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Story Publication logo February 19, 2024

French Mayors Face Violence and Intimidation From Xenophobic Far-Right Groups



Forces that reject democratic values have used elections to consolidate power.

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A woman walks down a street in the village of Callac on December 15, 2023. The far right cried victory in January 2023, when mayor Jean-Yves Rolland of Callac gave up his plan to house seven to 10 refugee families. Image by Mathieu Pattier/Associated Press. France.

SAINT-BREVIN-LES-PINS, France (AP) — The mayor of a small resort town on the Atlantic coast of France resigned, closed his medical practice and moved away after his house and two cars were set on fire. The arson followed months of death threats over plans to relocate a refugee center near a school.

More than 150 miles (240 kilometers) to the north, trouble visited another mayor when he decided to take in a handful of refugee families. The aim was to fill job vacancies in the village; instead, he received a torrent of abuse. One threat read: “I hope, Mr. Mayor, that your wife will be raped, your daughter will be raped, and your grandchildren sodomized.”

These were not isolated incidents.

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Mayors, normally among the most appreciated elected officials in France, are under attack as never before. Opposition to immigration is a driving force, led by small extreme-right groups that are often backed by national politicians.

While other European countries including Germany, Sweden, Italy and Spain have seen protests over similar issues, the backlash against mayors is especially jarring in France. The French have traditionally revered state institutions. A small-town mayor embodies the values of the French Republic, harking back to the revolution of 1789.

The tactics used against French mayors in recent years go beyond the usual street protests and angry public meetings. They include violence and disinformation — and local demonstrations are often amplified by outside agitators.

In France, like elsewhere in Europe, national identity has become a war cry for far-right political groups. They promote the idea that foreigners are stealing the riches of the nation through state handouts and that they will ultimately upend France’s traditional way of life.

France’s internal security agency, the DGSI, is increasingly worried about fringe movements and their potential for violence, both on the far right and the far left.

Far-right groups became more active after deadly attacks by Islamic extremists in 2015-2016. One of their goals is to “precipitate a clash” over those viewed as outsiders, then-DGSI chief Nicolas Lerner said in a rare interview with Le Monde last year.

“The normalization of a recourse to violence, and the temptation to want to impose ideas through fear or intimidation, is a grave danger to our democracies,″ he said.

The violent views of the radical right in the U.S. have spread to Europe and been amplified through social media, said Lerner.

Topics debated by political parties, like migration, tend to “channel energy,” he said.

Far right on the rise

The French far right first made its mark in 1984, when the National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen won 10 seats in the European Parliament. But the nation gasped when Le Pen, a Holocaust denier, reached a runoff in the 2002 presidential election against the incumbent, Jacques Chirac.

Parties on the left and right combined to keep Le Pen from power then. But today the party of his daughter, Marine, has 88 deputies in Parliament. She plans to make her fourth bid for the presidency in 2027, after twice reaching the runoff against President Emmanuel Macron.

A new party, Reconquête (Reconquest), has staked out a position even further to the right, calling for zero immigration. Its vice president, Marion Maréchal, Marine Le Pen’s niece, is the lead candidate in elections for the European Parliament in June.

People gather in Saint-Jean-de-Monts, western France. on November 4, 2023, at the call of a far-right group against the reception in the town of 15 migrants. Image by Jeremias Gonzalez/Associated Press.

Pierre Cassen, center, a far-right activist, speaks to people gathered outside the city hall in Saint-Jean-de-Monts, western France, on November 4, 2023. Image by Jeremias Gonzalez/Associated Press.

Reconquête’s ambitions go further than just a protest movement, said Jean-Yves Camus, a leading expert on the far right.

“Beyond those anti-migrant demonstrations there is a real political project, which is confronting the state,” he said. While there is no tradition of suspicion of a “deep state” in France, Reconquête’s founder, Eric Zemmour, has emulated former U.S. President Donald Trump, taking aim at elites and predicting the collapse of French society.

Zemmour, a French nationalist, has no personal connection to extremist groups, Camus said. “But he says, ‘If these people want to join me and my party, they can be useful.’”

A person in favor of welcoming migrants observes people demonstrating in Saint-Jean-de-Monts on November 4, 2023, at the call of the far-right group against the reception in the town of 15 migrants. Image by Jeremias Gonzalez/Associated Press.

Reconquête is also leading a campaign against the educational system with an agenda to end what it calls the “great indoctrination.” It runs a pressure group, called Vigilant Parents, that tries to keep schools from teaching about topics it deems inappropriate, such as LGBTQ rights, and encourages people to snitch on teachers who do.

Many on the far right, including Zemmour, subscribe to the “great replacement” theory, the false claim that native populations of Western countries are being overrun by non-white immigrants, notably Muslims, who will one day erase Christian civilization and its values.

Trouble in Callac

The far right claimed victory in January 2023, when Mayor Jean-Yves Rolland of Callac gave up his plan to house seven to 10 refugee families in his town in Brittany, in northwest France. His goal had been to help fill local jobs and inject dynamism into the isolated enclave with a shrinking population.

People walk in the center of the village of Callac on December 15, 2023. Image by Mathieu Pattier/Associated Press.

For months, demonstrators from near and far, some from Reconquête, converged on the village of 2,200 people.

“They were clearly threatening democracy,” Rolland said, dumping a pile of written threats on his desk in the town hall. One referred to migrants as “Dealers, Rapists, Aggressors” who should be “returned to Africa.” Another showed a patron saint of France, the Archangel Michael, trampling on a Quran and chasing Islam’s Prophet Mohammed out of France with a pitchfork.

Some of the threatening letters to Jean-Yves Rolland, mayor of Callac, are pictured on December 15, 2023. Image by Mathieu Pattier/Associated Press.

Jean-Yves Rolland, mayor of Callac, poses outside the town hall on December 15, 2023. The far right cried victory in January 2023, when Rolland gave up his plan to house seven to 10 refugee families. Image by Mathieu Pattier/AP Photo.

The use of disinformation, including “troll factories” that generate swarms of emails targeting an individual, is a hallmark of extreme-right groups.

Rolland said he received hundreds of angry emails that mysteriously passed through the Czech Republic. Some carried spurious contact details, complicating investigators’ efforts to locate the senders, he said.

“In the end, those contesting came from outside ... terrible extremist groups,” Rolland said.

A woman holds some bread as she crosses the street in the village of Callac on December 15, 2023. The far right cried victory in January 2023, when mayor Jean-Yves Rolland of Callac gave up his plan to house seven to 10 refugee families. Image by Mathieu Pattier/Associated Press.

Mayor's house on fire

Mayor Yannick Morez of Saint-Brevin-les-Pins was awakened in the night on March 22 of last year to find flames lapping at the front of his home while his family slept. His cars were completely destroyed by fire.

Asylum seekers had been in the town since 2016, but a plan to house them near a school triggered protests that children would be at risk. As in Callac, some of the demonstrators were local, but out-of-towners seized on the opportunity to promote their anti-migrant cause, whether in person or via online campaigning.

Morez resigned and moved away, but his successor as mayor, Dorothée Pacaud, stood firm, and the relocation project went ahead. Months later, the town remains tense; it went into full lockdown for a low-key immigration conference last fall.

Dorothee Pacaud, mayor of Saint-Brevin-les-Pins, is shown outside the town hall on November 28, 2023. Image by Mathieu Pattier/Associated Press.

“An elected official, a mayor, a deputy mayor, that represents democracy. To use methods like that, what happened in Callac, it’s unacceptable,” Pacaud said.

French mayors faced another brief challenge last year: Six nights of nationwide rioting over the police killing of a 17-year-old with North African roots. Unusually, the unrest stretched beyond metropolitan areas and reached provincial towns, too, super-charged by messages shared by teenagers on TikTok. A mass police deployment brought the violence to a halt.

But the campaigns are continuing, and have touched other towns, too. And another source of tension is brewing. In recent weeks, French farmers have mounted protests across the country, demanding better pay and less red tape, especially from the EU.

Workers operate at the main entrance of the future reception center for asylum seekers in Saint-Brevin-les-Pins on November 28, 2023. Image by Mathieu Pattier/Associated Press.

The farmers are the embodiment of “la France profonde,” the very essence of what makes France French, that the far right claims to represent. Activists are seizing the opportunity. Small groups of extremists, some members sporting brass knuckles, showed up at one farmers’ demonstration last month in the southern city of Montpellier.

With elections for the European Parliament coming up in June, the protests are an opportunity for the far right to sow discontent with mainstream politics — and a warning of the possibility of more disruption to come.

Mathieu Pattier in Callac and Jeremias Gonzalez in Saint-Jean-de-Monts, contributed to this report.


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