Béziers’s mayor Robert Ménard is adamant that France’s highest court has got it wrong. ‘The burkini should be banned, it’s a provocative symbol, nothing to do with modesty,’ he says. ‘Two years, a year ago, burkinis didn’t exist on our beaches. Now people are wearing them to make a point. But this is a Christian country. If we go to the Middle East we must abide by the rules and customs of that country. I think people who come to live here should do likewise.’
He is possibly France’s most interesting and controversial politician, a former journalist who is demonised by the left and increasingly idolised by the right. He was elected two-and-a-half years ago with the support of the Front National, the party of Marine Le Pen, but not on their ticket. His critics say that he has launched a racist crusade. He made a video last year, which went viral, in which he visited immigrants from Syria and told them they were not welcome if they broke into houses and stole electricity and water.
The media accuse him of being in thrall to his wife Emmanuelle, a devout Catholic, and following her radical right-wing views slavishly. But his supporters say he is a French Rudy Giuliani, cleaning up the streets, standing up to the Islamists and attempting to rebuild the economy. So, what does he think he is doing? ‘I am fighting for the city I love. I kept coming back here and complaining. My wife said stop talking about Béziers; change Béziers. So I ran for mayor.’
Béziers is the archetypal town struggling under the weight of its poor immigrant population. Once it was one of the richest cities in France south of the Loire. At the end of the 19th century it built its fortune on red gold, a thin red wine that grew in the surrounding countryside. The sunshine and fertile soil meant it could grow six times as much yield per hectare as Burgundy. But this ‘golden age’ ended abruptly before the First World War with competition from North Africa and elsewhere. The city turned a deeper socialist red, and apart from its annual feria in the middle of August, a week of bullfighting and extravagant partying in bodegas, the place was gradually forgotten. Its rugby team, once national champions, was relegated into the second division. One third of the population is a ‘smiceur’, a recipient of the minimum wage. Many others don’t have a job at all. Immigrants, predominantly from North Africa, turned the empty palaces built by the rich landowners into many-roomed apartments, while butchers sprang up selling halal meat, couscous and kebabs. Veiled figures lurked in doorways, while the buildings themselves grew grubbier, unkempt and unloved. The cobbled streets were paved with dog turds.
All that changed when Robert Ménard turned up at the Hotel de Ville. A slight, handsome man in his early 60s who radiates energy, he was born in Oran, north-west Algeria. His father’s family had been there since 1850, but one day in 1962, faced with the choice of ‘la valise ou le Cercueil’ – the suitcase or the coffin, which is what the French settlers were threatened with after independence, his family fled to the Auvergne. He was nine years old.
‘For my parents, especially my mother, it was desperate,’ he says. ‘She never recovered. For her, paradise was lost, it was like being buried alive.’
He was sent to a religious school, where he had ambitions to be a priest, but his mother would not hear of it. Instead he started reading Karl Marx, mainly ‘to irritate my father’. Eventually, aged 17, the family moved to Béziers so he could go to school there. He was an anarchist, a revolutionary communist, eventually a socialist, but when François Mitterrand was elected president in 1981, he left the socialist party. ‘I realised the socialists had ambitions, but no ideas,’ he says.
He was also an activist. When he discovered that Union Carbide, the company whose plant in Bhopal in India exploded killing hundreds of people, had an identical plant in Béziers, he campaigned for it to be closed, and eventually succeeded. During that time he met lots of journalists, and was persuaded to become one. He went on to set up an NGO called Reporters without Borders, a sort of Amnesty International for journalists. During the 2008 Olympic Games in China he protested against the occupation of Tibet.
This combination of idealism, activism and entrepreneurship is quite unlike the career path of a classic French fonctionnaire. He worked swiftly to execute his plans on the day he assumed office. He doubled the number of police on the streets and gave them guns, putting up posters of revolvers with the strapline ‘From now on police officers have a new friend.’ He lowered business taxes by four per cent. And he set about tackling the immigration issue head on. Why? ‘I am not anti-Muslim. But I do not want to see mosques next to churches. There are five mosques in Béziers, and I have even helped pay for repairs. But I do not want to see the city lose its identity. I am ridiculed in the press for banning a kebab shop in the centre of town. But we already have 20 such shops. Why do we need another?’
‘When we first came to live in Béziers we lived in Devèze. It’s a relatively poor area. There was us, the pieds noirs, the locals, and black Africans. But we all mixed together and wanted to be French. You go there now and you see 60 per cent of the women in veils, and the 40 per cent that are not wearing veils are called ‘salopes’ (sluts). This must change. I would also ban the veil, because after that comes the burqa,’ he says.
He would like to see strict limits on immigrants because he does not think that France can afford to welcome them. He thinks France should reject the quota that Brussels wants to impose, strengthen border controls, and review its immigration policy. It should also end the policy of allowing families to join men who have come to work in France.
He is radical, authoritarian and politically incorrect in a way that you cannot imagine an English politician being. For example, he is against gay marriage. You can still get married in Béziers if you are gay, but the mayor himself refuses to carry out the ceremony. He is against Frexit, and for the euro. ‘You remember what Soros did to the pound?’ he asks. ‘Imagine what he would do to the franc.’ Does he have other political ambitions? ‘No, I am here only to serve Béziers.’ However, his supporters suggest that he might be swayed by the offer of ministerial office. And do any other politicians impress him? ‘Not really. I like what Giuliani did, and I like some of the things that Donald Trump has said, though I think he is being misrepresented in the media.’ A bit how the mayor himself feels.
Rupert Wright is the author of Notes from the Languedoc