BEAUCAIRE, France – Mayor Julien Sanchez took down the European flag in front of Beaucaire’s town hall, named a street “Brexit” and nearly doubled the police force — actions straight from the playbook of France’s far-right National Front party, of which he’s a member.
But he went even further in the poor southern town.
He adopted an anti-migrant charter. To trim the budget, he pulled subsidies from programs for mainly foreign-born residents. He ordered cheap canned meals at school cafeterias for students whose parents hadn’t paid, so he could demonstrate that “social aid shouldn’t be used to buy TVs.”
“I run the town like a good father,” the 33-year-old Sanchez said in an interview, repeating the dictum of far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen on how National Front mayors should run their towns — and how she might run France.
Sanchez, who has spent more than half his life in the National Front, is among 11 Le Pen foot soldiers elected as mayors in 2014, part of her bid to plant local roots for her anti-immigration party and boost her electoral chances.
The strategy has worked: Le Pen is jostling for the lead in polls ahead of Sunday’s first-round vote. The top two vote-getters of the 11 candidates will compete in a May 7 runoff.
Beaucaire, a town of 16,000 people about 30 kilometers (19 miles) from Nimes, was fertile ground for the National Front, which campaigns on concerns about France’s identity as much as its economy.
The town is dominated by the ruins of a medieval chateau overlooking ancient streets and a Rhone River canal lined with pleasure boats that go nowhere.
Shuttered shops darken the commercial streets of Beaucaire, which has a jobless rate of 20 percent and a sizable Muslim population from mostly former French colonies of North Africa.
With its Roman heritage and its taste of the Provencal culture of today, Beaucaire taps into the “national story” of a once-glorious France that Le Pen wants to revive.
She vows to quit the European Union, ban headscarves for Muslims — as well as head coverings for Jews and Sikhs — from the streets, cap the flow of immigrants at 10,000 per year, and establish a “French first” system of public services.
Under the National Front, tricolor French flags fly outside some of Beaucaire’s shops and restaurants — a show of patriotism that would be unusual in Paris.
Residents say Sanchez has brought a mood of hope and pride for some, foreboding for others.
“He does things for everybody … if you behave properly,” said Christiane Perret.
“Unfortunately, we (France) have a government that does more for foreigners than for the French people,” she said, a theme that resonates with far-right voters who contend that the social welfare system serves immigrants better than natives.
Supporters credit Sanchez for things like repairing a parking lot and repainting a school; increasing the police force from 13 to 23; adding video surveillance; and cracking down on drug-dealers.
Several programs that have shut down under Sanchez after losing subsidies mainly served foreign-born residents, providing activities or homework help to youths and guidance to parents.
“He complains that youth hang … in the streets,” said Aziza Abid, whose children had frequented a youth center. Now that it’s closed, she said, “there’s nothing for them to do.”
Abid feels the cuts targeted people “from a certain social class.”
Sanchez bristles at any hint of discrimination and abruptly ended an interview when a probing question was asked.
Six business owners sued him for discrimination over decrees in 2015 that forced some shops and eateries at the start of Ramadan to close by 11 p.m., due to noise. That meant they lost business, since Muslims break their fast late at night during the holy month.
The court rejected the legal underpinnings of the decrees but did not find them to be discriminatory, ruling not all shopkeepers involved were of North African origin.
While some might blame the National Front, Sanchez said, “the court has acquitted me definitively and there is no discrimination.”
France’s Judeo-Christian roots “should be affirmed and confirmed,” he said, adding that the onus is on those of another culture to assimilate, “not for France to assimilate to them.”
Cafe operator Mohamed Zhani, one of those who sued, said of Sanchez: “He won the elections and we live in a democratic country, so I congratulate him — no problem. But he must let us work.”
As president, Le Pen could make “French first” a law by amending the constitution, said Emmanuel Negrier, an expert on the far right at the nearby University of Montpellier.
Le Pen has promised to do that, telling a rally this week that she wants to “install national priority for jobs and social housing” because “it is a privilege to be French.”
Negrier said that “one can imagine perfectly … an extremely aggressive policy toward foreigners who become French.”
Some in Beaucaire said they have felt a lack of respect from the local administration because of their names or the color of their skin.
“It hurts sometimes. It really hurts,” said 66-year-old Driss Belqissi, who left Morocco in 1970.
“When you enter the town hall, they treat you as if you just arrived, as if you had never lived here,” he said. Belqissi is especially concerned for his French-born children, “with the National Front saying, ‘you are French but not blue blood.'”
One town hall employee said numerous residents, of both French and foreign origin, have complained of discrimination. The employee asked not to be identified to avoid potential consequences.
The mayor dismissed such complaints as a case of “victimization.”
Some citizens of Arab ancestry don’t share those fears. Mohamed Bougrini said he’s happy to see the French flag above the terrace of his café.
Born in Beaucaire but of Moroccan origin, the 35-year-old Bougrini said that under Sanchez, “it’s not a town that became a place where they chase out foreigners, where they denigrate people.”
While he doesn’t praise the National Front, he said he judges Sanchez on his record, “and not on his political label.”
“I don’t care if he’s National Front,” Bougrini said. “He works.”
Restaurant owner Patrick Lafosse, 58, said he voted for Sanchez after Beaucaire tried mayors from the left and right and was left wanting — a sentiment echoed by Le Pen supporters elsewhere.
Lafosse sees only one risk if Le Pen is elected.
“Mr. Julien Sanchez will leave and go to Paris,” he said. “Yes, it’s sure.”