a mixed population

6The organisation and dynamics of Lasalle are symptomatic of the villages and small towns of the Cévennes foothills of the northern Gard. It is a village-street of 1,147 inhabitants (in 2016, according to INSEE), located at a distance from medium-sized towns such as Alès and Nîmes (forty-five minutes and one hour away by car respectively), but close enough to these towns and their services to attract new inhabitants. Lasalle is a typical example of a village that has been in a “repopulation” phase since the 1990s (Dedeire et al., 2011) owing to a positive migratory balance. It is indeed characterised by the arrival of new populations: city dwellers with substantial purchasing power (working people in search of different lifestyles, retirees), but also people in precarious situations who seek refuge in the countryside (Rivière-Honegger, 1998; Clavairolle, 2014; Cabanel, 2014). The village is not entirely gentrified (Richard, 2017; Tommasi, 2018), as may be the case in other areas of the inland Mediterranean area (such as the Provençal interior), in the sense that we do not observe the replacement of a low-income population by a more affluent population. On the contrary, individuals with heterogeneous socio-economic and geographical profiles live together in Lasalle. [10]

Map 1: Map showing the location of Lasalle

Figure 0

Map 1: Map showing the location of Lasalle

Source: BD ortho IGN 2015.
Credit: É. Martin (Inkscape), September 2020.

7Despite its few inhabitants, Lasalle has a genuine cultural and associative dynamic throughout the year. Numerous associations organise sporting and cultural events (shows, meetings, parties, concerts) which foster the emergence of spaces for sociability and help to overcome the isolation of inhabitants (Regourd, 2004; Bonini and Clavairolle, 2005). The village is also home to unusual initiatives such as a charity flea market, run by the village’s Protestant association, and a natural health clinic that offers consultations (with a psychologist, an etiopath, etc.) for people on low incomes (Martin, 2020).

8The Mayor, himself involved in the cultural life of the village, [11] highlights this vitality:


“There’s a real village life [...] it’s not a sleepy village. [...] People know each other, they meet up with each other, social links are extremely well developed here. There are more than 250 events during the year [which are not run by] the municipality [but] by associations.” (Interview, March 2017, Lasalle)

10It is in this context, that of a village with a mixed population and a dense network of associations, that exiles were received, namely an Afghan family for two and a half years by the inhabitants of the village and eight Afghans within the framework of a state scheme for one year (see Figure 1). Their respective arrivals differed both in terms of the reasons for their arrival and the concrete form of support they received (accommodation, guidance).

Figure 1: Chronology of the reception of the Afghan family and the young adults in the CAO

Figure 1

Figure 1: Chronology of the reception of the Afghan family and the young adults in the CAO

Credit: É. Martin, March 2020.

Reception by inhabitants: an emotional welcome

11The arrival of the Afghan family - a mother and her five children [12] - took place in the particular context of the media coverage, in 2015, of the arrival in Europe of thousands of exiles. [13] Some inhabitants of Lasalle, mainly Protestants involved in social actions at the local level, reacted and decided to welcome them in a spirit of compassion (Zaoui, 2007). This “unpremeditated response to an unpremeditated call” (Brugère and Le Blanc, 2017) resulted in the unexpected and improvised arrival of the family: [14]


“Someone made a phone call, it turned out the rectory was empty, two days later they were there.” (Interview with the Mayor, March 2017, Lasalle)

13The mother and her children were promptly given help by the villagers:


“When they arrived, they had no status [...] and no income, from November to February. The village provided all their food during these three months, the whole village left food at the supermarket. We also had a big party and made a big profit, and the municipal authorities were involved over this period, as well as the federation of municipalities, which paid for the day-care centre.” (Interview with a member of the collective, March 2017, Lasalle)

15The initial reception of the family was supported by the municipal authorities, which then remained more on the side-lines, leaving the volunteers some room for manoeuvre. Initially, only five people were involved with the Afghan mother on a daily basis, forming an informal group around her. The group was flexible in its operation and met every Thursday in the café in the central village square to discuss the progress of the situation. The individuals who made up the collective were over sixty years old, some of them having arrived in the Cévennes about forty years ago. This is the case, among others, of the lay preacher of Lasalle (or pastor), who has been a key figure in the reception of migrants in the municipality for several years.

16The reception of the Afghan family was the result of a sudden decision by a few inhabitants who reacted “in the heat of the moment” to a shocking situation and accepted - with varying degrees of awareness - to enter into an indefinite relationship with the exiles. The few people involved demonstrated their dedication to the family by assisting them and visiting them on a daily basis. The reception provided by the local residents, which was voluntary and motivated, contrasts with the reception driven by the state. The institutional reception took the form of a CAO facility, the establishment of which was imposed and coordinated by the Gard prefecture, without any real consultation with the citizens and the employees of the association mandated by the State to manage it.

CAO and CAOMI, flexible and fluid schemes that are difficult to anchor in the territories

17In recent years, the management of what the state calls the “migration crisis” has led to a proliferation of forms of accommodation facilities for asylum seekers (Braud et al., 2018). Lasalle was the site of one of the more recent ones, a CAO in the former gendarmerie of the village, from February 2017 to February 2018. The CAO opened following the closure of a CAOMI (centre d’accueil et d’orientation pour mineurs isolés -reception and orientation centre for unaccompanied minors) set up in the neighbouring village of Monoblet and managed by the same association. The form of this reception facility - created in response to a crisis and defined in the texts as “a temporary buffer zone” (Braud et al., 2018) - and the successive transfers of people from Calais to the CAO and from the CAOMI to the CAO, generated a great deal of uncertainty for exiles and employees alike, and conflicts with certain inhabitants.

18The field survey shows that the establishment of the CAO/CAOMI facilities destabilised the employees of the association mandated by the state to manage the scheme. [15] In the context of the emergency dismantling of the Calais “jungle”, they were informed at a late stage of the profile of the people they would receive. In October 2016, while they were expecting to take in families in the unoccupied former ITEP (therapeutic, educational and pedagogical institute) in the village of Monoblet (see photograph 1), they ended up taking in around thirty young men:


“We still don’t know why, the twenty-two places reserved for four or five families coming from Calais were never allocated and we were contacted by the Ministry of the Interior and the state services... suddenly, instead of taking in twenty-two people, they very forcefully asked us to take in twenty-nine unaccompanied minors instead.” (Interview with an employee, March 2017, Lasalle)

20This arrival was just as difficult for the exiles, twenty-nine young Afghan nationals, who did not know in advance where they were being taken or what was going to be offered to them in the Cévennes. The employees had to answer questions from young people who did not understand why they had been transferred to such a remote location and who “only saw France as a country of transit to England and whose only vision of France was Calais and its mafia system”. [16] This incomprehension led to a third of the minors running away from the CAOMI in Monoblet.

21The instability and responsibility [17] involved in supporting minors had a direct impact on the relationship between the managing association and some inhabitants, including a group of local activists. [18] The team, [19] which had opened the doors of the structure to the public, quickly set limits and forbade access to some “very demanding” individuals. [20] The latter denounced the implementation of “security measures” such as the keeping of “a register noting entries and exits” and criticised the association for merely “providing a roof over their heads, two meals a day, and fitting individuals into the administrative framework set for them”. The rigour shown by the association’s employees in dealing with the minors was seen as a determination to shut out others, to adopt a “sheltering rationale” rather than a “support rationale” (Braud et al., 2018).

22The closure of the CAOMI in February 2017 was just as rushed and chaotic as its opening. Employees were notified of the dissolution of the CAOMI only a fortnight before. Of the sixteen people who remained there, eight were declared minors and eight were ultimately declared to be adults. The minors were taken in by the ASE (aide sociale à l’enfance - child welfare) and the association, which had some leeway with the prefecture, managed to negotiate to continue to support the young people who were declared adults. They were transferred to Lasalle, in a building less out of the way than the former ITEP in Monoblet and more suitable for a small group: the former gendarmerie of the village (see Photograph 2).

23The CAO facility, and its equivalent for minors, the CAOMI, differ from other accommodation facilities such as CADAs (reception centres for asylum seekers) which have a permanent and fixed presence in the territories. The CAO/CAOMI system is fluid from a temporal perspective - uncertainty about opening, closing and duration - but also from a spatial perspective. Indeed, the prefecture does not seem to take into account the specificities of the territory when establishing such a facility, the choice essentially being based on two criteria: the availability of buildings - and therefore the possibility of accommodating a large number of people - and the existence of a local association that would be willing to organise the reception of exiles. In addition, there is no in-depth study of the location of the chosen sites, their potential isolation or their distance from essential shops. This disconnected character (Braud et al., 2018) does not favour the emergence of lasting relationships between inhabitants and those being hosted. The transfer from Monoblet to Lasalle was poorly understood and experienced as a rupture for both the exiles and the hosts. The group that had formed around the young Afghans in Monoblet - which consisted in particular of the group of activists from Saint-Jean-du-Gard - had to be reconstituted after the dissolution of the CAOMI scheme, [21] which did not help the group of Afghans to settle into the host territories.

Photograph 1: The CAOMI in Monoblet, a facility housed in a remote former ITEP

Figure 2

Photograph 1: The CAOMI in Monoblet, a facility housed in a remote former ITEP

Credit: É. Martin, March 2017.

Photograph 2: The former gendarmerie of Lasalle, a facility used for the CAO and the reception of eight Afghan adults

Figure 3

Photograph 2: The former gendarmerie of Lasalle, a facility used for the CAO and the reception of eight Afghan adults

Crédit: É. Martin, March 2019.

Settling-in dependent on multiple factors

24The settling-in of the exiles in Lasalle, considered as the gradual participation of an individual in the activities (employment and leisure) of a territory and the entry into new social circles, was conditioned by the modalities of reception as well as by contingent factors such as the profile of those received.

Reception modalities and impact on the spatial practices of exiles

25The modalities of reception, both legal and practical, led to differences in terms of the exiles’ appropriation of the territories. The status of the form of assistance provided to exiles and its legal implications had an impact on the mobility of the people received. While the state’s reception of exiles was governed by texts that employees had to apply to the exiles in their care, citizens did not have the right or the desire to restrict the family’s movements. In practice, the family used to hitchhike to Nîmes to meet up with other family members and friends, while the eight Afghans did not have complete freedom of movement. The young men had to show that they were present in the accommodation provided to them, were not allowed to “disappear” (a term used by an employee) even for a few days and could only leave the village to go to a medical appointment in a nearby town (Alès, Anduze or Saint-Hyppolite-du-Fort). This “confinement” (Kobelinsky, 2012) and the ban on crossing municipal boundaries were difficult to manage for young adults used to moving around.

26The geographical location of each dwelling, chosen respectively by the managing association or by the citizens, also had a direct impact on the way in which the exiles settled into the host society. The location of the accommodation influenced the frequency of people’s movements in the city centre. While the Afghan family was housed in central areas - in the Protestant rectory, located in the main street near the shops, and then in a private flat [22] near the municipality’s central square [23] (Map 2) - the young Afghan men were housed further away, on the outskirts of the village, in the former gendarmerie rented by the association mandated by the State. [24] The family went out for casual walks several times a day, while the eight Afghan men went to the village centre with a specific goal, to go shopping or play football.

27The extent and frequency of the mobility of the people received therefore depends on the modalities of their reception (status of reception and consequently location of the accommodation). In the case of institutional reception, the place of reception is limited to the accommodation, which is conceived as a multifunctional place for sleeping, eating and recreation, which it is possible to leave under certain conditions. Citizen reception, characterised by a high degree of freedom, generates a counter movement of opening up public space to exiles. The people hosted by the inhabitants are welcomed in the village and the multitude of places that comprise it, before being hosted in accommodation in the strict sense.

Map 2: Location of the accommodation of the Afghan family (on arrival and several months later) and of the eight Afghan men

Figure 4

Map 2: Location of the accommodation of the Afghan family (on arrival and several months later) and of the eight Afghan men

Sources: BD Topo IGN 2016, field data.
Credit: É. Martin (QGIS 2.18.16), March 2020.

A family, the ideal profile for reception?

28The profile of those received (in this case a family and single young men) is separate from the form of reception and also explains the varying ease with which they manage to settle into the village.

29Arriving as a single mother in Lasalle, with children, was paradoxically an asset for her. The inhabitants felt that they had a duty to support and protect her. They were made aware of the family’s history before her arrival and supported her from the very first weeks. The arrival of the eight Afghan men did not provoke a surge of empathy, or at least not to the same extent as for the family. This is explained by the fact that the inhabitants knew nothing about the personal situation of each of the young men, apart from the few who continued to support them after their move from the CAOMI to the CAO.

30In addition, the municipality recognised the value of taking in a family and saw them as potential new inhabitants. In an interview, the Mayor himself made a distinction between the reception of the Afghan family and the group of eight Afghan men:


“It’s not the same, it’s really two very different paths. [The] young people [are] just passing through. It’s completely different. With Nasreen, [25] it’s a family with children who go to school and integrate. It’s possible to integrate them. We like that a lot [...] I tend to prefer people who stay.” (Interview with the Mayor, March 2017, Lasalle)

32The decision to receive a family is a strategic choice for the mayor of a rural community. Receiving a large family makes it possible, among other things, to fill the school’s classes and thus perhaps prevent potential class closures. [26]

33On a day-to-day basis, the family also managed to settle in more quickly, as they lived according to the same rhythm as the other families in the village. Three of the five children attended school, [27] which enabled the mother to mix with other parents at the school gates at lunchtime and at the end of the day and to develop more horizontal relationships that were not characterised by assistance or help. The mother also took her sons to football training twice a week, like many parents in the village. The eight Afghan men, whose week was not structured by such timetables, lived among themselves. This lack of time frame meant that they “lived by night and slept by day”. [28]

34More generally, the survey shows that the form of reception influences the pace at which foreigners settle into places of reception. State reception, which involves strict supervision, seems to be an obstacle to settling-in, at least initially. Conversely, reception by citizen volunteers, which is based on support rather than supervision, encourages socialisation and facilitates settling into the host society.

Merger of exile support groups and local anchoring of commitment

35The small group supporting the family eventually merged with a new support group for the young people in the CAO to form a collective of about 20 people. [29] The young Afghan men then received ongoing support in Lasalle, particularly from retired inhabitants of the valley.

Total dedication of the collective’s members

36The collective gradually put in place what can be described as “full” assistance for the young Afghan men. This assistance covered all areas of daily life (legal, administrative, psychological and medical assistance), to the extent that the managing association was mainly responsible for the financial aspects of the reception and accommodation. Members of the collective helped the exiles with all the administrative procedures, preparing each of them for their interaction with OFPRA (Office français de protection des réfugiés et apatrides - French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons) and were active in efforts to avoid the application of the Dublin Regulation [30] to one of the exiles (letters to the prefect, civil naming ceremony, intervention of a lawyer from Nîmes, etc.). They also gave French lessons to the eight young adults on a regular basis, up to five times a week. Sarah Limorté’s documentary report (filmed in January 2018) shows these French language learning sessions, which take different forms depending on the teacher: oral practice, construction of sentences from words written on pieces of paper, training for a job interview. The young people also made use of the networks of the collective’s members (Martin, 2020) to obtain internships or paid work for one or more weeks (cherry picking in late spring, for example). They created strong links with the volunteers, but also looser links that they were able to reactivate when looking for work or housing, once their administrative situation had stabilised (Gerbier-Aublanc and Masson-Diez, 2019). Finally, the collective helped the eight Afghan men financially by paying for train tickets to attend the mandatory OFPRA interview in Paris.

37The full support provided to the young men is explained by the location of the village. Since it was far from the services and associations providing assistance to exiles, the members of the collective relied on the resources available locally. For example, for administrative follow-up and the progress of the files of those received, the volunteers did not systematically go to Cimade [31], which is located in Nîmes, but tried to find local people who could help them.

38In the Lasalle valley, “the activist commitment, driven by powerful ideals [implies] the necessity to stand up in all circumstances” (Lhuilier, 2018) and at all levels. The inhabitants involved in the collective took on the task of supporting the exiles, sometimes to the point of unwittingly taking over from the managing association, whose role it is, and not noticing their own (psychological and physical) exhaustion. This sustained support had a real impact on the young men since the survey shows a gradual expansion of their circle of acquaintances, an increase in the frequency of their movements and a growing use of public spaces.

The hosts, inhabitants of the valley

39The newly formed collective is made up of people who live in Lasalle or in the surrounding villages (see Map 1 and Table 3). This concentration of members of the collective in nearby villages confirms the hypothesis that the collectives supporting exiles in the Cévennes are centred on a village, the focal point of reception, but also the idea that the valley is the first geographical link in the chain of the solidarity system (Martin, 2020).

Table 1: Place of residence of the members of the collective

Figure 5

Table 1: Place of residence of the members of the collective

Credit: É. Martin, March 2020.

40The group of citizens from Lasalle includes both “archéos”, defined locally as people from families that have been in the area for more than seven generations, and “néos”, people who arrived in the 1970s and 1980s. There is homogeneity in the age of the volunteers, with only four out of eighteen volunteers under the age of fifty. The majority of the volunteers are retired (see Table 2). A review of the occupations held by the inhabitants involved shows a strong representation of former teachers and caseworkers (see Table 3). These “active” retirees, “a resource for rural areas” (Blasquiet-Revol et al., 2018), used their cultural and social capital to provide the best possible support to the exiles received.

Table 2: Profile of the members of the Lasalle collective

Figure 6

Table 2: Profile of the members of the Lasalle collective

* It was decided to list only the people involved in the collective between 2015 and 2018, i.e., the date of departure of the family and the eight young people from the CAO.
Credit: É. Martin, March 2020.

Table 3: Professions of working and retired members of the collective

Figure 7

Table 3: Professions of working and retired members of the collective

Crédit: É. Martin, March 2020.

41Lasalle is not an isolated case in the Cévennes. The survey shows that citizens are involved in collectives in the nearest small urban centre to their home and that they rarely get involved in the neighbouring valley for practical and accessibility reasons (Martin, 2020). The survey also shows that many of the exile support groups in the Cévennes are made up of retired people. These people are committed over the long term, which partly explains the enduring nature of the solidarity actions carried out.

Collective reception and individual commitment

42Observations in the field and contact with volunteers provide an opportunity to reflect on their involvement. Beyond the universal form of commitment - “active participation, through a choice in line with one’s deepest convictions, in the social, political, religious or intellectual life of the time” [32] - the trajectories of volunteers allow us to identify three distinct forms of commitment: an emotional commitment, a political commitment and a spiritual commitment.

43Few articles highlight the emotional involvement of hosts. As providers of support, they are not “passive recipients” (Lhuilier, 2018) of traumatic life stories, and each of them negotiate this destabilising information in their own way. Sarah Limorté films the case of a volunteer who absorbs and digests these biographical trajectories by drawing them. The volunteer takes the exiles’ journeys home with her and then goes back over the painful elements with them using the drawings. In general, the field survey and the extended observations reveal different reaction mechanisms in the hosts: empathy, but also a determination, often subconscious, to overprotect the individuals.

44The day-to-day actions are also coupled with moments of political involvement on several levels. Members of the collective regularly travel to demonstrate in front of the Nîmes prefecture or in other cities in the Occitanie region. At the local level, citizens have undertaken symbolic actions such as an operation to raise awareness about exile by hanging pieces of fabric on a village bridge to symbolise the “link between all beings” and to oppose France’s migration policy.

45A final form of commitment is present among many Protestant volunteers: spiritual commitment. To some, it is the driving force behind their action. Welcoming people in exile, who are potentially in a state of physical and emotional insecurity, strikes them as logical and well-founded. The act of reception is a way of fulfilling a kind of moral and spiritual contract. Spiritual commitment shows a long-term commitment where each action is linked to the previous one to form a coherent whole (Becker, 2006).

46The field survey and observation show that the volunteers’ commitment goes beyond mere involvement in day-to-day activities. The volunteers we met reflect on the meaning of their actions and integrate them into a more general reflection on their relationship with the world and with the Other. This is often explained - as noted by Berthomière and Imbert (2019) in Ariège - by “life paths [...] that present experiences of commitment that often take place at an early stage, are diversified and cumulative”. Several members of the Lasalle collective have been involved in environmental struggles, in particular against the construction of the Notre-Dame-des-Landes airport (Martin, 2020).

47The field survey shows that the people involved in reception are mainly retirees living in the valley. Behind this homogeneity in the profiles of the hosts lies a plurality of motivations and reasons (personal and private, political, religious) for which people get involved. The dedication of citizens to exiles that this study has highlighted is not specific to the village of Lasalle and can be found in many other French rural areas. The singularity of the reception in the Cévennes, and a fortiori in the valley of Lasalle, lies above all in the temporal profundity of reception and its historical and religious heritage.

Reception has become a ritual

48This last section aims to integrate the current reception of exiles into a broader temporality. Indeed, the commitment of citizens to the family and the eight Afghan men is indicative of a deeper dynamic.

Lasalle, a palimpsest territory for exiles

49This village, like others in the Cévennes mountains, has been a refuge for foreign and French exiles. It has repeatedly sheltered people, forming a palimpsest territory on which the life trajectories of those received are written and superimposed.

50For more than ten years, the reception of families and single men of various nationalities has been continuous (see Figure 2). Reception has been encouraged and supported by the municipality to the point where it no longer “designates only a practice (a gesture of hospitality), but more generally a disposition” (Boudou, 2018).

Figure 2: Chronology of the reception of exiled individuals in Lasalle

Figure 8

Figure 2: Chronology of the reception of exiled individuals in Lasalle

List of exiles received from 2009 to 2020
1. Reception of eighteen Afghans for the Christmas holidays 2009 in the municipal gite. One of them stays and settles in the neighbouring village of Soudorgues, where he becomes the baker (Dubault, 2015b). He takes on the role of mediator when Afghans arrive in Lassalle.
2. Reception of four Afghans from September 2010 to September 2011. Reception site: caretaker’s lodge at the Protestant church.
3. Reception of two Chechen families from January 2012 to July 2013. Reception site: caretaker’s lodge at the Protestant church.
4. Reception of an Algerian from November 2013 (the date of departure has not been recorded). Reception site: caretaker’s lodge at the Protestant church.
5. Reception of an Afghan family from November 2015 to May 2018. Reception site: Protestant rectory then municipal housing.
6. Reception of twenty-nine Afghans in a CAOMI facility from October 2016 to February 2017. Reception site: Monoblet former ITEP.
7. Reception of eight Afghans in a CAO facility from February 2017 to February 2018. Reception site: former gendarmerie in Lasalle.
8. Reception of an Afghan family since February 2018. Reception site not indicated for security reasons. The support provided to this family is as thorough as that given to the family mentioned in this article. For example, the volunteers helped the mother with her last pregnancy.
Credit: É. Martin, March 2020.

51Figure 2 shows the recurrence of reception of Afghan nationals. This is explained by the fact that several inhabitants of the valley speak Dari and act as mediators and translators, but also, for some, by a real interest in Afghan culture, as in the case of this couple:


“We are very aware, not of refugees in general, but of people who come from that part of the world, from Afghanistan. Our son is very interested in Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan. He has given a lot, he works for Médecins Sans Frontières in Iran [...] he runs a clinic that helps the homeless, drug addicts, prostitutes, people left behind in Iranian society.” (Interview with members of the support collective, March 2017, Lasalle)

53It also highlights the role of the Protestant community. The community has offered accommodation to several families received, in places full of meaning such as the caretaker’s lodge [33] or the rectory. The village Protestant association has always provided support for reception. In the case of the Afghan family and the eight Afghan men, for example, the association provided legal and financial support since the hundreds of euros of donations collected were stored in its bank account. More generally, the support given to exiles has always been informal, since it has never led to the creation of a specific association, registered with the prefecture.

54Lasalle has not only been a host territory for exiled foreigners over the last ten years, but it also sheltered persecuted French people who were exiled in their own country. During the Second World War, dozens of people were hidden in the village [34] (Joutard et al., 1987). About ten years ago, several Righteous were recognised in Lasalle, a few months before the arrival of eighteen Afghans for the Christmas holidays (see Figure 2). An article in the Midi libre of 25 December 2009 entitled “Le village aux Quinze Justes accueille les Afghans” [35] (The village of the Fifteen Righteous welcomes the Afghans) makes a link between the moments of reception, which took place several decades apart:


“‘Whoever saves a single life, saves the entire universe’. This sentence resounded on Tuesday afternoon in the Lasalle town hall. This quote from the Talmud appears on the medal awarded by Israel to the Righteous, those who protected and saved Jews hunted down by the Nazis during the Second World War. And Lasalle now has fifteen recognised Righteous [...]. A symbol that the Mayor of Lasalle had in mind when he received 18 of the 19 Afghans who had been housed in Nîmes for the previous three months. [...] On the initiative of the presbyteral council of the Reformed Church of France [36] of the Val de Salendrinque, joined by the municipality of Lasalle, the idea was born to welcome these Afghans in a gite, and to allow them to get some fresh air in the Cévennes [...]. ‘It is a citizen’s duty in the Cévennes tradition to help people who are in difficulty. In our individualistic societies, it is collective evidence of solidarity, mobilisation of the population’, explains the Mayor of Lasalle, Henri de Latour. These principles are still firmly rooted in the Protestantism that permeates this region, for those who have been ‘persecuted for expressing their faith’, adds Michel Lafont, president of the presbyteral council.” [37]

56This excerpt shows the main actors of reception in Lasalle, namely the mayor and the village pastor. The mayor mentioned in the article was still mayor in 2015, six years later, when he welcomed the Afghan family, and again in 2017 when the eight young Afghan men arrived. Michel Lafont, the village’s lay preacher, has also been a key player in the reception of Afghans in Lasalle for the past ten years. In addition to his religious mission, he is in charge of the village Protestant association and local initiatives such as the charity flea market.

57The reception that is the subject of this paper takes place in the continuity of actions carried out by the inhabitants of the Cévennes valleys for centuries. The hosts perpetuate and update the Cévennes identity, as a conceptual and ideal vehicle of resistance and solidarity (Basset and Pelen, 2016).

The rural space, a space destined for temporary reception?

58The status of reception in Lasalle, especially in a rural environment, raises questions, since the survey shows that people do not stay longer than two or three years in the village. This is the case with the exiles discussed in this study. We will examine the way in which the reception of the family and the eight Afghan men ended, how it was perceived by the inhabitants and finally question the role of rural isolation in these departures.

59As with their arrivals, the departures of the family and the eight Afghan men differ. The young men had no choice but to leave, while the family decided to leave the village of their own free will. The Lasalle CAO was closed in February 2018 by prefectoral decision and the eight adults were transferred to Cendras, near Alès, forty-five minutes from Lasalle. The mother left three months later, in May 2018. Her departure was explained by the fact that she wanted to be closer to other family members living in Nîmes and to settle in a larger town. [38] Today, the family, which has obtained refugee status, is completely autonomous and living in social housing in Nîmes. The mother of the family has not completely broken ties with the village as she regularly comes to see the doctor, by hitchhiking or by bus.

60The media reports on the arrival of foreigners in exile, but little on how reception ends, or the way hosts experience it. What explains these people’s decision to leave? Where do they go? How do those who provided support deal with the departure and then the absence of those supported over the following months? The host has an uncertain status (Gotman, 2001) and an uneasy one because he or she enters into a relationship without knowing if it will last. The closure of the CAO, for example, left those who had been involved on a daily basis facing a void. From one day to the next, they had to reorganise their schedule which had been focused on the young men. They soon managed to adjust their commitment by continuing to support the last eight young people received (regular visits, offering outings and activities, administrative assistance). The departure of the Afghan family in May 2018 was also a disappointment. Unlike the young men in the CAO, whom they knew would have to leave one day or another, the members of the collective and the Mayor thought that the family would remain in Lasalle for the long term. In addition to the fact that they saw the family as one that would remain in the village for a long time, the members of the collective became very attached to the mother and her children.

61Neither the Afghan family nor the eight Afghan men expressed a desire to settle in Lasalle. This is explained, on the one hand, by the geographical location of the village. Living in Lasalle requires a driving licence and a car to access the urban centres where administrative services, specialist doctors and various leisure activities are concentrated. It is also explained by the desire of people - and this applies to the Afghans welcomed in 2009 and 2010 and the Chechen families in 2012 - to be closer to a town where their community of origin is more present.

62Of the dozens of people who have been hosted in the course of the past few years, only one person has remained in the vicinity, in the neighbouring village of Soudorgues (see Figure 2), so the rural municipality seems to be destined for temporary reception. In Lasalle, the reception of foreigners is temporary, but neither occasional nor exceptional for the inhabitants. Indeed, it is an event that updates the social structures [39] to the point of becoming a ritual, an ordered [40] and routine process.


63This research note shows that the reception of foreigners reveals the social and spatial structures of the territory under study, in this case a sparsely populated rural area in the lower mountains, at a distance from the Languedoc plain. The reception of others highlights the social organisation of the Cévennes massif, marked by the significant role of Protestant heritage and the commitment of retirees. It also shows a strong characteristic of rural areas, namely the vacancy of buildings - whether they are private, municipal or state-owned. Finally, the reception reflects the valley-based operation of the Cévennes territory. The hillsides surrounding Lasalle and housing citizens who participate in the reception of exiles “form a system” with the village, in which associations and services are concentrated.

64Finally, the field survey shows that the Lasalle valley, like many rural areas in France, is like a space of sanctuary, a remote area that enables an individual to obtain assistance in case of distress (psychological, material, administrative) and to benefit from a form of respite. The low number of arrivals of foreigners in these territories allows the hosts not to prioritise people according to their legal status and to welcome them without distinction or exception. Isolated rural areas thus contrast with urban areas, which are often a source of stress and violence for exiles, and are more like halfway territories, areas where people do not settle, but come to catch their breath.


  • [1]
    Le Figaro, 6 February 2017 (Lombard-Latune, 2017).
  • [2]
    France 3 Bourgogne Franche-Comté, 24 October 2016 (Bessard, 2016).
  • [3]
    France 3 Bretagne, 5 October 2016 (Galmiche, 2016).
  • [4]
    “[TRANSLATION] Occurrence that attracts attention because of its exceptional character”, as defined by the Centre national de ressources textuelles et lexicales (National textual and lexical resource centre - CNRTL).
  • [5]
    In the 17th century, a significant proportion of the population converted to Protestantism in a territory stretching from Anduze to Pont-de-Montvert (the part of the Cévennes located in the Gard). The revocation of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV in 1685 led to forced conversion to Catholicism in these territories. The Protestant churches in the southern Cévennes were destroyed, but Protestants continued to meet in secret places forming the “désert” (desert) until the French Revolution. Today, the acts of resistance of the Huguenots are still being passed on by members of the Protestant community - a community that remains firmly rooted in the region - who see the reception of foreigners as a historical extension of past struggles.
  • [6]
    Members of the Lasalle collective do not systematically refer to themselves as “volunteers”. They use the term “collective” to refer to all the inhabitants involved in reception.
  • [7]
    The members of the group and of the collective are different. A few lone individuals navigate between the two.
  • [8]
    The director did not film the reception of the family hosted in Lasalle, rather she focused on the reception of the young people placed in the CAO during January 2018 and the support provided to them (see Figure 1). Based on an ethnographic method, the film was produced within the framework of the Varan workshops and presented at the Lasalle documentary film festival in 2018.
  • [9]
    In this research note, it seems to be more appropriate to talk about settling in rather than integration. In Lasalle, individuals gradually settle into the host society, but rarely achieve a full form of integration (Belmessous and Roche, 2018) since they often leave the village after a few months.
  • [10]
    The village is a place of passage, especially for people who live in vans or in squats.
  • [11]
    A filmmaker by profession, he is partly behind the documentary film festival that takes place every year in the village.
  • [12]
    At the time of the survey, the family consisted of a thirty-seven-year-old mother, a twenty-two-year-old son, a teenage daughter, two young boys and a young girl. It should be noted that “14% of newly arrived parents are single parents and they are almost exclusively mothers (94%)” (Eremenko, 2017).
  • [13]
    The photograph of Alan Kurdi found dead on a Turkish beach on 2 September 2015 sent shockwaves through many volunteers.
  • [14]
    The inhabitants who decided to welcome the family called on their networks, particularly in Paris. Activists suggested that they take in a family that had recently arrived in the capital.
  • [15]
    The association chosen by the state services is a local association, which has been working in the field of social action in the Cévennes since 1979.
  • [16]
    Interview with an employee, March 2017, Lasalle.
  • [17]
    “It only lasted three months, but it felt like a year and a half to us because it was so intense. Because it worked in a totally different way with the minors, in the sense that it was a team that worked twenty-four hours a day, with a night guard, with a very comprehensive team that was quite big.” (Interview with an employee, March 2017)
  • [18]
    The activists in question are part of a group of young adults formed in 2016 in the valley of Saint-Jean-du-Gard. The group, which does not claim to be affiliated to any political party, describes its mission on its website as follows: “We stand in solidarity and want to work with the exiles, to fight borders and together assert freedom of movement and settlement for all”.
  • [19]
    “The young people went to eat in the homes of local inhabitants, there were classes on site, leisure activities outside, football in Lasalle, Monoblet or elsewhere [...]. There was something very much alive. [...] The isolation was not necessarily as glaring as [the geographical location] would suggest.” (Interview with an employee, March 2017, Lasalle)
  • [20]
    Interview with an employee, March 2017, Lasalle.
  • [21]
    The group of activists in Saint-Jean-du-Gard no longer intervened once the CAO was set up in Lasalle, apart from a few individuals who moved between the collectives.
  • [22]
    The mother of the family took possession of the private flat by decorating it to her taste, in contrast to the rectory, showing a determination to appropriate this personal space that she considers her home.
  • [23]
    Three months after her arrival, the mother obtained her documents and was able to start receiving family allowances. This financial support enabled her to pay the rent for the municipal housing offered by the municipal authorities.
  • [24]
    This geographical removal is nevertheless incomparable with the isolation of the Monoblet CAOMI, which was located in the middle of a pine forest, an hour’s walk from Monoblet and an hour from Lasalle.
  • [25]
    Her first name has been changed to protect anonymity.
  • [26]
    Some municipalities in the Cévennes have been forced to close classes or even close their schools permanently due to a shortage of pupils. In 2015, the population of l’Estréchure (160 inhabitants), a village not far from Lasalle, mobilised against the closure of the village school (Dubault, 2015a). More recently, in 2016, parents of pupils in Le Vigan, a larger municipality with 3,800 inhabitants, protested against the axing of a class in the school (Bourrié, 2016).
  • [27]
    They were committed to learning French, to the extent that, in the case of the eldest daughter, “as a result of her skill she was thrust into supporting roles” (Armagnague-Roucher, 2018) for her mother (discussion/translation with neighbours, in shops). The fact that they were hosted in a rural setting allowed the children to learn in favourable conditions. While exiles often live in precarious housing (Armagnague and Rigoni, 2018), the family’s children were provided with decent accommodation that was large enough to allow for a minimum of privacy and good working conditions. They also received individualised academic support from volunteers twice a week, personal assistance that might not have been possible in an urban setting.
  • [28]
    Interview with neighbours of the CAO, March 2017, Lasalle.
  • [29]
    The involvement of additional inhabitants was prompted by a meeting organised in spring 2017 in the village hall, which brought together around thirty people.
  • [30]
    The individual was subject to the Dublin procedure. Having provided his fingerprints (freely or under duress) in a European Union country other than France, he was to be sent back to the so-called first reception country. The inhabitants involved carried out various actions to ensure that the so-called standard procedure applied to him and that he could file an asylum application in France.
  • [31]
    Association providing support for exiles at the national level.
  • [32]
    [TRANSLATION] CNRTL definition.
  • [33]
    The caretaker’s lodge was the accommodation of the Protestant church caretaker.
  • [34]
    “Here there were families of the Righteous, everyone talks about Le Chambon [-sur-Lignon] with regard to the Righteous, but there were plenty here.” (Interview with the Mayor of Lasalle, March 2017, Lasalle).
  • [35]
    Article cited in Cabanel (2018).
  • [36]
    Protestant church.
  • [37]
    He refers to the Protestants who took refuge in the Cévennes during the French Wars of Religion and specifically the Camisards, Protestants who opposed the troops of Louis XIV between 1702 and 1710.
  • [38]
    She used to live in Herat, a large Afghan city with a population of over 400,000.
  • [39]
    Reception is “a concentration of structures” (Mitsushima, 2017).
  • [40]
    The ritual is not formalised or registered as such. It is the recurrence of reception and the forms it takes (reception in places of Protestantism, reception mainly of Afghans) that gives it its ritual character.

Based on ethnological fieldwork, this research note focuses on the reception of exiles in a small village in the low mountain range of the Cévennes (reception of an Afghan family by citizens and reception of eight young Afghan men through a state scheme). Although initially the modalities of reception affected the spatial practices of those concerned and their integration in the territories, both the family and the young men ended up being fully supported by a group of twenty inhabitants and settling into the village. The research note reveals two pre-conditions for successfully receiving exiles in French rural areas, namely housing availability and the social commitment of retirees, in particular from the protestant community. The analysis also highlights a local singularity: the tradition of welcome in the Cévennes (reception of persecuted Protestants during the French Wars of Religion and Jews during the Second World War), showing the area as a space of sanctuary.

  • refugees
  • reception
  • asylum seekers
  • exiles
  • volunteering
  • rural area
  • space of sanctuary

Reprendre son souffle dans un village cévenol. Ethno-géographie de l’accueil de personnes exilées en milieu rural

La présente note de recherche, qui repose sur une méthode ethnographique, propose d’analyser l’accueil de personnes exilées dans un village de moyenne montagne des Cévennes (accueil d’une famille afghane par des citoyens et accueil de huit jeunes Afghans par le biais d’un dispositif étatique). Si dans un premier temps, la forme de la prise en charge impacte les pratiques spatiales des individus et leur intégration dans les territoires, la famille comme les jeunes hommes finissent par être tous totalement accompagnés par un collectif d’une vingtaine de citoyens et être insérés dans le village. La note de recherche révèle les conditions de possibilité de l’accueil en milieu rural, à savoir la disponibilité des logements et l’engagement des retraités, notamment de la communauté protestante. L’analyse met aussi en valeur une singularité locale : la tradition d’accueil historique dans les Cévennes (accueil de protestants persécutés durant les guerres de Religion, de juifs pour la Seconde Guerre mondiale) et donne à voir un véritable espace refuge.

  • accueil
  • demandeurs d’asile
  • espace rural
  • exilés
  • réfugiés
  • bénévolat
  • espace refuge

Volver a respirar en un pueblo de las Cévennes. Etno-geografía de la acogida de los exiliados en zona rural

La siguiente nota de investigación se basa en un método etnográfico y propone analizar la acogida de exiliados en un pueblo de media montaña de las Cévennes (acogida de una familia afgana por los ciudadanos y acogida de ocho jóvenes afganos a través de un dispositivo estatal). Si las modalidades de esta acogida tienen un impacto sobre las prácticas espaciales de los individuos y su inserción en los territorios, tanto la familia como los hombres jóvenes llegan a tener el apoyo de un grupo de veinte ciudadanos y se integran en el pueblo. La nota de investigación pone de relieve las dos condiciones necesarias para la acogida en las zonas rurales, es decir la disponibilidad de alojamientos y el compromiso de las personas jubiladas, especialmente procedentes de la comunidad protestante. El análisis subraya también una especificidad local: la tradición de la acogida histórica en las Cévennes (acogida de protestantes perseguidos durante las guerras de religión, de judíos durante la Segunda Guerra Mundial) y presenta un verdadero espacio-refugio.

  • acogida
  • exiliados
  • solicitante de asilo
  • voluntariado
  • zona rural
  • espacio-refugio
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