Thursday, June 1, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

French mayor forced out of office by far-right protests over immigration

Already in the grip of protests over much-despised pension cuts, French politics are being ripped further apart by spreading anger over Europe's rising number of immigrants.

(CN) — Bitter divisions in French society over immigration are erupting once again after a small-town mayor in western France resigned in the face of far-right protests, an arson attack and death threats linked to his approval of building an immigrant asylum center close to a primary school.

The resignation of Yannick Morez, the mayor of Saint-Brevin-les-Pins, sparked a furor on Thursday in the National Assembly with left-wing politicians accusing President Emmanuel Macron's government of ignoring the threat of the far right.

When Socialists and others on the left asked those in parliament to stand up to pay respects to Morez, members of Marine Le Pen's far-right National Rally stayed seated.

“It’s shameful that the state did not grasp the scale of what was happening to [Morez] and did not back him up. It’s shameful to continue normalizing the far right,” Olivier Faure, the head of the Socialists, said on Twitter.

Macron tweeted that the attacks on Morez were “outrageous” and he offered his “solidarity.”

While on a trip to the French Indian Ocean, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said what happened was “shocking” and then warned of “a rise in extremism … on both sides.”

Her reference to “both sides” was a swipe at those involved in acts of violence at a series of protests over pension cuts, and the remark drew criticism from left-wing politicians who charged that Borne was wrong to equate the anti-government street protesters with the far right.

Exasperation over the far right was fueled by scenes of large number of participants at an annual ultra-right march on May 9 in Paris. This year saw about 500 people – most clad in black and carrying white supremacist flags – take part. French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said it was time to ban all ultra-right demonstrations.

In his resignation letter, made public Wednesday, Morez said he could not continue in his job because it was no longer safe for him and his family.

Police are investigating as arson a fire that broke out at his home on March 22 at 5 a.m. Morez added that he even planned to move away from Saint-Brevin, a town he's lived in for 32 years.

In his letter, he said he came to the decision to step down “after long reflection with my family.”

Mayors in other towns and villages are facing similar backlash as the French government and nonprofit groups seek to distribute foreigners to sleepy towns and villages. The protests often draw in outside far-right activists, but many locals are opposed to immigration centers too.

Éric Zemmour, a far-right presidential candidate and media personality, and his Reconquest party are backing the protests against immigration centers. He has long railed against immigrants and claimed French society was under threat from a growing Islamic population.

On Twitter, Zemmour denounced the violence against Morez as unacceptable, but he lashed out at French authorities for ignoring the “anger and despair” people feel about immigration, which he called an “invasion” and “ticking time bomb that must be defused as soon as possible.”

Morez's resignation comes amid growing opposition in France to immigration and a rise in support for the far right, especially for Le Pen and her National Rally. Polls show Le Pen would win in a presidential race against Macron. The past two presidential elections pitted Macron against Le Pen.

A recent poll for the left-wing Jean Jaurès think tank found that 69% of French people felt there were “too many immigrants in France.” Five years ago, the same poll found 63% of French felt that way.

The European Union as a whole is being stressed by immigration with a rising number of migrants and asylum seekers trying to enter the bloc. Immigration is one of the bloc's most contentious issues with right-wing and far-right parties gaining ground across the bloc as voters back their anti-immigrant policies.

In the first three months of this year, the number of people trying to illegally cross the EU's borders increased to 54,000, a 26% increase over the same period last year, according to Frontex, the EU's border agency.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.