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France

A communist French city flirts with the far right

Text by Sarah LEDUC

Latest update : 2013-10-11

The southern city of Brignoles has caught the French spotlight after the far right won half the votes in the first round of its local election last week. FRANCE 24 takes the town’s pulse before the October 13 run-off poll.

Some things never change in the small, sun-drenched French city of Brignoles, like the afternoon petanque game played by the old-timers. The seniors huddle around the metal spheres. They hold glasses of pastis – an anise-flavoured liqueur that is another trademark of France’s southeast – as they inspect the accuracy of each throw. As if taking a cue from the ageing men, time moves slower here than in the rest of the country.

But Brignoles surprised France last week by giving the far-right a 49.5 per cent landslide in the first round of its local by-elections: 40.4% of votes went to National Front candidate Laurent Lopez and 9.1% to another far-right group, Parti de France.The anti-immigration National Front led by Marine Le Pen draws much of its support from the southeast, but this city of 17,000 people still claims a Communist mayor.

The outcome of the ballot is relatively unimportant. It will decide one seat in the local council, or canton. The National Front is not even certain to win the run-off poll on October 13.

But the results are a potential weathervane for nationwide municipal elections next March. An IFOP poll this week found that the National Front is the front-runner in EU parliamentary elections in May, with 24 per cent of prospective votes - two percentage points ahead of the centre-right UMP and five points behind the Socialist Party of President François Hollande.

Are voters fed up with mainstream parties on both the left and right and ready to give the National Front unprecedented power at the local and European level? Is Brignoles a bell-wether seat?

'We were all brothers then'

The silvered-haired men on the petanque pitch are reluctant to answer questions about last Sunday’s elections. But as the sun sinks in the sky and the pastis sinks in its bottle, a rousing debate begins.

César Baroni, 86, retired mine worker © Sara Leduc/FRANCE 24

“People are frustrated and they are expressing themselves through the election,” Gaston, 80, tosses out as a first explanation. “These politicians are putting the needs of certain populations ahead of others,” adds Michel.

“Let’s stop beating around the bush,” Antoine suggests. “Us real Brignoles people no longer recognise our home-town.” This opens the floodgates, and a torrent of complaints surges from the other men about rampant immigration, welfare handouts, crime and drugs.

César, 86, who has so far remained silent, suddenly erupts with barely controlled indignation. “You all have racism flowing through your veins!” he rages. A retired mine-worker and the son of Italian immigrants, César warns the others that if they had not grown up together he would have punched their teeth in.

“In the mines there was no racism. We were all brothers then,” he reminds them. “It’s up here on the surface that people talk like this.”

'Better before'

César nurses nostalgia for the 40 years in which he worked in the region’s former bauxite mines. Their closure at the end of the 1980s broke his heart. For many years the mine companies were the region’s biggest employer and welcomed workers from Italy, Spain, and later, Morocco and Algeria. Most of the ex-miners found other jobs, others retired, but César says they all felt orphaned when the mines shut.

“The bosses and the government turned their back on us. Globalisation and capitalism are to blame for all of this,” César says, revealing his past as an active union member. His words echo ideas that the National Front has adopted in recent years, but César has been casting his vote for the Communist Party since he was 18 years old.

“My whole life I fought to help other workers through the unions. But today, people’s standard of living is worse than it was in 1930,” he says. “It was better before. All the sons and grand-children of the old miners who are unemployed are wandering the city streets all day. They would be better off in the mines.”

'Politics is just a scam'

Many of Brignoles’s unemployed can be spotted in Carami Square, the barely beating heart of the city. Four cafes, a tobacconist, an Arab sandwich bar and a handful of shops provide all the entertainment on offer. Retirees lean on their walking canes and marvel at the passing women who balance a smartphone between their shoulder and chin. Young men with long faces nurse short espressos.

A senior sits on a bench in Brignoles' city centre © Sarah Leduc/FRANCE 24

Mohammed, 33, summarizes his life with one phrase: two children, a wife who works as a maid and an apartment for which he has trouble paying the rent. “I have searched for work everywhere, but no one wants me,” he says.

Mohammed is among the 12.5% of Brignoles’s residents who are unemployed and the 67% who did not bother to vote in the much-talked-about election. “Politics is just a scam. I don’t care and I don’t vote,” he says sharply.

The old union worker, César, points to that low voter-turnout as the reason for the far-right’s success. The old petanque crew assures him no one voted for the National Front last Sunday, even if they understand why their neighbours did. “We just want to continue living a quiet life,” one of them says, as if to wrap up the debate. Even so, next Sunday Brignoles might still give France something to talk about.

This is the first of a three-part report on Brignoles ahead of the second-round cantonal election on October 13.

Date created : 2013-10-11

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