These are heady times for the far right in France, and particularly for the far-right elements in the small southwestern town of Béziers. When I visited the town last year and spoke to its mayor, Robert Menard, he described the place as a sort of laboratory for the French far right, one that produces results predictive of the country’s future. “What is happening in Béziers today,” he said, “will happen in France in 20 years.”
And yet, so far, the results are mixed. On the one hand, the far-right National Front party, under the leadership of Marine Le Pen, registered its best electoral performance to date in the first round of the presidential elections on April 23. Le Pen’s path to the presidency is a difficult one; the centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron is heavily favored to win in the May 7 runoff. But her strong showing in the first round was an indication that for many in France, a far-right leadership is no longer unthinkable, particularly in the wake of multiple terror attacks on French soil. It was also a stinging rebuke to the establishment Socialist and Republican parties, which received a drubbing while outsider candidates Le Pen and Macron took political center stage.
On the other hand, two days after that vote, Menard—a leading proponent of the far right who is backed by the National Front—was found guilty of inciting hatred against Muslims. In a television appearance last September, he’d said, “In a downtown class in my hometown, 91 percent of the children are Muslim. Obviously, this is a problem.” He’d also tweeted, “#BackToSchool: the most striking proof of #GreatReplacement in progress. Just look at old class photos.” The term “Great Replacement” refers to the theory, popularized by French author Renaud Camus, that the ethnic French population will be replaced by Muslim immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa.
Menard was slapped with a 2,000-euro fine, plus damages of 1,000 euros to be paid out to the civil society organizations that had brought him to court. Questioning the “unjust” court verdict, an angry Menard told me on Friday, “In France, it is forbidden to tell the truth. I’m just saying how things are. I’m just saying what everyone is seeing.”
These two incidents—the vote and the verdict—illustrate the country’s paradoxical relationship to the far right. While the French are voting for the far right in significant numbers, they also have institutional mechanisms in place to keep it in check. What remains to be seen is which of these two forces will win out in the battle for the leadership of France.
Nowhere is this battle being fought more stridently than in the narrow, serpentine alleyways of small towns like Béziers. Here, Le Pen won 31 percent of the vote, 10 percent higher than her national average.
For Franck Manogil, a young National Front councilor in Béziers, this was an important marker of the party’s success. “People are voting for us rather than against other parties,” he said.
Marc Giner, 61, a retired pharmaceutical executive from Béziers and generally a supporter of the Republican party, voted for the National Front in 2015 for the first time. “When you see that the right and left are doing nothing, you turn to the extremists, who have solutions,” he told me. Giner also supports Menard and believes that the media unfairly maligns the mayor and that the court verdict against him was problematic. “Menard may have spoken clumsily, but what he said was the truth. He is saying aloud what everyone is thinking in their heads.”
Menard isn’t a traditional politician, but a former journalist who co-founded Reporters Without Borders, a global organization promoting press freedom. In 2014, he ran as an independent for the post of mayor in Béziers, winning with the official support of the National Front.
In his three controversial years in office, Menard has focused on the redevelopment of the city center and on civic issues like cleanliness, but also on stoking fears related to security, immigration, and French identity. Among other things, he armed the municipal police with handguns (not the norm), attempted to throw out Syrian refugees squatting in a public housing unit (not his jurisdiction), and opposed kebab shops in the city (of which he said there were “too many”).
“What Menard does in Béziers—particularly on immigration, the French identity, and how he behaves with his opponents—shows what the obsessions of the National Front are,” said Jean-Yves Camus, co-author of Far-Right Politics in Europe. “Béziers is like a testing ground for what the policies of the National Front would be if Marine Le Pen were elected.”
Béziers’ economic distress offers one clue as to why Menard’s brand of politics has taken root. Vineyards once dominated the landscape and the local economy, until stiff competition from countries like Spain, where the labor costs were lower, made wine-making less profitable. Many vineyards closed or scaled down operations. Unemployment soared higher as the national economy faltered amid the 2008 global financial crisis. The unemployment rate in Béziers is about 16.7 percent, significantly above the national average of 10 percent. The town is among the poorest in the country.
Menard claimed he would address this, as well as the growth of the town’s immigrant population. Situated just under 100 miles from the Spanish border, close to Perpignan, Béziers’ Mediterranean climate attracted many Spaniards during the Spanish Civil War, as well as French Christian settlers from Algeria, like Menard’s own family. It also attracted Muslim immigrants from Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and Turkey. Menard told me last year that with each successive generation of immigrants from the Maghreb, integration gets worse.
Jérôme Fourquet, director of the opinion department at the French Institute of Public Opinion, said that Béziers represents the far-right strain that leverages the tension between locals and people of immigrant origin. This is being replicated by the far right at the national level. “They successfully play on the three main insecurities of voters—economic, physical, and cultural,” he explained. “Their motto is ‘On est chez nous’ (We are at home), which means that the French are still around to decide how they want to live, how they want to eat, how they want to dress. Béziers is very emblematic of this.”
This strategy has proved effective on the local level in Béziers, and it may be scalable on the national level up to a point. But France’s two-round voting system means that what worked for the far right in the first round may not be enough to win over the nation in the second round, when an anti-establishment platform may make it hard to attract a broad enough voting base.
Even locally, Menard’s tenure has had its setbacks. In 2016, a court struck down the mayor’s plan to form a vigilante force of former security professionals to patrol the streets of the city. Later in the year, he tried to hold a referendum on whether Béziers should take in more refugees as directed by the national government; the courts put a stop to this move as well. And the latest penalties imposed by the courts on Menard show that, for all the apparent shift toward the far right, there are checks and balances to counter his agenda.
Some of the pushback to Menard’s rhetoric has come from local activists like Mehdi Roland, 35, a Catholic-born convert to Islam. Describing how his sister-in-law was asked to remove her headscarf for a job, he told me that the headscarf ban was a major force driving Muslim disillusionment with French society. “The problem is, people repeat, ‘Muslims are not French.’ The more they say this, the more Muslims believe they are not,” he explained.
The National Front’s strong showing didn’t come as a surprise to Roland. “We could see the growth of the extreme right wing. We have been living under it here since 2014,” he said. “This has caused considerable damage and division between people. … I don’t wish that for my country.”
Undaunted, Menard told me that part of what has made his strategy successful in Béziers is bringing together “parts of the traditional right, the extreme right and everything in the middle.” With the decimation of the Socialists and the poor performance of the Republicans, he hopes the same convergence will soon happen at a national level. Apart from Le Pen’s anti-EU stance, he said, there is very little difference between a Republican and a far-right voter. Thirty-one percent of Republican voters have indicated a preference for Le Pen, even though their candidate came out in support of Macron after the first round.
“I aspire for a grand party, conservative on social issues, liberal on economic ones,” Menard said. “I hope this election will accelerate its creation.”