French far-right eye a coup in former papal city of Avignon


The Front National party has an outside chance of gaining control of the city hall in this weekend's final round of municpal elections.

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There has been little dancing on the celebrated Pont d'Avignon of late, reports The Guardian. Since Monday morning when the historic Provençal city woke up to find that it was facing a future under the far-right Front National party, there has been a sense of shock, stupefaction and – among those who voted for the party of Marine Le Pen – quiet, but not yet triumphant satisfaction.

The party still needs to win Sunday's second round to win power here. But already the shockwaves are reverberating.

The director of the internationally-acclaimed Avignon festival threatened to resign or move the event elsewhere. "I cannot work with a mairie that is FN," Olivier Py told the Guardian. "I cannot give the party its cultural legitimacy and I will not validate its ideas. It would be a profound betrayal of the founders of the festival. If the FN wins on Sunday, either I leave or the festival moves somewhere else."

Avignon, the city of 90,000 inhabitants that sits on the river Rhone, has had many names in its long history: the City of Popes, the City of the river, the centre of Christianity. Today, its nickname as the "City of the violent wind", after the fierce dry mistral that assaults its stone ramparts, is the most appropriate.

After two decades in which the mainstream right has held the keys to Avignon's city hall, and after voting for François Hollande in 2012, the polls had suggested locals would swing marginally to the left and elect a Socialist mayor.

Instead the far-right candidate, Philippe Lottiaux, a Parisian parachuted in to Avignon three months ago, polled 29.65% of the vote, narrowly beating the Socialist candidate with 29.54%, and the centre-right UMP candidate at 20.91%.

"The result was a big, big shock," said Brazilian-born Michel Alexandre, 36, a hospital worker who came to France when he was adopted as a boy. "I don't know why people voted FN and my neighbours wouldn't tell me because I'm black. I'm French and my children are French, but if the FN keeps on rising we will have to leave France. The FN say they have changed, but they haven't. They're still racist."

Alexandre's shock is understandable. Even with abstention at 42%, in just six years the FN vote in Avignon has leaped from 9% in the 2008 local elections to nearly 30%.

Avignon is part of a tranche of southern France, the Vaucluse, a profoundly rural and largely agricultural area that has become a heartland for the country's far right.

Provençals like to tell Parisiens it is better to suffer in the sun than the rain, but the 2,800 hours of sunshine a year are little consolation to those Vauclusiennes living on or under the breadline in what is France's sixth poorest department, where unemployment, at 13.6%, is well above the national average.

In Avignon itself, only about 35% of households earn enough to pay income tax. And while waves of immigration have swept the Vaucluse for centuries (currently 12% of the population was born outside France) and crime is as old as Provençe's hills, fears of both have become fodder for the FN.

Joël Rumello of the local La Provence newspaper says the FN and its offshoot, the Rassemblement Bleu Marine (a play on Le Pen's name and the colour navy blue), is playing a long game in the region. The locals call it "enracinement" (putting down roots); the party establishes elected representatives in towns and villages with an eye on the larger, more powerful departments and regions, and presumably further down the line, parliamentary constituencies.

Rumello said: "Little by little, the FN is working to install itself into the political landscape to become the power brokers. Seen in that political context, the result in Avignon is not such a great surprise."

Rumello cites the nearby town of Orange, run since 1995 by the former FN member of parliament Jacques Bompard, who founded the far-right Ligue du Sud party and was re-elected outright last Sunday.

"People say, 'Look at Orange; Monsieur le Maire has repaired the roads, painted the public buildings, made sure the street lights are lit, put police in the town'. And they say, 'Well, he may be a rotten guy, but he can run a town'."

It is widely acknowledged in the current elections that the FN has profited from major disillusionment tipping into outright disgust with both the Socialist party and the UMP.

Le Pen claims the party, founded in the 1970s by her father Jean-Marie, has thrown off the racist bully-boy image of his leadership and become acceptable, a "political party like any other".

Interestingly, in Montfavet, a suburb of Avignon with 14,000 inhabitants where the FN scored 35%, there is enduring and obstinate reluctance to admit doing so, and often a downright refusal to be publicly named.

"We've had the left we've had the right, nothing changes," said one red-faced local who asked to remain anonymous. "They have no respect for what we, the French, want. It's time to give the FN a chance."

Jean-Philippe, who would not give his full name, would only admit he "had once voted FN". "There's a feeling we should see what the FN can do. The party has evolved, they have supporters and those supporters should be respected. People are afraid to go out of their homes," he said.

Read more of this report from The Guardian.

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