Cédric Herrou has become a folk hero in France for taking a stand: that it is simply right to help migrants seeking a better life.

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NICE, France —

At times, it was hard to know who was on trial, the smuggler or the state.

The defendant, Cédric Herrou, 37, an olive farmer, did not sit in the accused’s box. He did not deny that for months he had illegally spirited dozens of migrants through the remote mountain valley where he lives. He would do it again, he suggested.

Instead, when asked by a judge, “Why do you do all this?” Herrou turned the tables and questioned the humanity of France’s policy of rounding up and turning back Africans entering illegally from Italy in search of work and a better life. It was “ignoble,” he said.

“There are people dying on the side of the road,” Herrou replied. “It’s not right. There are children who are not safe. It is enraging to see children, at two in the morning, completely dehydrated. … I am a Frenchman.”

The trial, which began Wednesday, is no ordinary one. It has been substantially covered by the French news media for its symbolism and for how it neatly sums up the ambiguity of France’s policy toward the unceasing flow of migrants into Europe and the quandary they present.

Herrou is charged with helping illegal migrants enter France, travel in France and stay in France. He says he is doing his civic duty and will keep helping the migrants, who are mainly from Eritrea and Sudan.

France, foremost among European nations, prides itself on enlightened humanitarianism, fraternity and solidarity. And yet, perhaps first among them, too, it is struggling to reconcile those values with the pressing realities of a smaller, more globalized world, including fear of terrorism.

The contradictions are playing out in courtrooms, in politics and in farmers’ fields, on the sidewalks of Paris and in train stations from the Côte d’Azur to the northern port of Calais, where the government demolished a giant migrant camp in the fall.

On the one hand, politicians in this year’s presidential election are competing to see who can take the toughest line on securing France’s borders. Most are promising a crackdown on migrants, with admission reserved only for clear-cut cases of political persecution. Terrorist attacks, including the one last summer in Nice that killed 85 people, have exacerbated anti-migrant sentiment.

But in the remote mountain valleys, where Jews fleeing the Nazis and the Vichy collaborators found refuge during World War II, Herrou has become a folk hero by leading a loosely knit underground railroad to smuggle migrants north, many destined for Britain or Germany. His work has won him admiration for his resistance to the state and his stand that it is simply right to help one’s fellow man, woman or child.

Others in this region seem to agree. In the square outside the pastel courthouse, hundreds of sympathizers gathered and shouted, “We are all children of immigrants!”

Herrou got a hero’s welcome as he descended the steep steps late Wednesday, trailed by television cameras.

Inside, not even the prosecutor, Jean-Michel Prêtre, seemed to want him there and praised Herrou’s cause as “noble.” Prêtre asked for an eight-month sentence, but quickly reassured the court that it should be suspended, “of course.”

Still, the law is the law.

“He’s demonstrated a manifest intention to violate the law,” Prêtre told the court. “One can criticize it, but it’s got to be applied.”

The verdict, which will be made by the panel of three judges that heard the case this week — there was no jury of peers — is scheduled to be announced Feb. 10.

The court could sentence Herrou to up to five years in prison and 30,000 euros (about $32,000) in fines if a guilty verdict is delivered.

It was normal that Herrou was not in the accused’s box; he was not a criminal in detention. Still, that he stood or sat directly opposite the presiding judge throughout only seemed to highlight his special status.

The appeal for leniency was an acknowledgment of widespread discomfort with the law and recognition of Herrou’s growing status in the region around Nice and its mountainous backcountry, the Roya Valley.

Herrou was voted “Azuréen of the Year” last month by readers of the leading local newspaper, Nice-Matin, to the fury of regional officials.

“I am Cédric,” read one of the placards in the crowd outside the courthouse. “Long live the righteous of the Roya,” read another.

The courtroom was filled with people from the mountain — the men bearded and ponytailed, the women in duffle coats — who had come to support Herrou and who were convinced right was on their side.

The notion that Herrou is trying to uphold what he sees as basic French values, rather than violating the law, is much of the reason he appears to enjoy popular support. The argument formed the essence of his lawyer’s defense strategy.

Remember the last word in the French Republic’s motto, “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité,” his lawyer, Zia Oloumi, told the court.

“They are saying M. Herrou is endangering the Republic,” Oloumi told the three judges. “On the contrary, I think he is defending its values. You see, you have got this value, Fraternity, and the dictionary is quite clear. Think about the impact of your decision on the practical application of the idea of fraternity.”

Herrou was not making any political points, Oloumi insisted. He was merely responding to a humanitarian crisis in his own backyard — the Roya Valley had become a way station for migrants.

The judges did not respond. But the lightness of the sentence called for by Prêtre suggested the concepts invoked by Oloumi resonated.

Herrou’s accusers seemed most taken aback by his stubbornness.

Not every migrant Herrou picks up is by the side of the road. He finds many outside the migrant camp across the Italian border at Ventimiglia, on the lookout especially for women and children.

The presiding judge, Laurie Duca, reminded him that he had first been arrested in August, near his mountainside home at Breil-sur-Roya, with a van full of migrants.

At that time, the prosecutor released him, suggesting that Herrou’s humanitarian motivations absolved him. But that first arrest was evidently merely a warning.

“After August, you said you knew it was illegal,” Duca remarked in court. No matter. Herrou persisted, describing his migrant-smuggling work to journalists last fall and occupying a disused summer camp owned by the state railroad when his own modest homestead became overwhelmed.

At that point — in mid-October — authorities decided they had had enough of him.

“You were there, and you were extremely active,” the judge said. “Why so much press?”

Herrou replied: “It is right that society should know about all this.”

The judge and the prosecutor suggested that this time, Herrou would not get the humanitarian pass he had benefited from previously.

And The local political establishment is furious with him.

“At the very moment when we need strict controls, Herrou’s ideological, premeditated actions are a major risk,” Eric Ciotti, president of the departmental council and a leading right-leaning member of Parliament, wrote in Nice-Matin.

Prêtre suggested that Herrou’s persistence and openness had been his undoing.

“Mr. Herrou acknowledges everything,” Prêtre said with astonishment, adding: “ But I am the prosecutor. I must defend the law.”