Pierre-Alain Mannoni
Pierre-Alain Mannoni, a French university lecturer who helped migrants near the French-Italian border, arrives at the courthouse in Nice on November 2016 Eric Gaillard/Reuters

A man who was trying to help three Eritrean girls reach safety faces prison time in one of several cases of solidarity with migrants in the Roya Valley in southern France.

Pierre-Alain Mannoni is a lecturer and researcher at Sophia Antipolis university in Nice. In October, he tried to help three girls from Eritrea, who looked injured, tired and cold, reach an organisation that could help them in Marseille.

As he was driving the girls to a train station, he was stopped by the police and detained for 36 hours, while the girls were deported. The prosecution asked for six months' suspended sentence.

"People are worried, but I am not ashamed," he wrote on his Facebook profile when trial started in November, saying he was "calmly awaiting" the verdict. The cover photo displays a quote from Hindu spiritual leader Amma reading "Love is the foundation of the world".

In an article explaining the motivation for helping the girls, Mannoni wrote that he had previously given a ride to another group of young migrants from Darfur who were trying to reach their families in Marseille. He described how he wanted to set an example for his 12-year-old daughter, who was in the car with him at the time, of what to do to help those who suffer injustices.

"We must not let victims die in front of our doors," he wrote. In an apparent reference to the persecution of Jewish people by the Nazi regime, who had occupied France during the Second World War, he added: "History and current events show us often enough that discrimination leads to the greatest horrors. For history not to repeat itself, we must value solidarity and educate our children by example."

Mannoni is not the only French "good Samaritan" who is on trial for helping migrants. A French activist farmer also faces potential prison time if found guilty in a verdict expected on 10 February. Appearing before the court in Nice on 4 January, Cedric Herrou defended his actions as an act of humanity, the Associated Press reported. "The law is against me, against actions to help people in need, so we have to change the laws," he told reporters.

Cedric Herrou
Cedric Herrou is on trial in Nice where his supporters held banners that read: "Yes to solidarity and to welcome migrants and refugees" Eric Gaillard/Reuters

He was charged with helping illegal migrants enter France, travel in France and stay in France. The prosecution asked for an eight-month suspended sentence and a €30,000 (£25,600) fine, but his lawyer Zia Oloumy pleaded for his acquittal, insisting that a crime hadn't been proven. Herrou faced trial in the past for providing assistance to the migrants, mostly coming from East Africa, who cross to France from Italy.

Herrou is part of a network of people, particularly active in the Roya Valley in the French Alps, who resisted Europe's anti-migrant sentiment and are offering food, lodging or other aid to people from impoverished or war-torn countries coming to Europe illegally.

According to AFP, Herrou was first arrested in August for helping a group of Eritreans entering France, but soon released after a judge ruled he had acted on humanitarian grounds. He was arrested again in mid-October after he opened a shelter, the same one where Mannoni met the three Eritrean girls, to house around 50 migrants. This time, the prosecutors say he crossed the line from humanitarian aid to political activism.

French law bans all assistance to illegal migrants unless it is deemed necessary to protect "their dignity and physical integrity."