GAP, FRANCE—In a wood-paneled courtroom in this small town in the French Alps, a local judge dealt a hefty setback last week to the European Union’s treasured principle of open borders, one that has underpinned the bloc. And to do it, she fell back on a law that dates back to one of the darkest periods in European history.
In sentencing two immigrants’-rights activists to jail time and handing suspended sentences to five others, Isabelle Defarge, the judge, concluded a case that has pitted volunteers from a shelter for immigrants and asylum seekers against an anti-immigration group. To do so, she relied on a provision of French immigration law—based on a 1938 decree on “the policing of foreigners”—that makes it a crime to help a foreigner enter, circulate, or reside in France illegally. In the process, the case has come to symbolize a wider tension across the continent between advocates of open borders and far-right populists pushing countries to close in on themselves.
The story began in April, when the anti-immigrant group Génération Identitaire kicked off “Defend Europe,” a protracted effort to police France’s border with Italy and prevent immigrants from crossing the frontier. Wearing matching blue windbreakers with Defend Europe written on the back, around 100 activists patrolled mountain trails in trucks, surveilled the woods via helicopter, and placed a massive banner on the mountains that read, in English, Closed border. You will not make Europe your home. No way. Back to your homeland.