From Protest to Power

The Economist, September 5, 2015

The neat rows of polished headstones and potted geraniums in the municipal cemetery of Mantes-la-Ville speak of fresh memories and civic diligence. Yet the solemn calm masks its place in a sour struggle following the election as mayor 18 months ago of Cyril Nauth from the National Front (FN), France’s far-right party.

Previously run by Socialists and Communists, Mantes-la-Ville long supplied workers for a giant power station and car factories on a stretch of the Seine valley between Paris and Normandy. Today the industrial certainties of the past have given way to disquiet, and to votes for xenophobes. The new mayor’s preoccupation is stopping local Muslims, who make up an estimated third of the town’s population, from buying a disused tax-collection office, which sits next to the municipal cemetery, to turn it into a mosque.

“Lots of people are hostile,” declares Mr Nauth, a 33-year-old teacher with the cautious manner of a political novice. “They understand the right to a place of worship,” he says. “But they don’t want it near them.” Instead, he proposes to use the former tax office as a municipal police station, and has used his powers to pre-empt its sale. A cemetery, Mr Nauth stresses, is a “symbolic” site; having a place of worship next door would be “disturbing”.

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For the FN, too, the tale matters. Marine Le Pen, its leader, has vowed to transform the one-time protest movement into a respectable party of power. A dozen mayors from the FN, or linked to it, now run town halls. For a party that used to bellow from the sidelines, this constitutes a historic change. So far, three trends are emerging.

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The first might be called a reaffirmation of Christianity in ways that test French secular rules. Mr Nauth’s effort is one example. Another can be found in the southern French town of Béziers, under Robert Ménard, who is allied to the FN. Last December he installed a Christmas nativity scene in the town-hall entrance, prompting the charge that he breached secular law; a court later ruled in his favour. More recently, Mr Ménard claimed to know that 65% of his town’s school pupils were Muslim, although it is illegal to collect such statistics; this time, charges against him were dropped. Both cases look like coded messages to those who fret about Islam trampling France’s Catholic roots.

A second trend is security clamp-downs. Mr Nauth in Mantes-la-Ville is recruiting more municipal policemen. In Fréjus, on the Côte d’Azur, the FN mayor has set up a local rapid-intervention force. Mr Ménard has gone further and begun to arm the municipal police. “Police officers now have a new friend,” read giant posters displaying a handgun. Mr Ménard, who seems set on creating a mini-Singapore à la française, has also banned spitting, the hanging of washing on balconies and carpet-beating out of windows after 10am.

Third, and perhaps most unexpected, is spending cuts. Ms Le Pen owes much of her popularity to disillusion with lookalike mainstream parties and what she calls a self-serving elite; she vows to run a tighter operation. Her mayors, on balance, seem to be making an effort. Mantes-la-Ville, Beaucaire in the south and Hénin-Beaumont, a town in northern France, have cut town-hall running costs. A French news report suggests that seven of the 12 FN town halls have made budget savings–although critics denounce some cuts as highly political, such as Mr Nauth’s decision to stop financing a human-rights group.

Some critics in Mantes-la-Ville admit that FN rule has been less eventful than feared. “He hasn’t taken really scandalous decisions, but that’s not a great benchmark,” says Saïd Benmouffok, a philosophy teacher (and Socialist councillor). A poll finds that 74% of residents in FN-run towns are happy with their mayor, citing cleanliness and security as chief reasons.

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