World A Small French Town Infused With Us-vs.-Them Politics

06:17  21 april  2017
06:17  21 april  2017 Source:   The New York Times

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FRÉJUS, France — Fréjus, a small town on the south coast of France, looks so charming that during my recent visit I half-expected its residents to spontaneously break into the opening number of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.”

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Flowers bloomed on windowsills that lined winding cobbled streets, and yachts bobbed in the harbor under golden sunshine.

Fréjus became a symbol of the far-right National Front party’s breakthrough in 2014, when 26-year-old David Rachline won the mayoral race, part of a wave of National Front victories in local elections across France.

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Today, Fréjus offers something more: a case study in two major forces that have fueled the far right’s rise in France and elsewhere.

The first is the growth of tensions over group identity that has created a receptive audience for the National Front’s brand of us-vs.-them populism.

The second is the economic change brought about by globalization and technological progress, which is taking jobs away from France’s cities and towns and chipping away at the regional identities that have long been a foundation of French culture and pride. As people see a prized way of life vanishing, they become newly receptive to the National Front’s protectionist promises.

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Though the specifics of these forces are unique to France, the underlying dynamics are more broadly relevant and may help to explain a mystery that has puzzled many: why far-right populism is gaining ground in many seemingly stable and wealthy liberal democracies.

A Past Conflict Resonates

The center of life in Fréjus is a small cobblestone square surrounded by historic buildings, like the town’s cathedral. Its 1,500-year-old baptismal font is the source of great local pride. Mr. Rachline’s office is next door in city hall.

But to understand politics here, it is better to drive a few minutes away, to the Mediterranean. There, on a small patch of grass, stands a stone monument that looks like a gravestone.

“A tribute to all those who died so that France could live in Algeria,” its carved inscription says.

Gilles Longo, Mr. Rachline’s deputy, said the mayor erected the monument to honor the town’s Pieds-Noirs, former French settlers who fled Algeria when it won independence in 1962, and its Harkis, Algerians who fought alongside the French.

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But Fréjus — little more than a day’s boat ride from Algiers — is also home to many families who fought for independence. To them, French Algeria was a brutal colonial regime that treated Algerians as second-class citizens. The monument gave a new life to that divide in town, reviving long-dormant conflict.

“At the market, Pieds-Noirs were getting in fights with Algerians,” said Insaf Rezagui, 22, the secretary of the local chapter of France’s main center-left party. “It was a big cycle of violence and hatred that came back.”

I was struck by how often people in Fréjus brought up Algeria to explain their views today. Ms. Rezagui, for example, sees her career in politics as continuing her grandparents’ anticolonialist fight in Algeria.

Terrence Peterson, a professor at Florida International University who is writing a book about the French military’s history in Algeria, compared the symbolic value of Algeria in France with the Confederate flag in the United States. Just as the Confederate flag has a double meaning — a symbol of racism to many, but a symbol of a treasured past to others — Algeria stands for French racist oppression, but also a lost society seen as expanding French Republican virtues to the edge of the Sahara.

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“At its base it’s really a conflict about ‘what is France, and who is French?’” he said. “It’s an important nexus of memory and identity. So whatever you want to say about France’s relationship to its minority populations, Algeria often allows you to make that argument.”

Group Identity, Group Hostility

The monument in Fréjus in some ways captures the National Front’s political strategy in miniature. The party’s political ideas take advantage of the same kinds of divides over group identity and history that the monument has ignited in town.

Marine Le Pen, the party’s leader, often describes Muslim immigrants as aliens whose beliefs are incompatible with French values, and whose mere presence threatens French culture and safety. The party promotes a particular kind of French identity, one it says is based on French values as well as French citizenship, but which is implicitly white and Christian.

And it fosters a sense of a divided, threatened group identity — a French “us,” distinct from the immigrant “them.”

These ideas tap into a universally potent psychological force. Research shows that group identity, like the National Front’s version of “Frenchness,” can alone provoke anger and hostility toward outsiders.

In a famous 1954 study known as the Robbers Cave experiment, researchers took two groups of fifth-grade boys camping. In the first week the groups were kept separate and not told of each other’s existence. They participated in activities aimed at getting them to identify with their group. Then, in the second week, the campers discovered that there was another group of boys in the park.

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Remarkably, that was all it took to spark conflict. Before they even met, the boys began to call members of the other group “outsiders” and “intruders.” Merely being part of one group and aware of another was enough to create hostility.

Later research has found that “symbolic” threats, like perceived differences in values or beliefs, will arouse even greater enmity between groups. Studies have shown, for instance, that people are more likely to be antagonistic to immigrants if they perceive them as threatening the country’s values than if they view them as direct competition for jobs or other resources.

‘It’s Like a Depression’

The National Front’s politics take advantage of these natural human tendencies. But the party also has tapped into a sense of social dislocation, even despair, because of changes brought by globalization and technological progress. This phenomenon, too, can be seen in Fréjus.

Walk a few minutes from the cathedral and you will arrive in a small shop that offers manicures and a colorful selection of beauty products. Behind the counter, I met Helene Beaumurs, an elegantly coifed brunette whose glowing complexion was a testament to her wares. She grew quiet when I asked about the National Front’s rise here.

She was not sure whether she would support Ms. Le Pen, she said. But she had lost faith so completely in France’s mainstream politicians that anything — even a party long considered taboo — seemed like an improvement.

Today she sees a way of life she cherishes eroding. She knows farmers who are struggling, working seven days a week but barely getting by. In the center of town, stores are closing as they struggle to compete with large supermarkets, she said, gesturing at the vacant storefronts on the narrow, winding street.

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“I think there are many people in France who want to know why they get up in the morning, and if working still has the value they were taught as children,” she said, “or if it’s just pulling the cart.”

She was particularly concerned about the lack of opportunities for the next generation. Youth unemployment in France is over 23 percent, more than double the country’s overall rate.

“Those that studied, that have families that can help them — they are leaving.”

“I’ve never known France to be in this current condition before, never,” she added. “It’s like a depression.”

Christophe Tellier, an independent plumber who is a National Front supporter, said he was struggling under high taxes. “It almost makes you want to close down the business,” he said, adding: “You see immigrants who’ve never worked in France, and they are given money. Sometimes more than our retired people.”

‘The Mosque Should Never Have Seen the Light of Day’

Studies have found that when people feel that a group they identify with is losing success or esteem, they cling more closely to it, and are more likely to be defensive or punitive toward outsiders.

The feelings Ms. Beaumurs and Mr. Tellier described, in other words, can also explain why people turn to us-vs.-them politics. And in France the “them” is found in the country’s mosques.

The Fréjus mosque is a gleaming white building with carved wooden doors, in a poor neighborhood on the edge of town. Mr. Rachline campaigned on a promise to hold a referendum about whether the mosque should be allowed to stand. There has been no referendum, but his administration has been locked in a series of bitter legal battles over the legality of the mosque.

“The mosque should never have seen the light of day because the building permit should never have been issued,” Mr. Longo, Mr. Rachline’s deputy, said.

Ms. Rezagui said the mosque controversy led to Mr. Rachline’s election. “We had a campaign of hatred, of rejection of the ‘other,’” she said.

Around the corner from the mosque, a religious Muslim who gave his name only as Mohammed de Fréjus — French for “Mohammed of Fréjus” — was working in a food truck.

The small truck’s culinary output was in keeping with France’s reputation as a gastronomic heaven. For each meal he made flatbread to order from a batch of homemade dough, roasting it to perfection in a pizza oven mounted on one wall. The kofte meatballs, he announced, were made according to his own recipe.

Although he was once proud to be French, he said, today he feels abandoned by the country he had lived in since birth.

“I want to leave,” he said, “To move to England is my dream. They’re open.”

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