France’s highest court has just ruled that helping others in need, including undocumented migrants, is protected by the country’s constitution.

Migrants rest after having crossed part of the Alps mountain range from Italy into France, near the town of Nevache in southeastern France, December 21, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters/Siegfried Modola

The decision comes at a time when people and groups trying to help undocumented migrants – in European countries like Hungary, Italy,  and Malta as well as France – face criminal prosecution, official obstruction of their work, or confiscation of rescue boats.

This landmark decision, handed down last week by the French Constitutional Council, is not only a victory for individuals who act in solidarity to help others, but by recognizing ‘fraternity’ has constitutional force, it is also historic. Until now, fraternity has been the poor relation of the French national motto “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity), the first two of which are already enshrined in the constitution.

The case arose from people convicted for the so-called “offence of solidarity” after they helped irregular migrants on French soil. However, invoking “the common ideal of liberty, equality and fraternity,” the Constitutional Council ruled that “any act of aid provided for humanitarian purposes” could not be punished, irrespective of the legal status of the person being helped. The court also held that facilitating the movement of irregular migrants should not be criminalized “when these acts are carried out for humanitarian purposes.”

With a problematic new asylum and immigration bill currently being discussed in parliament, this ruling is particularly timely.

But above all, the message it sends is powerful: fraternity is not just a motto to put on school buildings which we can reject when confronted with real people who need our help. It is a pillar of the French Republic, now enshrined as a constitutional principle, which the French authorities and legislators must abide by.

Much of Europe, including France, is being poisoned by toxic rhetoric against migrants and asylum seekers, and a corresponding wave of legislation that wants to make helping such people a crime. France’s highest court gives us an urgent reminder that our shared values are more important now than ever.