PERPIGNAN, France – Ibrahim is scared of the local train station.
Ever since the city of Perpignan elected a mayor from the country’s far-right party, the National Rally, in 2020, the young migrant from Guinea said the level of police harassment he’s experienced at the station has become unbearable.
“The police stops have become too much, for us migrants and Black people in Perpignan, it’s become too much,” said the 23-year-old, who withheld his full name.
“Morally, physically, psychologically, I feel beaten down. I can’t even walk down the street. It’s become too much.”
On Sunday, the National Rally’s leader Marine Le Pen will go up against incumbent president Emmanuel Macron in the presidential election. A large part of Le Pen’s platform is based on anti-immigrant and xenophobic policies. Under her plans, households with at least one French parent would be prioritised in everything from public service jobs, social housing and benefits, and the hijab would be banned. She is polling behind centrist Macron, but a low turn-out among left-wing voters could tip the scales in Le Pen’s favour.
Migrants, asylum seekers and refugees say they have been victims of worsening racism under Louis Aliot, a mayor from Le Pen’s party. Those VICE World News spoke to say they fear the worst if Le Pen is voted in.
When Perpignan, which is in the south of France near the border with Spain, elected Aliot two years ago, it became the biggest city in the country to elect a member from the National Rally as their mayor. Perpignan is seen as a laboratory for the party’s larger electoral strategy and shines a light on the growing popularity of the far-right in France, and the normalisation of anti-immigrant, xenophobic ideology.
Police presence in Perpignan was already strong under the previous mayor Jean-Marc Pujol, a Republican with conservative leanings. Under Aliot, the city now boasts one of the highest numbers of police officers per capita at 1 per 765. The national average is 5 officers per 10,000 residents.
Since taking office, Aliot has hired dozens more police officers, implemented night patrols, and opened several new police stations as part of his pledge to clean up the streets and crack down on delinquents, whom the National Rally regularly defines as immigrants and migrants. Under Aliot, a plan to turn a building into a shelter for unaccompanied migrant children has also been cancelled, and will instead be turned into another police station.
And because police in France don’t need to justify their police stops or ID checks — a state-sanctioned practice that human rights groups say amounts to systemic racial profiling against Black and Arab men — migrants and aid associations say police harassment has risen noticeably under Aliot as mayor.
“Today, it’s worse,” Ibrahim said.
When he was elected, Aliot was quick to send a message to party sympathisers who view Algeria’s war of independence (1954-1962) as a regrettable loss for the French colonial empire.
On the 19th of March, 2021, a day that traditionally commemorates the end of the Franco-Algerian war, Aliot inaugurated a controversial and gruesome photography exhibition that showed dead bodies of French people, including children. Like his predecessor, Aliot calls the 19th of March a day of mourning and flies the French flag at half-mast in memory of French victims.
Critics say this is a glorified, nostalgic view of France’s imperial legacy in the country. The number of deaths is contested, but estimated Algerian losses range from 300,000 to 1.5 million, while losses on the French side are estimated to number around 33,000. Aliot’s parents and grandparents were French settlers who lived in Algeria over France’s 132-year colonial rule.
Migrants believe that such initiatives have emboldened racist sentiment in the town.
The Movement Against Racism and Friendship Between Peoples (MRAP) is an educational anti-racism association that also provides support to migrants. At the group’s offices, a group of half a dozen migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, including Ibrahim, spoke with VICE World News. They spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, such as losing their jobs, about their anxieties for the French presidential election.
An Algerian care worker speaking under her initials, B.I., who has lived in Perpignan since 2018, says she’s become numb to the discrimination aimed at Algerians.
“It doesn’t shock me. You can feel that there’s racism in Perpignan,” she says. She recounts the steady stream of abuse she endures from a male client, who she said often insults her Algerian heritage and religion. She says she stays quiet to keep her job and feed her family.
Another Algerian man at the table, who recently got his permanent residence, says he filed a complaint against a colleague for joking about the need to create an anti-bacterial gel to eliminate Arabs. The association they work at helps asylum seekers.
“All the racist remarks that were made in secret before, now it’s all uninhibited,” he says. “With a smile, they hurl an insult at you and it’s normal.”
Le Pen supporters can now be found in unexpected places, adds MRAP president Maryse Martinez.
“For the past few years, and especially since Aliot has been in power, those on the far-right have grown wings,” she says.
Jean-Paul Carrere, 74, is a lifelong Perpignanais who spent his whole life working in social services. He said for white French people, Aliot’s passage to power was uneventful. And therein lies the danger, he says.
“I don’t want to minimise what’s happening, but Aliot’s arrival didn’t dramatically shake up the Perpignan landscape. He’s very intelligent,” he says. “And in my opinion, that’s even more dangerous. It’s more subtle, like a slow-working poison.”
Under the National Rally, the French slogan “Liberty, equality and fraternity” and the notion of laïcité or secularism — the separation of church and state which is enshrined in the constitution — only apply to some. Le Pen has also said that if elected, she wants to ban headscarves outright in public spaces, punishable by a fine of €135 (£113), which would make France the only country in the world to do so. Headscarves are already banned in government jobs, schools and public services. Meanwhile, for Catholics on the far-right, the same rules of secularism don’t apply.
Last year, Aliot changed the city’s coat of arms replacing the Castillet, a fortified mediaeval gate that has long been the emblem of the city, with an image of Saint John the Baptist, Perpignan’s patron saint.
In his first year, he also set up an elaborate nativity scene in the town hall, which was denounced by left-wing parties and local equality groups.
“For Aliot, and others like him, secularism is against Islam. Nativity scenes are clearly expressions of the Catholic faith, but are set up in town halls which should be secular,” says Josie Boucher, president of Association of Solidarity with All Immigrants.
After the 2017 election, in which Le Pen lost to Macron, the National Rally made softening its image an urgent priority. After Russia invaded Ukraine, Aliot travelled to the Polish-Ukrainian border and personally brought back more than 100 Ukrainian refugees to Perpignan.
But there are fears that funding for any migrant aid groups will be cut under a National Rally government. Last year, the regional metropole of Perpignan, headed by a member of the Republican party, cut funding for MRAP, citing insufficient activity due to COVID lockdown. In her platform, Le Pen has pledged to slash financial aid for immigrants and asylum seekers, and redistribute the money — by her estimates €16 billion (£13.4 billion) a year — to French households.
“It's serious. Because it means those people who need associations like ours will no longer have access to the help they need,” says Martinez from MRAP.
One person in the MRAP office said they thought that if Le Pen wins the election on Sunday, the country will rise up and revolt in keeping with France’s revolutionary spirit. But others, like the Algerian man, offered a darker scenario.
“If Marine Le Pen wins, it’s not a revolution that will take place. I think there will be major clashes. And everyone wants to avoid that. No one wants to live like that.”