Tuesday, 2 August 2011

By Nick Fagge.
The Daily Express, 09/10/09.

STATE OF THE ART: The HMP Bronzefield prison in Ashford

A FRENCH politician was last night facing seven years in prison after being charged with smuggling illegal immigrants into Britain.

Christiane Chocat, a 51-year-old municipal councillor from the Seine et Marne department, south of Paris, was arrested in Portsmouth, Hants.

She is being held on remand at state-of-the-art prison HMP Bronzefield in Ashford, Middlesex.

Yesterday her husband Georges Chocat, 51, said his wife was adjusting well to life in an English jail.

"She said it was like Club Med", he revealed, referring to the French holiday firm which organises package deals to exotic resorts.

Mr Chocat said he had received a letter from his wife. He said: "She is being well looked after" and is "bearing up well". He added: "She has even had a manicure."

Mrs Chocat and her son, Benjamin Chocat, 20, are accused of bringing 16 Vietnamese migrants into Portsmouth in the back of a hire van laden with prawn noodles.

They had allegedly hidden the 13 men and three women in a wooden box just 5ft high. Seven are under 18.

But the box was discovered when a customs officer noticed condensation on the vehicle's window.

The incident is hugely embarrasing to the French authorities, who are battling to halt the vast tide of illegal migrants trying to get from their northern ports to the south coast of England.

Mr Chocat said: "The arrest of my wife has been like a descent into hell for all of us. Nobody can believe what has happened."

He said he first heard of his wife's arrest on Saturday in a telephone call from the British authorities.

The Vietnamese were allegedly found crouching in the box in the back of the van as it arrived from Cherbourg on October 1.

All were on the fast ferry Normandie Express, which was raided by officials from the UK Border Agency.

The illegal migrants, who were thought to have paid for their passage in cash, were sent back to France immediately and are in custody at a holding centre in Caen.

The Chocats, from the small town of Lumigny Nesles Ormeaux, about 40 miles south of Paris, have both been charged with assisting unlawful entry into a European Member State.

They appeared at Portsmouth Magistrates' Court last Saturday and were remanded in custody.

Speaking from their home in France Mr Chocat said: "It all started last week. My wife was due to go and see Benjamin, my son, in Paris to take him to Seine-et-Marne where he had to look for work. He had no driving license, so my wife took my Renault Espace. The next day, she still hadn't got back. Last Saturday the phone rang and I was told my wife and son had been arrested."

The majority of Mrs Chocat's constituents are supporters of President Nicolas Sarkozy's ruling UMP party, and support his tough line on immigration control.

Sixty-one per cent of Lumigny Nesles Ormeaux's 1,500 residents voted for Mr Sarkozy at the last general election.

Assistant Director for the UK Border Agency at Portsmouth, Dave Smith, said: "The UK Border Agency is determined to crack down on people smuggling. Using the latest technology we will spot people hiding in vehicles and will remove those attempting to enter the UK illegally."

The Chocats are due back in court in Portsmouth on November 16.

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