Perpignan, France—This time, Louis Aliot thinks he can finally do it—make Perpignan the largest city in France controlled by the far-right National Rally (RN) party.
“I think there’s a much bigger chance than I had last time,” the candidate for mayor told me at his campaign headquarters, which overlooks a courtyard within the Mediterranean city’s medieval center. “My adversaries are very weak, with a bad record. And I appear like an alternative.”
The polling seems to agree. After two failed bids—in 2008 and 2014—the 50-year-old Aliot boasts the most support ahead of the municipal elections, according to the latest polls. And if he manages to pull out a win in this city of 120,000, it’d mark a major achievement for the party formerly known as the National Front. Despite his focus on local issues, Aliot acknowledged that a victory here in France’s deep south would have national implications.
“We’re in a period of political reshuffling, so it’s important for that,” said Aliot, who has also been a member of the National Assembly since 2017 and sits on the RN’s 10-member executive committee. “We’ve lived under a scheme in which the right and left have shared power for 50 years. Now I think we’re in the process of inaugurating a new period. And this new period, it’s going to take place with us. Not against us or without us, it’s going to take place with us.”
Leaders of the National Rally hope a strong showing in mayoral and town council elections nationwide, with a first round on March 15 and a run-off phase on March 22, can improve the party’s negative image—especially as they look toward the 2022 presidential campaign. Even after its best-ever result in the presidential race three years ago—and earning more support than any other party in last year’s European elections—many still view the RN as too racist and extreme to govern. Founded by an alliance of colonial nostalgists and neofascists in the early 1970s, the party has long sought to reduce immigration and to “defend” French identity. Its most recent presidential platform called for France to abandon birthright citizenship, prioritize social housing for citizens, and tax the hiring of foreign workers. But RN officials have argued that local governance could send a message that the RN isn’t just a tool for lashing out at the political establishment—it’s actually ready to run things.
Historically, the far right has struggled to do that. Back in 1995, the then–National Front (FN) won a landmark victory in the medium-sized city of Toulon, but it failed to last beyond a single term, its majority imploding over corruption and internal squabbling. A handful of smaller towns went on to elect FN mayors in the following years, but the party’s biggest breakthrough didn’t come until 2014. Buoyed by frustrations over the term of Socialist President François Hollande, the FN picked up majorities in 11 different locales across the country. Still, it makes for a very limited base—and one the RN hopes to extend in the March elections.
The rules of the election won’t make it easy. Assuming no party’s list of candidates wins a majority in the first round, local elections in France proceed to a run-off, where every ticket with at least 10 percent of the vote qualifies. The system encourages alliances—and even some qualified parties drop out. In the past, the wheeling and dealing has almost always left out the far right, which then usually fails to win a plurality on its own. In rare cases, the RN has tried to cut an unlikely pact with another party—but more often than not, it goes it alone.
“They Feel Threatened”
Many towns and cities targeted by the RN lie in the old industrial north, others in the historically agricultural south. But the areas in which the RN have the best chance to win in 2020 are united by one factor above all: socioeconomic duress. As a recent study from the Chaire Citoyenneté research institute highlighted, sympathy for the far right in France closely tracks unemployment. In the case of the last local elections, FN support rose from an average 14 percent in towns with the lowest rates of joblessness up to 23 percent when unemployment hit at least 14 percent.
Dominique Sistach, a sociologist of law at the University of Perpignan, put it bluntly: “Rich cities don’t vote for the National Front. But poor cities can.”
By this standard alone, Perpignan makes for an easy mark. Even for the economically challenged area that surrounds the city—the province of Roussillon, which stretches from the Pyrenees bordering Spain to the Mediterranean coast—Perpignan’s troubles are manifold. The unemployment rate stands at around 23 percent, about 10 points higher than the surrounding département and three times the national average. Meanwhile, the poverty rate of 32 percent is about double the level in metropolitan France. Petty crime is also something of a problem, though the rate remains below the levels in Paris.
Perpignan is also stunningly diverse. While very few speak Catalan as a first language, the red and yellow senyeras hanging from some balconies attest to the area’s roots and cultural affinities for the region. The city is also home to a large population of pieds-noirs, Europeans who fled Algeria after it won independence from France in 1962, as well as their descendants. Many other residents are of Arab origin, immigrants and French-born alike. On top of all that, Perpignan has one of the largest Gypsy communities in the country: gitans, who are culturally distinct from the Roma of Eastern Europe and whose families have been in the area for centuries.
And it’s not one big happy melting pot. While these groups all live in the city, they’re not necessarily of the same city. The poorest residents, including the gitans, are concentrated in the city center, while many of the relatively better off have fled to outer neighborhoods or to the suburbs. “There’s very little mixing,” Sistach said over coffee at the central square, Place de la République. “There’s a rejection of downtown, the multicultural side, and the poverty.”
As Sistach talked, the sun began to set and the downtown abruptly emptied out. “The city is beautiful—it’s not well taken care of, but it has some Mediterranean charm, you might say. Still, people only see the others, the people who are struggling, homeless people—they feel threatened.”
Against this backdrop, the National Rally has thrived, winning votes from a mix of working-class neighborhoods and the low-to-average-income areas toward the outer bounds of the city. And while the French government does not collect data on residents’ racial or religious backgrounds, a 2014 report for the Jean Jaurès Foundation showed how ethnic origins can play out at the ballot box. In that year’s local elections, the far-right party got some of its highest support in parts of the city that appeared to be the least ethnically diverse—polling stations with low shares of traditionally Gypsy and North African surnames on the voting rolls. This broad disapproval among voters with roots in the Maghreb mirrors a national trend, fueled by the party’s history and its seemingly never-ending array of headline-grabbing jabs at Muslims, though RN leaders insist they have no problem with Islam. Still, last October, Marine Le Pen called yet again for a ban on the “ritual slaughter” of animals without first stunning them—weighing into a debate on halal meat—though she said it was really about animal rights. That same month, an elected RN official interrupted a debate in the regional legislature of Burgundy-Franche-Comté to demand that a mother accompanying her son on a field trip inside the building remove her Islamic veil, reducing the boy to tears.
When asked, Aliot said he doesn’t believe racism to be a major problem in the city. He has a very different view of what’s wrong. “There’s one topic that’s major today, which is security,” he said. “And then there are other issues—I don’t want to say secondary—but issues that flow from it. The economy, poverty, unemployment. And we can see we have trouble today getting companies to come, to get new inhabitants who have purchasing power, because we have a very bad image. And this very bad image, it’s the consequence of policies that have been led here over the last 30 years.”
The former romantic partner of the RN’s leader Marine Le Pen, Aliot was also one of the key architects of the National Front’s de-demonization strategy, a concerted push from leaders to distance themselves from the FN’s extremist origins and present a more mainstream look. This effort began after the 2002 presidential election, in which Marine’s father (and party cofounder) Jean-Marie Le Pen surprisingly qualified for the second round, only to be trounced by incumbent Jacques Chirac, who unified voters around a trans-partisan “republican front.” Now Aliot is running an impeccably polished campaign. Presenting his candidacy as one of “renewal” and “hope,” his flyers read like that of any other outsider promising to shake things up. Officially, he’s not even running as the candidate of the National Rally, but rather as head of an alliance dubbed “Perpignan, A Great Future.” Aliot said it’s part of an effort to broaden the list of candidates and welcome in new faces from outside the RN.
Aliot is also vowing to end Perpignan’s tradition of “clientelism,” a practice common to other cities in the south of France in which mayors hand out favors based on political support—often via public employment or city funding. This system shaped postwar politics in Perpignan, which since 1949, has been governed by only three mayors: Paul Alduy, his son Jean-Paul Alduy, and, since 2009, Jean-Marc Pujol. However, the current mayor told me that he had ended clientelism and that all municipal job hires are now based on performance.
A member of the mainstream right-wing party Les Républicains, Pujol also told me that he’s the true “republican” candidate on the ballot—that is, someone who believes in France’s basic universal political values. He said he remains confident he’ll beat Aliot in a second round, insisting that he can bank on a left-wing candidate to drop out of the run-off phase to block the RN from winning, as in 2014. (There is one list backed by President Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche party as well as two left-wing lists, the first backed by the Socialists and Greens, the other by the Communists and France Unbowed. All stand a chance of qualifying for the second round, according to recent polling.) When asked to clarify whether he believes the National Rally is also a “republican” party, Pujol deferred. Suggesting the party doesn’t respect the principles of French democracy is a heavy charge. Instead, he called the RN “populist.”
“It’s a party that builds on discontent and that has no doctrine,” he said. “In the US, you have Trump, he’s a populist, Bolsonaro, he’s a populist.… populism is a world movement today.”
Aliot smiled when I told him that he was accused of being a populist. “I think populism is a beautiful name,” he said. “Populism is in service of the people. We’re elected by the people and it has sovereignty. And nobody else.”
Just how unique is Perpignan? On the one hand, its economic woes and older-skewing population more closely resemble that of other struggling Mediterranean cities in Italy or Spain than they do similarly sized French cities outside the south. At the same time, Sistach said he believes his rough-and-tumble city could be a microcosm of where things might head nationally—especially if France’s economy took a dramatic turn for the worse.
“If France became much poorer, it would perpignanize,” he said. “The risk of Perpignanization would be a major economic crisis or a recession, and every day globalization gives us opportunities to imagine such situations, so we know it’s not impossible.”
But the researcher also cautioned against reading too much into the RN’s relative success in the city. “The real difference between Perpignan and the rest of the country, on average, is that it’s really poor here.”
Aliot, for his part, said the National Rally is winning the battle of ideas—and not just in the province of Roussillon. Just before I spoke with Aliot, Macron announced a series of measures to combat what he called “Islamist separatism.” That included promises to end a program that authorizes foreign countries to send imams to preach in France and another one that temporarily welcomes imams from abroad during Ramadan. The moves came just a few months after the government unveiled a series of immigration-related measures, including restricting state-subsidized medical care for asylum seekers and the undocumented. Around that same time—ostensibly as part of the same push to engage with conservative voters—Macron gave a controversial interview to the far-right magazine Valeurs Actuelles in which he said he wanted to boost deportations.
“It’s incredible, really,” Aliot said. “On Islam, Emmanuel Macron comes out with measures that have been in our program for 30 years. He’s legitimizing our discourse, they’re legitimizing what we’re saying.… and so French people say, ‘Well, these people who’ve been put at the bottom of society for 30 years, well in the end they were right.’ And so there are more and more people who come, who participate, who place their trust in us, even if, in my opinion, there still aren’t enough.”