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French baker's hunger strike saves apprentice from deportation

"If you protect someone, you protect them fully," Stéphane Ravacley told NBC News.
Image: French baker Stephane Ravacley poses in his bakery in Besancon
French baker Stephane Ravacley poses in his bakery in Besancon, eastern France.Sebastien Bozon / AFP - Getty Images

PARIS — A French baker who went on hunger strike to protest against the deportation of his undocumented migrant apprentice, succeeded in his mission after going 11 days without food.

Stéphane Ravacley, 50, was briefly hospitalized as he attempted to draw attention to the plight faced by Laye Fodé Traoré, 18, who worked with him at "La Hûche à Pain" bakery in the eastern city of Besançon.

"Laye was an exemplary worker. I could see that right away," Ravacley told NBC News, adding that he hired the teenager after reading a newspaper article about the struggle of migrant children to find training opportunities as part of their immigration obligations.

Traoré would arrive at 3 a.m. to bake and leave by 9 a.m. to pursue his studies, Ravacley said, adding that he "always showed up for work" throughout the pandemic and was "never afraid" of the risk of catching the coronavirus.

Traoré, from Guinea in West Africa, arrived in France two years ago aged 16 after making a perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea in an inflatable boat. He began working as a trainee baker with Ravacley a year later.

But after he recently turned 18, Traoré was informed that he was obliged to return to his country in western Africa after the local Prefecture refused to grant him a resident card upon reaching majority age.

Traoré lost his legal protection to remain in the country as a minor and authorities began deportation proceedings against him.

Image: French baker Stephane Ravacley poses in his bakery in Besancon, eastern France
French baker Stephane Ravacley poses in his bakery in Besancon, eastern France.Sebastien Bozon / AFP - Getty Images

Ravacley, a baker for 35 years, said he went on hunger strike to highlight the "injustice" of the system.

"Humanity does not say we protect children for this time and then suddenly stop on the day of their birthday," he said. "If you protect someone, you protect them fully."

Ravacley's campaign gained traction on social media and an online petition garnered over 242,000 signatures.

By Monday, several French officials including the Mayors of Lyon and Strasbourg, along with celebrities such as Oscar-winning actress Marion Cotillard, penned an open letter to President Emmanuel Macron calling for Traoré to be allowed to remain in France.

He was granted a residency permit on Thursday, according to Besançon's Mayor Anne Vignot, who tweeted it was "excellent news" for all involved. She added that "the fight continues for those who remain in this unacceptable situation."

Laye told NBC News he was "happy" that his future in France was secured.

"I am proud, grateful to my boss and the fight he lead until now for me and for others in my case. Thank you to all these strangers who supported me," he said.

In France, where millions of people buy fresh bread and pastries each day, both men are considered frontline workers amid the pandemic, which has claimed the lives of more than 70,000 people in the country, according to Johns Hopkins University data.

Last year, the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration said migrants working on the frontlines would be rewarded with French nationality, if they applied with an employer recommendation.

As of December, some 2890 immigrants had applied under the scheme, according to the French Interior Ministry.

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But Heloïse Mary, president of BAAM, a French non-profit immigrant association, said the government scheme was a mere PR campaign and that thousands of migrants who worked on the frontline, were still awaiting the outcome of their legal situation.

"Look at the lengths a baker in this country had to go through to help his apprentice stay in France. A hunger strike! What does this say to other young refugees who are minors?" Mary said.

For Traoré, now in possession of his residency papers, it is back to work on Monday.

Nancy Ing reported from Paris and Adela Suliman from London.