Le Touquet and Sangatte: The evolution of the French-UK border

Le Touquet and Sangatte: The evolution of the French-UK border

Daniel Martin

In 1991, both British and French governments signed the Sangatte Protocol with the agreement coming into force two years later. The agreement outlined the extent of border controls to be carried out through a model of remote-sovereignty. Sangatte, a town on the Northern coast of France in the Nord-Pas-De-Calais region was at the epicentre of the refugee crisis when it emerged in the Republic in 1991. A decade later, again in the Nord-Pas-De-Calais region of Northern France, the Le Touquet Treaty was enacted. The treaty gave authority to border agents and outlined the use of batons referred to as ‘service weapons’ to be used in the event of public national harm and personal safety. Throughout the latter document, the reconceptualization of the national border narrative is explicit, referring to border towns and thereby crossing points as “frontier(s)”, here noting the significance of Bruner’s (1990) idea of the violation of beliefs; poignant when protecting against an unknown threat.

The remote model of sovereignty practised within the Sangatte Protocol, reminds us that neither imperialism nor colonialism are dead. The attempts of refugees in Northern France to board the Eurostar are met by border agents of both countries – with sovereign space extending as far as St. Pancras station and similarly Paris. The protocol further marked a change in national attitudes towards immigration – the border was no longer just a formality that had to be passed through for tourists or for business or familial trips. The border was no longer just a friendly wave or a stamp in a passport, a sign of achievement and prowess, it became the place in which your citizenship was questioned. Your livelihood and your identity was challenged, discussed and either approved or rejected. A passport: the marker of national sovereignty that carries with it a history of political turmoil and decisions, all to be reckoned with in one brief chat and a stamp. “Frontiers” are not simply places of passive peripheral responsibility and management, they are active sites of identity displacement and identity rejection. A forceful engagement with the feared ‘other’. Unknown identities thereby become the facet of expression, the signifying feature of “frontier” zones. The term “sans-papier” or “no papers” which refers to the lack of national documentation is a French colloquial term for the refugee which also incorporates “sans-plus” or “without more”. Accordingly, national, ethnic and socio-political identities incorporating both vulnerable and marginalized peoples are thereby themselves the passports of approval or rejection, the body politic as la vie. As it is not enough to have a passport to have citizenship, it entails economic, social, and political attributes. The presentation of the refugee at border checkpoints is therefore precisely that: themselves.

The concept of “sans-plus” as the necessary condition for refugees enables the void or “lack” of what they are to be filled by violence and brutality. Why were both agreements enacted if citizenship is already a complicated issue? Le Touquet was designed to give authority to border agents in the newly expanded territories of the Sangatte Protocol. Sangatte and Le Touquet provide the forceful means of disavowal of the lack of identity, in that, it is problematic for refugees to even have an identity even if it is one ‘without’. Both agreements aim therefore to remove this paradox and force the individual into existing as stateless as this would affect sovereignty – the sovereignty of a westernized rich nation. Existing ‘without’, pushes the refugee into Agamben’s state of exception. The state of exception however is criminalized within both agreements. Le Touquet Accords do not simply maintain a state of violence in Calais or other border towns but universally along France’s borders. Le Touquet represents an unconditional acceptance and willingness to see violence as the legitimate first option.

Both acts were to reinforce the sovereignty of the nations and provide an act of symbolic intervention within the national narrative. The implicit message of the act was that as a country, our model of citizenship will remain unchallenged. However, what is clear from the Sangatte Protocol is that the French Republic’s insistence on being a “colour-blind state” (Calves, 2004, p. 220), remains true to its word through both agreements universal persecution of the ‘other’. Furthermore, the Sangatte Protocol was a reaction against the emerging crisis in the same year, which saw the Red Cross intervene in the coastal town by setting up aid camps, which were to be shut down two years later. The then French Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozy claimed that the refugee problem, in reference to Sangatte itself, was not a situation of national humanitarian emergency but one of “clandestine immigration”. The rhetoric ignored the problem. The protocol gave greater legitimacy to the very “clandestine immigration” it sought to remove and the rate of undocumented migration subsequently rose.

We must additionally acknowledge the significance of Article 40 in the Sangatte Protocol as it notes the conditions for which border agents can make arrests. Noting that agents can make arrests when a person is “found committing, attempting to commit, or just having committed an office”. As a result, the offence the refugee has committed is being stateless or, without home.

Following the UK referendum result in June 2016, The Mayor of Calais Natacha Bouchart, announced that both Sangatte and Touquet agreements would be revoked. This was met with disapproval from Paris officials as the implicit message from socialist PresidentHollande was that localized federal systems could not work (harking back to a pre-1960s era of European security). Sangatte and Touquet became a formality, a rubber stamp of approval to legally justify the disregard for human life in crisis zones, accordingly within Calais, the national authoritarian narratives require stronger implementation. Border towns or “frontier(s)” face numerous conditions which the narrative has to take account of ranging from native’s views to the effects on commerce. As more solutions are found, they create a patch-work of justifications adding to the already difficult crisis. As a result, the first response was not one of sympathy but of brutality. Giving authorization for the use of weapons and violence implies that the situation can only be solved by increasing acts of degradation. Furthermore, enshrining legally the use of violence makes it harder to challenge, quelling the possibility itself of retaliation. It is clear that the model does not work because the crisis still exists; governing beyond a nation’s own borders carries with it the responsibility to act in accordance with the culture and customs of the secondary country.

Bernard Cazeneuve, the French Interior Minister in September 2016, pledged that he would “unblock Calais”. The apparent ‘blockage’, it would appear, is as a result of creating a territory beyond any official legal aid. Instead, the humanitarianism procured by both French and British states was publically administered by British MP and Immigration minister Robert Goodwill, declaring a “big, new wall” is to be built designed to enclose and contain. How far down the security checklist will the crisis be managed through these solutions before it is realized that the core legislation itself the problem? Sangatte and Touquet operate within the channel itself, creating further issues surrounding maritime governance and security with the agreements not taking account of the potentially beneficial role of smugglers as the European Union boasts of having “neutralised” 300 smuggler boats. Smuggling within the refugee crisis plays a pivotal role in bringing many to safety. Whilst the dangers of the journey and of the smugglers themselves have been repeatedly acknowledged, the alternative is to force refugees to stay in a country in which they face unprecedented danger anyway. Smuggling therefore becomes the best of already bad options. Yet the Le Touquet Accord is not an emboldened projection of empire building or a proud statement of sovereignty and defiant nationalism, it is instead a contract to outsource the social responsibility and management of refugees. Outsourcing the problem instead of localizing it within the port-towns and countries themselves leads to the damaging rhetoric issued by the EU.

The Republic has called for the border to be moved to the UK as under the Sangatte Protocol, border checks are carried out meaning those wishing to claim asylum in the United Kingdom must do so in France. This is why the rhetoric and actions of the EU, in destroying what is for many their only hope of having access to a better life free of persecution, should be lambasted as wholly irresponsible. In highlighting the problems with Le Touquet and Sangatte protocols, a precedent is set for further European laws to be created that exacerbate border and maritime security issues and allow for the continued development of Fortress Europe, using Le Touquet and Sangatte as standard measures.

Bruner, S. J., 1990. Acts of meaning. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Calves, G., 2004. Colour-Blindness at a Crossroads in Contemporary France. In: H. Chapman., L. L. Frader., eds. 2004. Race in France: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Politics of Difference. New York: Berghahn Books. pp.219-227.
Fassin, D., 2005. Compassion and Repression: The Moral Economy of Immigration Policies in France. Cultural Anthropology, 20(3), p.362-387.


Daniel Martin is a Master’s student at Lancaster University, conducting research into European immigration and border security with an emphasis on refugee crises.

Photo Credit: Refugee Crisis in Europe CAFOD Photo Library