French Mayor Who Once Defended Journalists Now Denounces Immigrants

Adam Nossiter, New York Times, November 2, 2015

In a past life he was France’s leading advocate for journalists, fighting to spring them from dictators worldwide, a fearless defender of freedom of the press on four continents and a hero to free-speech advocates.

That was then. Now, Robert Ménard, the man who founded Reporters Sans Frontières–Reporters Without Borders–has become a symbol of right-wing extremism in France.

No longer a journalists’ advocate but the mayor of the largest city under far-right control in France, he says there are too many immigrants in his town, too many veils, too many Muslim children and too much culture that is not French.

Mr. Ménard has ordered the laundry off the window ledges, the satellite dishes off the roofs and Syrian refugees out of public housing. He has counted the Muslim children in schools here–a strict no-no in secular France–and increased police patrols on horseback in this whitewashed old Mediterranean city of 70,000 people, high unemployment, high poverty, narrow stone streets and medieval churches.

“People feel like they are being replaced,” Mr. Ménard said an interview inside the 18th-century City Hall. “Immigration has become massive.”

For the far right in France, his tenure as mayor of Béziers has become a laboratory of sorts, watched with fascination by the country’s media, chagrin by liberal-minded opponents and glee by the National Front party of Marine Le Pen.

Mr. Ménard is not a member of the far-right National Front–he fashions himself as an independent and says he is more pro-capitalist than the National Front–but his town has nonetheless become a showcase for the party’s agenda, whose members regularly visit and express support, including Ms. Le Pen.

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Inside the narrow old doorways of the central city he has proved himself, since his March 2014 election, to be either a hero–to the people with French-sounding last names–or a racist villain, to those of North African descent.

Meanwhile, old colleagues at Reporters Sans Frontières are scratching their heads, stupefied at his apparent transformation. A number of them have denounced him.

But to Mr. Ménard, it is all straightforward. He wants most if not all of the immigrants to go somewhere else.

“I don’t want this city to be majority-Muslim, at all,” he said. “There is a majority of the Muslim population that is incapable of living within the norms of this country.”

“I love this country,” he said, ticking off France’s prowess in literature, art and architecture, even its “way of looking at women. I am as attached to them as to my own eyes,” he said.

“The identity of this city is not a Muslim identity,” Mr. Ménard continued. “This is a problem of numbers. When you’ve got two-thirds of the kids in a school with Muslim names–that’s a disaster. Impossible. There’s no way you could want this.”

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On the streets of Béziers, the apocalypse pictured by the mayor does not seem imminent. Muslim women wearing head scarves sat quietly on benches in the lush, green Parc des Poètes on a recent afternoon. Nobody bothered them, and they appeared unperturbed.

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“He’s a racist,” a Moroccan man, who would give his name only as Bader, said in the tiny cafe he operates behind a 12th-century church here. “We’ve got to get rid of him. He wants France only for the French.”

Mr. Ménard has “made hatred and racism ordinary,” said a local civic activist, Linda Mendy Hamdani.

Brice Blazy, a city councilman opposed to Mr. Ménard, in a separate interview, made much the same point, saying, “There are no taboos anymore.”

In the stores and restaurants run by native French, though, there was praise for the cleaned-up facades of Béziers’ old city, the cleaner streets and the more aggressive policing instituted by Mr. Ménard.

“He’s close to the people. And he dares to say, ‘That’s enough with the disorder,’ ” said Amandine Bistuer, who helps run Le Victor, a handsome old cafe on the central square.

“He’s accessible, and he only wants what’s good for the city,” said her colleague Fabien Ascencio. “He speaks frankly, and speaks like us.”

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