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As French mayors are targeted in violent attacks, many feel abandoned

Less than two months after losing his home in an arson attack, the mayor of a town in western France resigned this week, citing, among other things, a “lack of support from the state”. Amid an increasingly tense political environment, attacks against mayors in France are multiplying. And some say they have been left to fend for themselves.  

At the break of dawn on March 22, Mayor Yannick Morez of Saint-Brévin in western France woke up to find his house in flames.

“We could have died,” Morez wrote in the resignation letter he submitted on Tuesday. Neither he nor his family were injured, but the fire destroyed his home and two cars parked outside. The fire was a deliberate, targeted attack.

Almost two months later, the case is still being investigated. But Morez has already decided to seek a fresh start, with plans to leave the town he has called home for 32 years by the end of June.  

President Emmanuel Macron expressed his solidarity with the mayor in a tweet a day after his resignation, calling the attacks “disgraceful”.  

 


 

A former doctor, Morez had been mayor of Saint-Brévin-les-Pins, home to about 14,000 inhabitants, since 2017. In the months before the attack, the town had been wracked by right-wing protests against plans to move a local asylum accommodation centre close to a primary school.  

Saint-Brévin has hosted migrants ever since the “Jungle” camp near Calais on France’s north coast was dismantled in 2016.

“We never had the slightest problem” with migrants, Morez told a journalist in an interview a few days after the attack.

But protests organised by far-right groups were coupled with repeated threats directed at Morez, who had filed numerous complaints since January last year. 

Amid an increasingly tense political environment, swelling support for right-wing ideologies and growing mistrust in institutions, French mayors are beginning to feel unsafe.  

Lack of support  

Morez detailed the reasons behind his resignation in a press release. After a long period of reflection, he took the decision to quit not only citing “personal reasons” linked to the arson attack but also mentioned a “lack of support from the state”. The former mayor claims that little to no security measures were put in place to protect him and his family, despite repeated requests for help.    

“His feeling of abandonment can be understood in various ways,” explained Bruno Cautrès, political researcher at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS). Though local officials came forward to express their support, the mayor feels there were no visible, concrete steps taken to support him. 

“It’s true that people nationwide only found out the mayor was facing threats after he quit,” Cautrès said.  

The government disagrees. State secretary for rural affairs Dominique Faure insisted the French state to concrete steps to support Morez. “I can’t let this slide,” she tweeted, before listing ways in which the state supported him. “[We set up] regular police checks outside his house, registered his home so authorities could intervene [in the case of an incident] and provided security during the protests against the asylum centre.”  


 

But according to an article in the daily Libération, most of the security measures were taken only after Morez’s house was burned down. After sounding the alarm with local officials back in January 2022 over the “daily acts of intimidation” he was facing, Morez eventually brought the issue to the attention of the Nantes prosecutor in February 2023, asking for a personal security detail to protect him and his family. He received a response saying authorities were still evaluating the risks to see if a security detail was necessary. Less than two weeks later, Morez had resigned.     

The establishment of migrant welcome centres is part of a nationwide government policy overseen by the prime minister and minister of interior. But Morez “felt he was left on his own when issues arose linked to accommodating the asylum-seekers”, Cautrès explained.

“He would undoubtedly have liked the government to do a better job explaining [the policy] and guiding him through the process,” Cautrès said. “They could have worked with him, to raise awareness on the issue locally and appease the worries of inhabitants.”  

The threat posed by opponents of the asylum centre could also have been flagged earlier on. After repeated demonstrations in Saint-Brévin organised by the far-right Reconquête (Reconquest) party, led by former presidential candidate Eric Zemmour, “I find it hard to imagine that police didn’t know who was a potential threat,” Cautrès said. “The mayor probably felt that the gendarmerie could have intervened before things escalated the way they did.”  

The lack of support Morez felt is a sentiment shared by many mayors across France, who are becoming frequent targets of abuse and attacks.    

A dangerous job

November 2022 survey published by the Centre for Political Research at Sciences Po university in Paris and the Association of French Mayors found that 53 percent of mayors had experienced “incivility” (rudeness or aggression) in 2020; by 2022, 63 percent had experienced such harassment. 

In a country where over half of all municipalities have less than 500 inhabitants, it’s easy to know where the mayor lives. They are very often in close contact with their communities. While attacks on other elected officials like MPs have also become more frequent, mayors are the “most exposed”, according to Cautrès.  

But unlike the arson attack against Morez in Saint-Brévin, mayors are most worried about violence that doesn’t have an ideology. “Cases linked to everyday life” are more concerning, Cautrès explained. “Like receiving a threatening letter because an inhabitant was sanctioned for having a fire in their garden.” 

Mayor Julien Luya of Firminy in the Loire region was attacked by a group of young locals dealing drugs in January 2023. After they lit a fire to keep warm, the mayor intervened and told them it was against the law to do so. He was violently beaten with stones and iron bars, coming out of the altercation with an injured elbow.   

“In Saint-Brévin, it wasn’t only locals driving the protests” against the asylum centre, Cautrès said. “Far-right protesters came from all four corners of France. That’s an important distinction to make.”  

The mayor’s association told French newspaper “Le Parisien” that there were around 1,500 reported assaults on municipal officials in 2022, a 15 percent increase from the year before. Half of these attacks were insults, 40 percent were threats and 10 percent were “deliberate violence”.

According to the association, 150 mayors were physically targeted as a result of local or ideological tensions.  

Bottom of the food chain 

Both Cautrès and the mayor’s association explain the rise in attacks on mayors by citing persistent tensions in French society, which has in recent years experienced multiple crises including the Yellow Vests movement, Covid-19, inflation and the hotly contested pension reforms.  

“There is a general decline of trust and respect towards institutions, anything that represents a hierarchical authority,” explained Cautrès. Compared to other European countries, he said, “the view French people have of politics in general is one of the most negative”.

Mayors are also faced with people who are “more and more demanding” and “more and more frustrated that they aren’t getting what they asked for”, Cautrès said.  

As for elected officials, the general consensus seems to be that there need to be tougher consequences for the perpetrators of attacks. Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne backed this idea following the arson attack on Morez’s home. “What happened is very shocking,” she said on Thursday, during a visit to the French Indian Ocean territory of La Réunion. She added that she wanted to “protect mayors better … intervene sooner to support them, identify their difficulties and back them up better”.  

Moves to better protect mayors are already in the works. In January 2023, a law aimed at providing better support for elected officials to “break their legal isolation” came into effect. It allows national groups like the mayor’s association as well as legislatures to act as civil parties in the case of an attack on an elected official. The law will facilitate access to a victim’s files and allow associations and legislatures to appoint lawyers.  

Meanwhile, in southern France, elected officials are taking the reins. Some 2,000 mayors in the Occitania region gathered in Montpellier on Tuesday to share their worries about the growing violence against them.  

“Mayors feel that they are being asked to solve everything themselves,” Cautrès said of the meeting. “But they can’t.”




This story originally appeared on France24

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