France is coursing with waves of violence right now, but its beauty will outlast them

Extremism, both on the right and the left, is currently manifesting itself in very ugly and violent ways

French riot police look towards a burning barricade amid clashes with protesters during a demonstration on May Day. AFP
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France, which proudly claims to be birthplace of the rights of man, is experiencing an ugly phenomenon that owes nothing to the noble values of liberty, equality and fraternity expressed in the national motto.

In a disturbing wave of intolerance and hatred, mayors and other elected officials have been abused, threatened or attacked, a great-nephew of President Emmanuel Macron’s wife was beaten up by anti-government protesters, a far-right party is now the most popular in the land and neo-fascists have marched in Paris.

Recent weeks have seen levels of intimidation, criminal damage and violence reflecting a marked contrast to the seemingly cosy camaraderie of peaceful demonstrators banging saucepans to show their rejection of Mr Macron’s modest pensions reforms.

While riots, mainly involving activists from the far left and the militantly anarchist “black blocs”, are chiefly confined to Paris and other major cities, a small seaside town on the estuary of the River Loire in western France has become an unlikely focus of attention in this climate of lawlessness and tension.

The mayor of the quaint-sounding Saint-Brevin-les-Pins, Yannick Morez, resigned in fear and disgust on May 9. A moderate conservative, he decided he had enough after months of increasingly sinister hostility to plans to move a reception centre for migrants to a site near a school. The intimidation included death threats and an arson attack on his home that destroyed two cars parked outside.

France remains a thing of beauty, despite the ravages of occasional extreme weather as well as extreme politics

In a message posted on the town hall’s official website two days later, Mr Morez said he had sent a formal letter of resignation to the head of the Loire-Atlantique region after 15 years’ service to the local council. “I made this decision for personal reasons, in particular following the arson attack on my home and the lack of support from the state and after a long reflection with my family,” he wrote.

Mr Morez told the regional Ouest-France newspaper that neither he nor his wife and three children wanted him to continue in office after what had happened. He also said that in the seven years since the Calais Jungle migrants’ camp was dismantled and its occupants dispersed, no problems had been caused by those accommodated in Saint-Brevin.

It has since emerged that in the first quarter of this year, almost 900 elected officials across France were targeted in one way or another. Mr Macron expressed his outrage and ordered Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne to summon Mr Morez to Paris for talks, accompanied by assurances of greater support, now including plans for tougher sentences. Other mayors have said openly that they fear they may be the next victims.

Protests against Mr Morez have been organised by Reconquest, the party led by a beaten 2022 presidential candidate Eric Zemmour, generally regarded as even more far right than Marine Le Pen and her National Rally (RN) movement. RN supporters have also been vocal in opposing any welcome for migrants. However, by no means are all those gathering in Saint-Brevin from the town itself. They are joining the bandwagon after drifting in from outlying areas.

Although there are no grounds of suspecting Mr Zemmour, his party or RN of encouraging or condoning attacks or threats aimed at the mayor, they are hardly seen as forces for harmony. Mr Zemmour’s tub-thumping central theme is his rant against the supposed “great replacement” of the native population by hordes of Muslim immigrants contemptuous of French republican values – demonstrably grotesque, it nevertheless appeals to some in this restless country.

In fact, few on the centre or left of French politics recognise either Mr Zemmour or Ms Le Pen as republicans at all but accuse both of being xenophobic, Islamophobic rabble-rousers exploiting fears of alleged mass immigration, insecurity and a dilution of France’s identity. Photographs from one demonstration against the migrant centre, outside the Saint-Brevin-les-Pins town hall, show women carrying placards not only demanding the deportation of “clandestine people, delinquents and foreign criminals” but lamenting a decline in France’s status, which they blame on immigration.

Amid hand-wringing concern over the growing menace to democratic functions, Ms Le Pen now points to opinion polls and claims to lead a party that has gone from being the most hated in France to its most loved.

Gone are the assertions, before she was defeated by Mr Macron a little more than a year ago, that she would not stand again for the presidency in 2027 if beaten. She will – and those polls suggest that she’d win if elections took place now. Aided to a degree by being less rabid that Mr Zemmour – now supported by her own niece, Marion Marechal – she talks as if on-message, at least on immigration, with Britain’s governing Conservatives, led by the conventionally right-wing Rishi Sunak but including many MPs who might fit comfortably into the RN.

These strides have been achieved by the undoubted success of a relentless drive to sanitise her party and distance herself from its founder, her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, now nudging 95 and a veteran leader of the far right who has been repeatedly punished in the courts for comments judged racist or anti-Semitic.

Ms Le Pen even insists her party has never been extreme right, just more “patriotic”. This echoes the views of Philippe Lottiaux, one of her intake of MPs as the RN took 88 seats in legislative elections following last year’s presidential campaign. “With ‘extreme right’, there are two terms that are not appropriate,” he told me after being elected. “Extreme and right.”

Such protestations would be challenged by most political observers in France, while also contradicting those voters who have happily told TV interviewers of their intentions “to vote for the extreme right”.

Mr Lottiaux also said last year he agreed “with a number of Eric Zemmour's observations”. When everyone else inside the chamber of the National Assembly stood in solidarity with the mayor of Saint-Brevin, RN members remained defiantly seated. Their justification – lack of reciprocity, “political instrumentalisation” – sounded pitiful. And when neo-fascists gathered in Paris, their numbers included one of those RN figures whose attachment to old ways continues to embarrass the party, if clearly not enough to deter voters.

What we are left with is a country ill at ease with itself. The far right is not the only source of irrational rage; the left-dominated protests against pension reform have led to serious violence over a grievance the French see as fundamental but most people in Europe, accustomed or resigned to working longer, find incomprehensible. And there was something squalid about the beating up of Jean-Baptiste Trogneux, a chocolate shop owner in the president’s home town of Amiens, for no better reason than that Mr Macron’s wife, Brigitte, is a great-aunt. Three men who had taken part in an earlier pensions protest were detained.

For all that, France remains a thing of beauty. Despite the ravages of occasional extreme weather as well as extreme politics, visitors still find endless joy in the boulevards of Paris, the gorgeous landscapes of Normandy, the Dordogne and Alps as well as the vibrant Atlantic and Mediterranean resorts now expecting a bumper holiday summer.

Not for the first time when seeking to understand what makes the French tick and rebel against their lot, it seems useful to turn to the words of the French writer and broadcaster Sylvain Tesson, who declared France to be “a paradise populated by people who believe they’re in hell”.

Published: May 25, 2023, 5:00 AM