Marine Le Pen is not the favorite in the second round of the presidential elections in France next Sunday. But no political scientist dares to rule it out. That is why, just in case, the French (and those who are not) are increasingly wondering what a far-right government would look like. And in the southwestern corner of the country, between the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean, there is an original and border city, Perpignan, with 120,000 inhabitants, which may hold the answer.
The mayor, Louis Aliot, 53, vice president of the National Rally (RN, Le Pen’s formation), has governed there since June 2020, when he was elected with 54% of the vote. Perpignan is, in fact, the largest French town managed by this party. And he’s been doing it long enough to make a mark. But whoever has come here looking for strong emotions, change the article: except for a symbolic controversy over the city’s shield with Saint John the Baptist in the middle, life has changed little in the last 20 months, according to what they say.
The waitress of a good restaurant attached to the Town Hall who speaks broken Spanish and Catalan (many here know these two languages) closes her eyes and wrinkles her mouth in a very French gesture before answering the million dollar question: “Oh! here everything remains the same. A little more police and cleaning, and that’s it. Although politics to me…”. A Muslim man, in the Place de Joseph Cassanyes, in the central and impoverished neighborhood of Saint Jaques, attends, precisely, a police deployment against drug trafficking. And he says without taking his eyes off: “Everything is very quiet in Perpignan, nothing is happening with Aliot. There is nothing against Muslims. Maybe it’s a political strategy so as not to scare and so that Marine wins.” Valentín Tubau, a 22-year-old real estate agent, voter for the RN, agrees: “Aliot has done a bit of the politics that he had been doing, he has had a little more influence on security.” On Sunday the 24th, Tubau will vote again for Le Pen: “She is the one who best defends our purchasing power. Macron does nothing but contradict himself.” A lawyer previously immersed in municipal politics, and who now prefers not to give his name, adds: “The real news is that there has been no news. Except for Saint John the Baptist. And I must say that some of those who voted for the RN —not me— are disconcerted, and even disappointed”. And the mayor himself, in his office, rejects the idea that Perpignan is a kind of laboratory where the RN experiments every morning with the potion of power: “No, no, do I look like a mouse?” And he adds: “As mayor I do daily politics, and that is neither right nor left.”
The mayor assures that he has brought more police to the streets, that he has opened more police posts in the neighborhoods in an attempt to bring the agents closer to the neighbors. But he also acknowledges that he is not done with the drug trade in Saint Jacques. “We cannot stop anyone. That is the National Police”, he clarifies. He affects the cultural plane: he remembers that he has kept open the well-known photojournalism exhibition visa pour l’image, that he tried to get the museums to open during the pandemic, something that the courts forbade him to do, and that he has set up the “Republican Reconquest” in the municipal centers of the neighborhoods, which consists of teaching anyone who wants, among other things, the French laws or the functioning of the City Council. “Everything that a citizen should know and that many do not know,” he explains. Nothing, then, very revolutionary.
the new shield
Like any border city, Perpignan has suffered and benefited from historical arreones, and this has shaped its hybrid and mestizo personality. Twenty kilometers away are the beaches where refugee camps were set up for republican soldiers after giving up the Civil War; Not far away is Collioure and the small cemetery where Antonio Machado was buried. Many of the French expelled from Algeria arrived in Perpignan when it declared independence; and also many of the Algerians who fought for France and who had to leave their land forever.
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In the sloping alleys of the Saint Jacques neighborhood, one of the poorest in the country, has lived, for centuries, in houses that are falling apart, a gypsy community that speaks Catalan with French intonation and is populated by archaisms. In Perpignan unemployment is close to 12%, considerably more than the French average (7.4%). And in the center the shops close and the floors empty. Alongside the French restaurants there are restaurants with Catalan names serving paella, patatas bravas and Andalusian squid. It is the capital of French Catalonia and, above all, a Mediterranean city that, although it maintains its French meal times, claims its Catalan and Spanish side.
Hence, the question of the shield, despite everything, has its importance. Months ago, Mayor Aliot annulled the old one, devised by a previous alderman. It represented the tower of a castle and was accompanied by the phrase: “Perpignan the Catalan”. Aliot replaced all this by the figure of a hairy Saint John the Baptist walking forward, against a background of red and yellow stripes. The saint carries a staff in one hand and a lamb in the other. Behind his head shines the divine halo. The motto of the city is now “Perpignan la raionnante” (Perpignan the radiant or the luminous). Aliot remembers that what he has done is simply to update the old historical shield from centuries ago. And he argues that “Perpignan the Catalan” is a redundancy. “Gerona is not called the Catalan, is it? Well this is the same. The luminous one is closer to the Mediterranean character”.
The mayor who devised the deposed symbol, the center-right Jean Paul Alduy, ruled the city from 1993 to 2009. He maintains, like so many others in the city, that Aliot adopts normal right-wing or center-right measures in Perpignan but that, from time to time, when, it emits some extreme right-wing political signals that can serve as a warning. They are not many, nor are they striking, but, according to Alduy, they can give clues as to what will come if Le Pen wins: “This shield thing, for example, is one of these signs. Goodbye to the Catalan identity. It is an ancient, religious shield that looks to the past. It is a coat of arms typical of the Pétain era.”
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