Charities ask French court to halt Calais migrant camp closure

LILLE/PARIS (Reuters) - A group of charities has asked a court to block the imminent closure of the "Jungle" migrant camp in northern France where thousands of refugees are living in squalid conditions, many of them desperate to reach Britain. The legal challenge comes as protests mount in some areas where the government plans to rehouse the migrants, most of whom are from countries such as Afghanistan, Sudan and Eritrea, and increasingly Syria. Facing public pressure ahead of a presidential election in April, President Francois Hollande has said the camp in Calais will be dismantled by the end of the year. Thousands have already been rehoused in the last 12 months but a new census this week showed 6,500 migrants residing at the camp, though aid workers said it could be up to 10,000. Aid workers in the camp spoke this week of a demolition start date as early as Oct. 17. The Secours Catholique charity, one of those seeking the injunction, said the request was submitted to a court in Lille on Wednesday evening. A judicial source said an emergency ruling should be delivered within 48 hours. Secours Catholique said it was not opposed to the dismantling of the makeshift camp but that the speed at which the closure was to be completed would have a negative impact on relocations. "Contrary to what we were told, the plan is to dismantle the Jungle very quickly and do it in a matter of days," it said in a statement. "It will be impossible to ensure serious preparations that cater properly to people's interests." The rehousing plan has already run into resistance in some towns where the 160 reception centers have been set up. In the southern town of Beziers, the public prosecutor's office said on Thursday police were investigating complaints over a publicity campaign organized by the mayor, Robert Menard, who was elected with the backing of the far-right National Front party. Posters on billboards across the town read: "The state has forced them upon us. Now here they come. Migrants in the center of our city." Last week shots were fired at two planned migrant centers, one in the western seaside resort town of Saint Brevin and the other in Saint-Hilaire-du-Rosier in southeastern France, a conservative stronghold. (Reporting by Matthias Blamont, Pierre Savary and Johanne Decorse; Writing by Brian Love; Editing by Richard Lough and Raissa Kasolowsky)