“The single currency?” I venture.
“We are against it, absolument,” insists the young mayor of Fréjus. “The nations of Europe must take back their sovereignty. The monnaie unique is killing the French economy and the French people. France should exit the euro and devalue now.”
The European Union itself?
“Stop immediately. France out. Now.”
But how come you, whose father was Jewish, support France’s Front National (FN) which is – let us not beat about the bush – a trifle anti-Semitic and whose founder Jean Marie Le Pen once described the Holocaust as a mere “detail” of history?
“Nothing about the FN is anti-Semitic,” retorts the mayor indignantly. “I know Jean-Marie Le Pen very well, and he never said, or thought, or did, anything anti-Semitic. If he had done so, I would not be in the FN. These criticisms are tired old ideas. Young people today don’t look in the wing mirror . . . They look at the road in front of them. It’s time to move on.”
But hasn’t Europe preserved the peace for 70 years?
“No one really believes all that. The turbulence today in Europe comes from the EU and not the other way round.”
David Rachline is only 26. He is a member of the France’s far right FN, led by Marine Le Pen, the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, and yet his insurance-broker father, who died when Rachline was 16, was Jewish and a socialist.
At the March municipal elections, the FN gained control of 11 town councils in France – its best result ever. Fréjus, on the Côte d’Azur (population 55,000, unemployment rate 15%) was the largest of the towns it won. Others in the Midi, its traditional heartland, included Cogolin, down the coast a bit, above Saint-Tropez, and Béziers, east of Avignon.
And now, according to the opinion polls, the FN is destined to get more votes than any other party in France at the European elections. This would be “un coup de tonnerre” – a thunder clap – the mayor told me. (Most of France’s political commentators agree that he is right.)
Rachline’s first action, after his election as mayor in March, was to take down the EU flag, which had flown next to the French tricolour for donkey’s years, from the balcony of the town hall. He and the FN are 100% against not only the Euro but also the EU. They therefore despise the European flag, which they see as the emblem of all that is, if not evil, all that is wrong – the emblem of all that is destroying la France. Their France.
So where is the EU flag now, I ask the mayor. “I do not know. In the dustbin, maybe,” he replies mischievously.
But is it not risky, these days – what with all those Brussels-inspired rules and regulations – to take down the European flag from a town hall, I ask. Is it not, in a word, a criminal offence? “Perhaps it is, but I do not care,” the mayor tells me.
Physically, no doubt about it, this particular mayor does look like Napoleon Bonaparte who came to this very same town, Frèjus, in 1899 from Egypt to save the French Revolution and, in so doing, transformed it into a dictatorship.
Like Bonaparte, Rachline is a small man with big feet. He is going bald already and he has a foxy smile. On the wall behind his desk there is a modern portrait of Marianne – symbol of La République Francaise – topless with musket in hand. The mayor’s Jewish grandparents, on his father’s side, fled Ukraine during the Stalin-induced famine in the 1930s. And yet here he is, a rising star in the French Front National, at least 50% Jewish.
The French far right, like anyone on the far right in Europe – as opposed to Britain and America – is against big finance and big banks – and against the rampant, unbridled free market. Like the inventor of fascism, Benito Mussolini, himself a former revolutionary socialist, Marine Le Pen and her team are national socialists, as opposed to international socialists.
That two icons of the “anything goes” sexual revolution of the swinging sixties – Brigitte Bardot and Alain Delon – should both today support the FN is indicative. Bernard d’Ormale, Bardot’s fourth husband, whom she married in 1992, is a former advisor to Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the FN in 1973. He and Bardot live in Saint-Tropez – an hour’s drive from Fréjus. “Ormale called to congratulate me,” Rachline told me.
The young mayor of Fréjus has been a member of the FN since he was 15 years old. A year later, his father died. Apart from two years as an estate agent, he has always worked for the party. Ultimately, he has run its website. He did not go to university but is a passionate autodidact who has read more than most university graduates.
“I want to give back to France her sovereignty,” he tells me.
The mayor is unmarried – “unhappily” – but in my time in Fréjus I notice him frequently in the company of a delightful blonde, to whom he has given a job in the town hall. “She needs new shoes,” he says.
He believes – no holds barred – in the abolition of free trade because it is “indispensable” to protect French workers from unfair globalisation, because Europe, unlike America, “does not defend herself”.
So, is he racist? “No I am not against immigrants, I am only against immigration, I will govern Fréjus in the interests of all the citizens regardless of the colour of their skin. There are, of course, certain rules to respect.”
But if not him personally, then his party, the FN, is racist isn’t it?
“That’s a claim that our opponents use because their policies are failed policies and they have no other arguments left. The only thing they can do is to shout that we are racists.”
How is the Marine Le Pen’s FN different from that of her father?
“They have a different vision of politics. But they share patriotism. She has a better vision than him because she’s able to convince people that the FN is a patriotic and not a racist party.”
Frèjus has one of the highest per capita debts of any town in France. The mayor has already announced a heavy cut in expenditure – a 30% drop in subsidies to sporting associations for example. But is that precisely the Anglo-Saxon rightwing behaviour that he disdains? “Yes, but that is the beautiful thing about Le Front National. It is pragmatique,” says the mayor.
Rachline entered politics because, he says: “I wanted to influence my country – I wanted to place my little brick in the building.” He is an agnostic but if he believed in a god, he says, he would be a Catholic. He has not been circumcised. He is against gay marriage because, he says, it is irrelevant. He is a passionate follower of Formula One and will be present at the Monaco Grand Prix. But he does not own a car.
On his wedding finger he has a ring with the words “Forget Me Not” embossed on it. They refer to a rock band whose music he likes. He smokes a lot of Camel Light cigarettes and he drinks a lot of rosé. Many have told him that he would get on like a house on fire with Britain’s far right leader, Nigel Farage, who has refused to ally with Marine Le Pen because he believes her party “has anti-Semitism in its DNA”. Of course they would never be able to resolve their differences on the role of the state in the economy.
So, I asked him about the Schengen agreement, which permits the free movement of peoples between nations in Europe that have signed up to it.
So what should we do about immigration?
“Stop! Stop totale! All that will end when we come to power. Sarkozy allowed 250,000 in each year and Hollande does the same thing.”
I told him that when I passed through the Italian frontier, Ventimiglia, by train, on my way to Fréjus, the place was choc-a-bloc with Africans, all waiting to get into France because the welfare system was much more generous than in Italy. I didn’t once show my ticket on the train, let alone my passport. So all those Africans needed was the money to buy a ticket and they too would be inside France. The young mayor is adamant: “France must exit Schengen immediately.”
Not just Schengen but the euro and EU itself as well. “We do not accept the bureaucratic and technological transferal of sovereignty to Brussels. If the system still worked it might be ok, even if I personally would never agree to it, but it has failed to work.”
In Fréjus it is not difficult to find people who voted for the FN. They are not – as they once were – in the least bit embarrassed about it. Au contraire.
Jim Shepherd, 69, a retired British accountant, who has lived in France for more than 30 years, explains: “There’s no point voting for left-wing candidates in Frèjus. They always lose. I voted FN locally this time. I suppose that basically the FN is racist but they’re doing their best to hide it. We’re all racist anyway whoever we are. The FN has taken the place of the Communist Party. They say that they are extreme right but most of their policies are extremely left wing.”
Franc Renouard, 38, the owner of a restaurant in Frèjus, traditionally a Gaullist, has had enough and voted FN. His reasons revolved around the word “patriotism” he says.
“I am sick of everyone spitting on the flag. And then I go to the butcher and I discover that all the chicken is halal, whatever that means and I do not like it. I do not know what it is but I do not like it. Socialism does not interest me but we must combat globalism. We small businessmen are smashed by bureaucracy and taxes. I agree that we should redistribute our earnings but not all of them.”
Francoise Didier, 62, a divorcée, voted FN: “Whenever there is a knife, there is an Arab. They do not want to integrate.”
There are no skinheads in Frèjus, as far as one can tell, let alone Blackshirts. It is a tranquil town. There are, though, many Muslims and the previous mayor gave the go-ahead for the construction of a mosque. The original project has morphed into something far larger than was approved and the local prefect has taken legal action. The new mayor has said he wants to hold a referendum on the matter.
Rachline won, in the second ballot, with 45.5% of the vote. If truth be told, he only did so because the neo-Gaullists of the centre right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) – who had been in charge for 17 years – had split and therefore ran two candidates against him. They lost, mired in complacency and corruption.
So Rachline of the Front National is now mayor of Frèjus for the next six years. C’est la vie . . .
Allons enfants de la Patrie.