Tale of Two Cities: A Weekend in Calais

Saturday 24 June 2017 

 ‘This is an historical day for Calais,’ announces Mayor Natacha Bouchart to a crowd gathered in Parc Richelieu, many huddled beneath umbrellas to escape the lashings of rain meandering down through the trees overhead. ‘Calais is about to reconquer its city and place in this coastline region.’ Her words are full of aspiration as she describes the city’s imminent return to a former glory. Where it was lost she does not say. 

Behind her is an old red London double-decker bus. In front, a crowd of several hundred. Some of those stood around me spoke quietly to one another in French, but most were British and a little less discrete. ’You’ve got to laugh’ the lady to my right says to her husband as the sixth speech gets underway, not all of which were translated. ’It’s not funny,’ he replies.

Sir Nicholas Soames, grandson of Winston Churchill, speaks in Parc Richelieu

They are here for ‘Calais Celebrates Summer’ in which 1,000 free day trips from Dover were offered in a prize draw in an effort to generate interest in the city as a holiday destination. There is a bus tour taking in some of the city’s main attractions, musical performances, and a seafront photo exhibition offering takes on modern Britain that are in some cases utterly surreal. Shops are offering discounts and miniature red London phone boxes have appeared on street corners. 

Part of the seafront exhibition

‘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.’ Only one speaker mentions an improvement in the security situation since last summer. None makes reference to refugees or migrants.

Two figures shrouded in the Tricolour and Union Jack flags

As speeches conclude, dignitaries gather around two figures shrouded in the Tricolour and Union Jack flags. The national anthems of both France and the United Kingdom are played and the covers are removed, leaving Charles de Gaulle and Winston Churchill stood side-by-side, both gazing forward through a series of white metal arches tracing the contours of France. After crowds had dispersed, one man hung from the trademark cigar clenched between Churchill’s lips as a friend took his photograph. 

Sunday 25 June 2017 

A short distance across town in a dusty field on the edge of an industrial estate, cardboard dishes of vegetable stew and salad are handed out. It is Eid and there is excitement in the air. Though celebrated by Muslims, many Christians among the largely Eritrean and Ethiopian men that had gathered said they would be celebrating too. But mobile phone batteries are flat and the generator provided each day by one of the volunteer organisations isn’t working properly, throwing hopes of phone calls that evening with families divided around the world into doubt. 

Police arrive and volunteers handing out food are told to stop. ’Allez’ one officer shouts repeatedly, his baton held to his side, as those who had gathered to receive food are told to go. Slowly, they move back until they are stood more or less in line in a gap in the black mesh fence stretching some ten metres across, the police spaced out in front of them.

The distribution of food to refugees had recently been banned, but that decision was subsequently quashed in court. I ask a volunteer if this happens often. She says it used to, but not in the weeks since the ban was overturned, and so doesn’t know why it is happening again now. People stand quietly, waiting. The atmosphere is tense, but there is also a sort of resigned humour in the air – an attempt to make light of a situation that had clearly become extremely familiar. ‘But I’m hungry,’ one man jokes as he is pushed back after trying to make his way past the police. Then, as quickly as they had appeared, the officers turn and walk back to their vans. There are cheers as people race back into the line at the back of the food van.

Phones plugged in to charge

After more than an hour of fine adjustments by an Afghan mechanic, the generator bursts into life. We all listen together for the slowing of the ebb of the motor that had become painfully familiar as the mechanic had worked (by this point I felt as though I had almost as much invested in its success as those stood around me). But this time it holds its own, as relief and then electricity flow. Another volunteer arrives with a second box of extension cables which are seized upon immediately and daisy-chained one to another, a cacophony of chargers plunged into their sockets. 

Where N. sleeps

I’m introduced to N., an Eritrean man who is sat with some friends against the fence. He agrees to show me where he and his friends now sleep and leads us across the field and into some bushes which he refers to as the ‘Jungle’. There is a sleeping bag laid out on the floor. ‘Here.’ A little further in, a square blue blanket is stretched out on some grass like the scene of an abandoned picnic. I ask if he can show me more and we walk further in. Amongst some larger trees, a black tarpaulin is stretched tight to make a roof. From its edges hang a number of gold metallic thermal blankets, and directly beneath it a heaped blue sleeping bag. A face appears from beneath it and N. asks if I can take a picture. ‘No problem’ I’m told, as the man disappears again beneath the sleeping bag. I take a few frames and we walk back. 

A makeshift refugee shelter set up amongst some trees

 Two versions of the same city.     

Using Format