BEZIERS: “We’re dying here!” In Beziers and Perpignan the phrase has become something of a refrain of late, a shorthand way of explaining why the two southern towns are on the verge of falling into the hands of the country’s resurgent far-right party, the National Front (FN).
And they are not alone. Polls suggest between 10 and 15 mid-sized French towns could have FN mayors by the time ballot boxes close on Sunday in the second round of nationwide local elections.
The party of Marine Le Pen has already secured one mayor’s seat, its candidate having won an outright majority in the depressed former coal mining town of Henin-Beaumont at the first attempt last Sunday.
That marked the first time the FN has secured control of a town in France’s industrial north, previously a bastion of the left, including the once mighty Communist Party.
The issues that underpinned the FN’s highly symbolic win in Henin-Beaumont are just as present at the other end of the country: unemployment, poverty and crime, but also disillusionment with the perceived failures and cronyism of the existing political establishment, at local and national level.
In Beziers, a famous rugby town, an intriguing independent candidate heads a list containing several FN activists that has been enthusiastically backed by Le Pen.
Robert Menard, who has spent most of his life campaigning for press freedom around the world as the president of Reporters without Borders, looks almost certain to bedome the town’s next mayor, having taken 45 percent of the votes in the first round, well ahead of the mainstream UMP (30.3 percent) and the list of President Francois Hollande’s Socialist Party (PS).
In a town that has been run by the UMP for 19 years, Menard seems to have come across as a breath of fresh air, a political outsider.
“I am an old Socialist and will be all my life,” said Pascal, a shopkeeper in the town’s historic centre.
“But I am not going to vote for the PS because we are in a grave situation here,” he said, eyeing a once elegant square, now deserted and surrounded by boarded-up shops.
With 16 percent of the workforce unemployed and a third of the population living with net household income below 1,000 euros per month, Beziers has the third highest poverty rate of France’s 100 largest municipalities.
In a town of some 70,000 residents, so-called “pieds noirs” (literally black feet), French nationals born in north Africa before the end of colonial rule, mingle with Arab immigrants who made the same journey in search of jobs during France’s post-war industrial expansion, and another community of recent immigrants from all corners of the world.
In Pascal’s view, the outgoing mayor, Raymond Couderc, “pissed on the town,” by failing to address its economic decline.
“The only things opening are kebab stands. Beziers is a beautiful town, a historic place that was one of the crossroads of Europe, but the town centre is on its deathbed.” Regine, 71, adds: “We are in such a desperate state that Menard is the only person who can prevent us dying.”
But Regine says she will still not bring herself to vote for his FN-backed list out of respect for the memory of her Jewish father. Many in France still see the party as tainted by association with its founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, a serial Holocaust denier whose political career began in unequivocally fascist circles.
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