Dispatch

What’s It Actually Like Living Under France’s Far Right?

A town in the south of France offers clues to what may be in store for the rest of the country.

By , a British and French freelance journalist.
French National Front mayor of Beaucaire, Julien Sanchez, poses in his office.
France’s National Front mayor of Beaucaire, Julien Sanchez, poses in his office at the city hall in Beaucaire, France, on Feb. 24, 2015. Pascal Guyot/AFP via Getty Images

BEAUCAIRE, France—At 37 years old, Julien Sanchez is one of France’s youngest mayors. His slight physique and earnest look make him seem even more boyish, and he looks almost out of place in the imposing 17th century town hall. Sanchez’s interest in politics stretches back to his childhood. His grandparents, who lived in Algeria before its independence, were politically far right, but his parents were communists. “Everybody argued each time we talked politics,” he said.

At the age of 16, Sanchez joined the National Front (now known as the National Rally), an anti-immigrant and Eurosceptic far-right party—although some members would contest that description. Its founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, has been found guilty in court for inciting racial hatred and engaging in Holocaust minimization. “I’ve always thought similarly to Jean-Marie Le Pen,” Sanchez said of his early years. “I’ve always been interested in politics and journalism.”

BEAUCAIRE, France—At 37 years old, Julien Sanchez is one of France’s youngest mayors. His slight physique and earnest look make him seem even more boyish, and he looks almost out of place in the imposing 17th century town hall. Sanchez’s interest in politics stretches back to his childhood. His grandparents, who lived in Algeria before its independence, were politically far right, but his parents were communists. “Everybody argued each time we talked politics,” he said.

At the age of 16, Sanchez joined the National Front (now known as the National Rally), an anti-immigrant and Eurosceptic far-right party—although some members would contest that description. Its founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, has been found guilty in court for inciting racial hatred and engaging in Holocaust minimization. “I’ve always thought similarly to Jean-Marie Le Pen,” Sanchez said of his early years. “I’ve always been interested in politics and journalism.”

In 2014, Sanchez was elected mayor of Beaucaire, a town of around 16,000 people in the Occitanie region. It is now one of 10 French municipalities under the National Rally’s control. Sanchez became the party’s national spokesperson in 2017, and in 2020, he was reelected mayor. The same year, the National Rally won its biggest local election yet when party vice president Louis Aliot became mayor of Perpignan, a city of around 120,000 people in Occitanie.

This experience in local government is key to the party’s de-demonization campaign.

This experience in local government is key to the party’s campaign to present a more mainstream image, a strategy often referred to as de-demonization. National Rally President Marine Le Pen, the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, seeks to downplay its links to extremist movements and sanitize its image in the press—showing the party is credible, non-divisive, and ready to rule.

The National Rally is now trying to gain control of at least one of France’s 18 regions in elections on June 20 and June 27. The first round lays out where support lies while the second round gives parties time to form alliances or even pull out. The National Rally failed to win a single region in the 2015 regional and departmental elections, but the prospect of alliances formed against the party’s candidates now seems less certain. Soon, the National Rally could control regional governments in Occitanie and neighboring Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur.

Towns like Beaucaire offer hints about what’s in store for the region—and, indeed, for France—if the party wins the upcoming elections. How have communities living in Beaucaire fared during the last seven years of National Rally rule?


This part of the south of France is better known for its lavender fields and picturesque villages, but its rural areas have become a stronghold for the far right, even attracting votes among the younger generations.

In 2015, the National Rally received 33 percent of the vote in Occitanie. If the party had formed an alliance with the Republicans—the center-right party—it would have formed a majority. But the Republicans balked, fracturing the vote on the right, and the Socialist Party won. In Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, the National Rally managed 45 percent of the vote in 2015, and the Republicans only won because the Socialist Party pulled out. The National Rally now forms the main opposition in the regional council, occupying 33 out of 123 seats.

One major reason for the National Rally’s recent success is a real concern in Occitanie about law and order—one Sanchez was able to capitalize on. Despite these fears, it’s unclear whether crime is on the rise in the town. Sanchez won reelection in part because the other candidates failed to grasp the strength of support for the National Rally’s law-and-order message. “At the time, the danger was not clear,” said Luc Perrin, a current member of the opposition in the council.

Although the National Rally’s national discussion tends to focus on immigration, security, and French identity, in town, its focus comes off as more mundane. Sanchez listed off his own achievements one by one as befits someone who was appointed head of the party’s digital marketing strategy. First, he has doubled the number of local police. “Even the prefect wrote to congratulate us on the amelioration of crime rates,” he said. (This claim has not yet been backed up by official figures seen by the opposition.)

Sanchez said he’s ensured the council is less profligate and insists he checks every invoice personally, but he has faced criticism for his handling of the local economy. A 2020 report by the Regional Chamber of Accounts (CRC), the regional administrative body charged with auditing public institutions, was extremely critical of his time in office. It questioned Sanchez’s account of economic regeneration, stating instead that new businesses had diminished by 22 percent since 2013. (Sanchez dismissed the report in an official response as well as claimed it was “compiled by left wingers.”)

For now, successes like Sanchez’s are limited to the local level.

In some quarters, reception to a National Rally mayor has been more positive. “The market is better organized,” said an older white woman selling olives at the local food market. “There is less corruption.” She said she voted for the National Rally herself and thinks Le Pen will win next year. A Moroccan French business owner in the town center was relieved when Sanchez froze rents during the pandemic. “He backs business,” he said.

But residents working in public institutions remain hostile to what Sanchez’s party represents. At the beginning of his mandate, local teachers refused to sit in a meeting with someone from a party they said was “racist and xenophobic.” He sued them, saying, “they disrespect the status of mayor.” One teacher was ordered to pay $2,372 in damages and a $356 fine. Since then, things have settled down, although the press remains critical of the mayor. Sanchez said he avoids confrontation in council meetings, although opposition councilor Perrin disputes this, echoing the observations of the CRC report.

Despite resistance, Sanchez’s political strategy has worked. In 2020, he increased his share of the vote to 59 percent in the first round, and he no longer depends on opposition councilors for their vote. But for now, successes like Sanchez’s are limited to the local level, said Timothy Peace, a researcher at the University of Glasgow who has studied municipalities under National Rally control. “They’ve not really managed to expand beyond that,” he said.

That’s the case in Tarascon, another ancient town across the Rhône from Beaucaire. Unlike Beaucaire, its right-leaning independent mayor, Lucien Limousin, remains in power despite a concerted effort by the National Rally to gain control. In Tarascon, the far-right campaign splintered as a disgruntled former National Rally representative ran against the official candidate. Limousin is reluctant to discuss Sanchez: “I don’t want to put oil on the fire,” he said. Although he’s ideologically opposed to Sanchez, they work together on shared issues between the communities.

But Limousin was critical when asked about the difference between their approaches. He said his party’s approach is “constructive,” and then clarified, “We don’t ride a wave of fear.” At the same time, the former policeman’s crime policies are similar to Sanchez’s: more video cameras and more police. When asked if he would consider running on a National Rally ticket, Limousin said his parents were deported to a Nazi camp during World War II.


The idea that a party can prove it is ready to govern France by governing a few towns is ill conceived. Mayors have relatively little power, and complex immigration and economic questions are settled by the national government. But this fact actually benefits many local National Rally representatives, who can complain about the status quo without having the difficult task of changing it. “They hold forth on topics that mayors have no jurisdiction over in order to deafen people,” Limousin said.

That rhetoric certainly makes headlines. As well as naming a street Rue du Brexit, in 2015, Sanchez named another road after a massacre of French citizens in Oran, Algeria. He sparked controversy in newspapers when he scrapped pork-free school meals in 2018 in a move that was seen to provoke racial and religious tensions.

The National Rally is careful to ensure any accusations of stoking divisions appear politically motivated, Peace said, citing a town in the north of France where the party has a good relationship with the long-standing North African community. They are voters—unlike the Roma communities, which the National Rally targets with local ordinances—so the party knows not to “alienate them too much,” he said.

Before Sanchez took office, the previous mayor warned, “Beaucaire will succumb to darkness.” But although opponents paint the National Rally as the devil, an increasing number of voters are not listening.

Simply pointing out the party’s racism may not guarantee victory for mainstream parties.

Still, despite his ostensible success, Sanchez was passed over by the party in favor of another National Rally candidate to run as head of the list in this weekend’s regional elections. Jean-Paul Garraud, a former deputy and once a member of the Republicans, was chosen for “strategic reasons,” Sanchez said.

The elections could be a bellwether of the presidential race. If the National Rally manages to win control of a region this time around, it would be “a huge coup for Marine Le Pen,” Peace said. At the moment, Garraud is leading in the polls, but to win the second round, he would either have to ally with the center right or make sure the other parties do not unite against him. Although Garraud seemed to be ahead a few weeks ago, left-wing candidate Carole Delga has taken the lead in recent polls.

Just as in Beaucaire during the municipal elections, the political conversation in Occitanie revolves around immigration and security—areas that aren’t even within the remit of regional councils or departmental bodies. This trend is perhaps an indicator of the presidential election’s trajectory: Unless French President Emmanuel Macron decides otherwise, the fight will happen on the battleground the National Rally chooses. Simply pointing out the party’s racism may not guarantee victory for mainstream parties.

And although little may have changed on the ground in Beaucaire over the last seven years, perhaps that’s largely because those changes require more than what the National Rally can do locally. After all, “this is not just to be on TV, to say things,” Sanchez said, explaining his motivations. “It’s to do things.”

Fleur Macdonald is a British and French freelance journalist who has written for the London Review of Books, the BBC, the Guardian, and the Spectator.

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