Beaucaire is a small town of 16 000 people in the Gard, southern France. It is one of 11 municipalities won by the Front National in elections three years ago.
Despite its tourist potential unemployment here is close to 20%, double the national average. There are large communities from north Africa and south America, field hands for the surrounding agriculture. Many live in one town centre district. Beaucaire could almost be a test town; its ambitious mayor wants it to be a shop window.
My way or the highway
Julien Sanchez, 33, makes headlines. He invited Marine Le Pen, when his party leader was shunned by the 11 January Republican march in Paris after the 2015 attacks, to march in his town and last December he named a road on an industrial estate Rue du Brexit.
The FN is using a tried and tested formula: staying close to the electorate, engaging, and staying visible. Sanchez is everywhere looking and sounding busy, reinforcing the local police, and making respect for the folksy Gard local traditions a priority.
These polices have proven popular, but in Beaucaire few people accept to go on the record on camera even if expressing support. Some however do.
“Plenty of my customers speak highly of Sanchez, even those who did not vote for the FN. But I know I will be voting FN, and I’m not scared to say it. Migrants are always the first in line, it’s true, and I’m not ashamed to say it, I think the French should come first. But having said that, if after all this there’s no real change then I’ll stop voting, I willl feel let down by politics,” says baker Astrid Quirin.
Sanchez started in politics young. He has fine-tuned a communications machine and helped change the FN’s image over the last few years. He is a member of Marine Le Pen’s presidential electoral campaign strategy council.
Prochaine permanence sans rendez-vous du Maire de Beaucaire : ce vendredi 31 mars 2017 de 13h30 à 17h30. pic.twitter.com/ApY3nd2icn— Beaucaire (@beaucaire30) March 29, 2017
“I’ve been in the FN since I was 16 so as you can see, half my life already in the FN. It’s simply because I think if you want the right solutions for your country you have to draw the right conclusions: today I think only the FN is not deluding itself about the situation in France and is the best-placed to propose the best-adapted responses,” he says.
Old messages in new tins
Adept with social media the FN has drawn many young voters. Many of them are unemployed. Some children of north African migrants who now leave the field work to the latinos that euronews spoke to seemed unconcerned by the FN’s rise.
The FN has used every public relations tool at its disposal, and among political figures Marine Le Pen was an early social media adopter and now boasts more than a million Facebook and Twitter followers. With these networks she gets her message across to the young and women and it is working, but security, immigration and jobs remain the FN’s core policy areas. Longtime diehard FN electors agree.
“Before I voted for her dad Jean-Marie, and he was a lot tougher with immigrants, it’s true, but I find Marine is more flexible. All the same, I can tell you I don’t blame Muslims or anything like that, that’s got nothing to do with it, but now, with all these migrants coming in we have to stop. There’s already no work, so I say closing the frontiers would be great,” says former accountant Laurence.
“We’ve already tried everything so now there’s only Marine left. She’s got to get in, and then we’ll see. We want to be able to give our children a future, and I think that’s important. Today not even we know where we’re going, so where they’re headed I have no idea,” says Laurence’s daughter, Sabrina, a hotel cleaner.
Not everyone in Beaucaire is satisfied with the Sanchez way. The division that the FN has established has united the opposition parties, who make a public show of their resistance. They are critical of what they dub a brainwashing PR offensive, larded with fake news, and the 60-odd costly legal challenges the Mayor has had to face. If their local experience is anything to go by, Marine Le Pen would be a terrible president.
“At the level of our commune the way power is being exercised is between the hands of one man, Sanchez. He doesn’t delegate, so the FN on a national scale? Imagine Marine Le Pen with her hands on the absolute power the fifth republic grants one sole individual…it’s frightening,” says member of the “Réagir pour Beaucaire” collective Stéphane Linossier.
The Beaucaire Citizens’ Collective was set up to combat racism and discrimination, and while keeping the town council under scrutiny is not opposed to it as a matter of course. However it is sounding the alarm.
“Marine Le Pen attacks individual freedoms. In Beaucaire the mayor is attacking freedom of conscience and freedom of expression. If you express yourself you are automatically against Sanchez and he plays the victim. Now I’m not a politician or economist but closing frontiers and and leaving Europe is ludicrous and makes no sense. I’m a committed European,” says group member Laure Cordelet.
Few FN voters here have Europe on their lips, even if dumping the euro single currency worries some. But the way the FN is flexing its political muscle locally is dividing the town, even if Julien Sanchez insists that the only division here, if one exists at all, is between those who follow the rules, and those that don’t.
Marine’s airbrushing masks FN’s deep hardcore roots says historian
Euronews’ Sandrine Delorme spoke to respected French historian and researcher Valérie Igounet.
“Valérie Igounet, you have spent 20 years and written several books examining the FN and in the last two years investigated the party’s electorate and how its municipalities have fared. What is the strongest message in your book based on that assignment, ‘L’illusion nationale’?”
“The first thing that struck us, that we felt, was this total disillusion with French politics, a feeling that where once people believed, and now today they do not, not at all. Many people insisted that promises had been broken, either that once the cameras had stopped rolling then the politicians would disappear never to return, or that campaign pledges were not kept.
They also trust Marine Le Pen. What they say is that they trust her image, her promises, and they feel a party that’s never had a try at governing should get one. That’s a line we’ve heard a lot.”
“You believe that the FN has evolved and changed but do you believe that change is deep and real, or is it just superficial, or even a front?”
Valérie Igounet :
“Today the party says it’s of the right and left; it is even styling itself as a party for all peoples, a broad church; in Marine Le Pen’s election manifesto there are 144 promises, and there’s something for everyone.
But fundamentally the Front hasn’t changed. That needs to be said. The difference is that its electorate thinks that this woman, who has led the FN for several years now, has changed the party, and that it is not what it used to be. Some would even maintain it is no longer a racist party.
When the hot subject is Islamophobia then yes, the FN is xenophobic, but it wears this as a badge of pride and doesn’t see it as a problem. But the “national priority” that the FN says it wants to universally apply, we can’t say that xenophobia does not play a part in that, and say that there’s no problem.”