Argument

A Moat Defensive

It’s just 25 miles from Calais to Dover. But for Britain, the Channel has always been the distance between the “swarms” and English civilization.

CALAIS, FRANCE - APRIL 18:  A migrant looks out to the English Channel on April 18, 2007 from Calais, France. Many, who have no money or passports, spend months trying to stow away on trains and trucks heading for English ports. The Mayor of Calais has proposed new facilities offering food and support to the hundreds of refugees living rough near to ferry terminals. Migrants come from as far as Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and other war torn countries, sometimes taking up to a year to travel to Calais - the port nearest to the United Kingdom. French volunteers and charities provide food and support but local police frequently raid the migrant's makeshift camps and feeding areas.  (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
CALAIS, FRANCE - APRIL 18: A migrant looks out to the English Channel on April 18, 2007 from Calais, France. Many, who have no money or passports, spend months trying to stow away on trains and trucks heading for English ports. The Mayor of Calais has proposed new facilities offering food and support to the hundreds of refugees living rough near to ferry terminals. Migrants come from as far as Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and other war torn countries, sometimes taking up to a year to travel to Calais - the port nearest to the United Kingdom. French volunteers and charities provide food and support but local police frequently raid the migrant's makeshift camps and feeding areas. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

In John of Gaunt’s stirring speech in Richard II, the duke describes Britain as “This fortress built by Nature for herself/Against infection and the hand of war.… This precious stone set in the silver sea/Which serves it in the office of a wall/Or as a moat defensive to a house/Against the envy of less happier lands.” Shakespeare wasn’t alone then, or now: The English Channel, the 350-mile-long body of water that, between Dover and Calais, narrows to about 25 miles, has long been viewed on the island as a “moat defensive.”

During the Napoleonic Wars, the Channel served Britain as a rampart against revolution. (Among the many schemes floated by Napoleon’s engineers for the planned invasion of Britain was a tunnel beneath the seabed.) English reluctance to transform this barrier into a bridge (or, indeed, a tunnel) rarely wavered. As one French commentator sighed in 1882, the English preferred to widen, not bridge, the distance between Dover and Calais: “Their frightened imagination believes it sees pass through this tunnel many things which they do not like, institutions which displease them … every kind of political epidemic and subversive paradox, revolutions, calamities.”

By the turn of the 20th century, when technological advances had made the construction of a Channel tunnel feasible, debate among politicians and policymakers grew more intense over the extent to which Britain should narrow its distance from France. One prominent military theorist, Field Marshal Garnet Wolseley, channeling the spirit of John of Gaunt, warned that on “some dark night” 2,500 Frenchmen could “easily make themselves masters of the works at our end of the tunnel — and then England would be at the mercy of the invader.” Even after the 1904 Entente Cordiale between France and Britain torpedoed such a scenario, Wolseley’s praise of his country’s “insularity” was widely echoed among his countrymen.

Popular concerns over the construction of a tunnel reached well beyond the realm of military strategy. Some British conservatives believed it would submerge and drown their country with “foreign elements” from the Continent. Concerns about the uncontrolled growth of undesirable immigrants and aliens, often focused on Jews, rose and fell at the same rhythm as did parliamentary debates over the building of a tunnel. Yet others, while willing to consider such a project, warned that without proper safeguards, the tunnel would fall under the control — here, once again, a code word for Jews — of a “cosmopolitan directorate.”

This week, thousands of migrants have tried to cross the English Channel by way of the tunnel that finally opened for business in 1994. These potential riders, however, are hopping the turnstiles — or, more accurately, the towering fences by the tunnel’s entrance near Calais, France. In scenes worthy of John Bull’s worst nightmare, refugees, asylum seekers, and economic migrants are making desperate attempts to hop on trucks bound for Britain and, they hope, a better life. (Canny customers, the migrants know that life, at least when measured by employment and economic statistics, is better in the land of Shakespeare than in that of Racine.)

Predictably, the events in Calais have spurred the same wild fears and loose language that larded earlier debates in Britain over the tunnel. This week, in an article festooned with photos of French gendarmes failing to corral migrants or simply watching as the migrants ran past them, the Sun blared that the “Frenchies are atrocious!” Not to be outdone, the Daily Mail claimed the migrants’ rallying cry was “It’s England or death,” and the paper demanded to know when Prime Minister David Cameron will “take action.” The tabloids, playing on memories of 1940, mocked the weak-kneed French response to the surge of attempts by migrants to enter the tunnel and called upon the British government to call up the Army.

Cameron has not, for the moment, mobilized the Army, but he did call up his rhetorical reserves. During a state visit to Vietnam, he used the word “swarms” to describe the thousands of desperate migrants trying to force their way into the tunnel. Used more often to describe insects than human beings, the word probably went down better with Mail readers than with organizations like the British chapter of Médecins du Monde, whose director observed that what Cameron called “swarms” are instead “ordinary people — mothers, fathers, daughters, and sons — living in the most horrendous conditions that no one should have to endure.”

Announcing he was “very preoccupied” by the situation in Calais and more particularly by the miles of trucks idling on English highways waiting to enter the tunnel, backed up both by the security issues at the tunnel and by striking crews for the French ferries, Cameron also seemed preoccupied by France’s response. He rapped the French government’s knuckles, noting the amount of money — more than 4.7 million euros — that his own government has already spent in beefing up the security network surrounding the tunnel’s entrance on the French side, and promising to earmark another 10 million euros for tunnel security.

Indeed, France had already “shouldered its duties” earlier this year with the opening of the Jules Ferry Centre just outside Calais. Ostensibly designed to shelter and feed migrants — the first such shelter since the closing of the Sangatte camp, which was rocked by riots in 2002 — the center was outdated and undersized even before it opened. This past February, the director of the French chapter of Médecins du Monde, Jean-François Corty, warned that the center’s planners had “miscalibrated” the camp’s eventual population and needs, failing to provide adequate shelter, toilets, and plumbing. The project, Corty declared, was a “slapdash” affair, one thrown together with the expectation that humanitarian groups like his would shoulder the responsibilities the government would not assume itself.

Given the camp’s name, Corty’s lucid warnings should not have come as a surprise. Jules Ferry was a fateful figure in fin de siècle France. As prime minister, he launched France on its “civilizing mission” — the moral justification his government slapped on its imperial land grab in Africa, the Middle East, and the Far East, which in turn sowed the seeds of the current humanitarian disaster. It would make as much moral sense for a British government, were it to open such a camp in Kent, to name it after Cecil Rhodes or Lord Kitchener.

Yet the turn of events does seem to have taken the French government by surprise. Despite the arrival midweek of an additional 120 police officers to reinforce security, there were still more than 1,000 attempts by migrants to board trucks and trains on the quays by the tunnel’s entrance. There were no deaths reported, leaving at nine the number of migrants who have lost their lives since the beginning of June in their efforts to reach Britain.

All the while, a ramshackle encampment — called, following the French colonial leitmotif, “the Jungle” — continues to expand next door to the Jules Ferry Centre with newly arriving migrants. While approximately 1,500 free meals are prepared daily at the center, there are now between 3,000 and 5,000 men, women, and children living in the Jungle.” As Corty observes, this sad parcel of land has become a “state-authorized bidonville,” or slum. France is not Darfur, he exploded during a recent interview, and can do much better than throwing up tents helter-skelter. Instead, these men, women, and children must not only be properly fed and sheltered, but also informed of their rights now that they are in France.

The reassuring insularity and splendid isolation once promised by this sliver of sea, this wall, this moat defensive, has become as archaic in this era of globalization as has John of Gaunt’s language. To be sure, the carriers of infection and invasion are no longer the French — or, for that matter, the Jews — but instead refugees from failed states that France and Britain had a hand in creating. One need not be a Shakespeare scholar to know that, in the end, neither the height of the fences at Calais nor the width of the Channel waters will prevent this camp from continuing to fill with migrants who are fleeing their “less happier lands.”

Image credit: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the University of Houston’s Honors College and the author of the forthcoming book Catherine & Diderot: The Empress, the Philosopher, and the Fate of the Enlightenment.

 

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola