Tartuffe in Béziers
In March 2014, Robert Ménard, one of the founders of Reporters without Borders (he isn’t involved anymore) was elected mayor of Béziers, a small city in the South of France, with the support of the Front National. Ménard is not in the FN but has said he agrees with 80 per cent of what they say.
A month after his election, he banned his fellow citizens from hanging their laundry outside or having satellite dishes on their houses in the town centre. In December 2014, he won the right to keep a nativity scene in the town hall for Christmas (the Human Rights League and a resident had brought it to court, saying it infringed laïcité). In February 2015, posters announced that the municipal police would be carrying weapons. In March 2015, the mayor renamed a street that used to commemorate the ceasefire at the end of the Algerian War – 19 mars 1962 – after an officer involved in the failed 1961 putsch led by generals opposed to Algeria’s independence.
In May 2015, Ménard announced on TV that he had counted the number of Muslim pupils in Béziers’s schools (64.6 per cent). Collecting statistics referring to ‘racial or ethnic origin’ is forbidden in France. Ménard was investigated but eventually cleared. In September 2015, wearing his tricolour mayor's scarf, he appeared in a video posted on the council website, telling Syrian refugees: ‘You are not welcome here.’ The same month, the cover of the municipal magazine used a photo taken by an AFP photographer of refugees boarding a train in Macedonia. A photomontage made it look as if the refugees were heading to Béziers. ‘They are coming!’ the headline said.
It was cold when I arrived in Béziers last month. The avenue Saint-Saëns, which took me from the central avenue Paul Riquet to the small flat where I was staying, is full of shops that have closed down: estate agents, a beauty salon, a cinema, a laundrette, a hairdresser. Béziers was once wealthy but the wine crisis and deindustrialisation hit it hard. The city, which has around 75,000 inhabitants, is France's fourth poorest. The middle classes who used to live in the city centre left for the suburbs. Poorer residents, often of foreign origin, moved in.
In the council waiting room there were several issues of the municipal magazine. It comes out twice a month; 44,000 copies are printed. There was a bleu-blanc-rouge cover depicting Jean Moulin, the French resistance hero born in Béziers, which boasted: ‘We, at least, have not forgotten him.’ The mayor is planning to turn the house where Moulin was born into a museum. The December issue announces: ‘Christmas, our identity’. Articles are unsigned but Ménard has admitted that André-Yves Beck, his chief of staff, who used to work for Jacques Bompard, the Front National mayor of Orange, is involved.
Ménard’s office is decorated with a large religious painting. ‘I never cease to be a Catholic while in office, not for a second,’ he told me, pointing at it. He listed what he has done to make Béziers’s residents ‘proud of their city again’. The council has helped restore 83 per cent of the façades on the avenue Paul Riquet. It has doubled the number of police officers. New hotels have opened, the first for decades. ‘You wouldn't be here, if it wasn't for me, would you?’ Ménard asked. He wasn’t wrong.
Many people I spoke to in the city centre seemed to be very happy with what Ménard’s done there. Shopkeepers told me about tax rebates; a woman who works at the post office bank said she feels much safer now. The men who used to harass her when she walked to the car park have gone. A Russian shopkeeper told me Ménard is not against migrants – ‘at least, not against those who integrate,’ she said. ‘We are of the same religion. It makes things easier.’
I waited half an hour in Général de Gaulle square to get a bus to la Devèze, a 1960s housing estate. On the bus, a middle-aged lady launched into a racist rant against Arabs and black people, to an audience of old Arab people and some teenagers. She was contradicted by another woman.
On the estate, I was met by Medhi Roland, who runs a charity helping young people. He pointed at the empty office of another charity, Arc-en-ciel, which used to help children and young people from the estate to travel. After Ménard was elected, the organisation lost its council grant and closed down. Medhi explained that a nearby playground, which has been burnt down, won't be replaced, and that the weekly street market is to be replaced by a commercial development.
The estate was built to house Pieds-Noirs arriving from Algeria in 1962. Ménard, who was born in Oran and took part in the Pied-Noir exodus, spent part of his childhood in la Devèze. ‘When Ménard told Syrian refugees they were not welcome here he did it despite having been in a fairly similar situation himself,’ Medhi said. ‘We work with young people, to try to make them understand that being of foreign origin is valuable, but after hearing again and again that they are not French, they end up believing it. What we tell them is being undermined by their difficulty to find work and by political discourse.’
‘Ménard has a short-sighted and superficial policy,’ the long-time Communist councillor Aimé Couquet told me. ‘He's bought some buildings in the centre of town and is spending a lot on communication with the council magazine. Arabs are his scapegoat. But he is doing little to encourage job growth, and not making any long-term investment. One-third of people live under the poverty line here.’ In L'Express, the mayor acknowledged that he had lowered taxes too much, and that it put the city at a disadvantage. This month, Ménard is hosting a seminar to unite the French right in Béziers. ‘The patriotic right I represent won’t win only with the Front National,’ he told me.
Bruno Modica teaches history at the lycée Jean Moulin (where Moulin's father worked). He was one of thirty teachers who wrote a letter asking Ménard to stop using history for political gain and ‘torturing the memory of Jean Moulin’. ‘Ménard is a Tartuffe,’ Modica told me. ‘Like Tartuffe, who said: “Cover this breast which I shall not behold,” he'll go: “Hide these Arabs that I don't want to see, hide these satellite dishes, hide these kebabs.”’
On the morning of 26 March, four days after the terrorist bombings in Brussels, Ménard delivered a speech in a cemetery, to pay homage to the victims of the Shootout of Isly street in Algiers. He explained why he refuses to commemorate the ceasefire: ‘I don't celebrate defeats.’ The sky was blue. He was speaking to an audience of old Pieds-Noirs army veterans who just sung ‘We are the Africans’, the unofficial anthem of the Pied-Noir community in France. ‘Why come back to the past?’ Ménard asked, defending his right to tell a history he says he knows through experience, not books. ‘Because the past flows into the future. Everything comes back. The events of 2015 in Paris – or in Brussels – are an echo of what took place in Algeria from 1954 to 1962. Islamism is hiding in all our cities, reinforced every day by the flood of migrants. Muslims who refuse their law will have to leave or die. Then it will be our turn. France is on the frontline. The resurrection of Europe must start from France!’ The crowd of pensioners claps.
Read more in the London Review of Books