Despite falling crime rates, insecurity is a major issue for certain residents in the southern French town of Brignoles, something that the far right has been keen to exploit as it eyes victory in a local by-election Sunday.
Voters in the southern French town of Brignoles head to the polls Sunday in the second round of a by-election that has made headlines across France.
The town has been in the spotlight ever since the far-right National Front (FN) gained more than 40 percent of the vote in the first round of polling earlier this month, while another far-right group, the Parti de France, took 9.1 percent.
As is often the case for far-right parties, a cornerstone of the National Front’s election campaign has been a promise to crack down on crime.
According to the party’s candidate in Brignoles, Laurent Lopez, fear of crime is a major issue for the towns residents.
“The people are scared,” he says. “Women don’t dare to go out in the evening because they get bothered.”
Things are so bad, says Lopez, that Brignoles is in danger of becoming “like Marseille”, the city 80 kilometres along the coast that suffers a reputation in France as a hotbed of crime and violence.
With a population of over 800,000 and a murder rate five times above the national average, Marseille may seem an unlikely place to compare with Brignoles, a sleepy town of just 17,000.
Furthermore, police figures show crime in Brignoles fell by 19 percent between 2008 and 2012.
But such statistics seem to do little to ease the feeling of insecurity among certain locals.
‘Why go out? To do what?’
Marine, a 20-year-old law student and FN supporter, says she no longer goes out after nightfall.
“As a girl, it’s annoying. We get whistled at and nasty comments,” she says. “Anyway, why go out? To do what?”
This last comment could reveal the true source of locals’ apprehension. It is 6pm and Brignoles feels almost like a ghost town: the streets are more or less empty, shop owners are finishing up for the evening and elderly residents are pulling their window shutters closed.
At the Place Carami, the town’s main square, there are just two cafes still open, along with a kebab shop and a supermarket watched over by a security guard. A group of young men loiter idly nearby.
During the daylight hours, the town centre is not much livelier. A number of shops have closed down for good following the opening of a new mall on the outskirts.
For Brignoles’ Deputy Mayor Djamila Mehidi, walking through the streets of the old town brings a sense of nostalgia.
"When I was little, the streets were packed with kids playing ball, all the neighbors watching us -- everyone knew each other," she recalls.
‘The town has grown too quickly’
Brignoles’ population has grown significantly in recent years following an influx of new arrivals forced by high house prices to move out of other towns and cities along the Côte d'Azur.
But while affluent residents have bought up large villas on the outskirts of the town, the centre has become increasingly impoverished.
“The town has grown too quickly and development has not been able to keep up,” says Mehidi.
Brignoles’ leftist mayor Claude Gilardo has sought to accommodate the town’s burgeoning population, investing more than 50 million euros during his tenure to bring the proportion of social housing up to 17 percent.
But although this is below the 20 percent mark required by law, it is still too substantial a figure for certain voters, who fear more social housing could attract families from the poorer, mainly immigrant neighbourhoods of Marseille and other cities in the region.
Still, Gilardo is hopeful Brignoles residents will eventually reconcile their differences, as they have in the past.
Sipping a glass of rosé over lunch, he points to a tree on the Place Carami. “At the foot of this tree, when I was little, people in the village shaved the head of a woman for daring to love a German soldier," he recalls with emotion. "Last year, I married a Brignolaise and a German!"
This is the third of a three-part report on Brignoles ahead of the second-round cantonal election on October 13.
Date created : 2013-10-13