In Frejus, France's far-right FN faces test of leadership

September 19, 2016 9:21 AM EDT

France's far-right National Front political party mayor of Frejus, David Rachline talks during an interview with Reuters in his office in Frejus, France, September 16, 2016. Picture taken September 16, 2016. REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier


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By Ingrid Melander

FREJUS, France (Reuters) - In the southern French town of Frejus, National Front (FN) mayor David Rachline is performing a balancing act that epitomizes the far-right party's strategy -- trying to prove it can run things while retaining its anti-establishment image.

The stakes are high for the FN, which won just under a dozen towns including Frejus in 2014 municipal elections, and wants to use its track record in those areas to support its quest for power at a nation level.

Aged only 28 and a rising star in the FN, Rachline had a relatively low-key, business-as-usual, start to his tenure.

But then he started pushing the party's trademark anti-migration agenda by cutting subsidies to an association helping migrant workers and trying to stop plans to build a mosque.

As France's April 2017 presidential election draws nearer, the tension between providing basic city management and courting controversy is becoming more acute and scrutiny is certain to grow after Rachline became campaign director for FN chief Marine Le Pen at the weekend.

Le Pen, seen by opinion polls as likely to make the second round of the presidential election but lose a run-off, gave a ringing endorsement of Rachline and stressed the significance of what he was doing when she launched her campaign in Frejus.

"He represents success ... his success in managing his town is a way to silence those who have relentlessly said the National Front could not implement its program," she told reporters on Saturday.A resort town of 55,000 which hosts three to four times as many people over the summer, Frejus is the biggest constituency managed by the FN, making it an important test of the party.

Rachline, who was one of a few dozen mayors who banned the full body burkini swimwear on the beach this summer -- an issue which underlined tensions with France's large Muslim population -- says he is the victim of unfair criticism by some media and political opponents because of his party allegiance.

"I'm a democratically elected mayor who works for the good of the community," he told Reuters in an interview, when asked what being an FN mayor is about. Fixing the town's finances and ensuring its security were his priorities, he added.

STIRRING CONTROVERSY

Rachline, who joined the FN aged 14, does not shy away from controversy and staunchly defends some of the moves for which critics attack him -- including boycotting local journalists.

"He is an FN mayor. By the very nature of the FN he needs clashes, this party cannot be only about going more mainstream or it would lose what makes it different," said Sylvain Crepon, a specialist on the FN at the French university of Tours. "He does that skillfully," he said of Rachline.

Rachline has fallen out with local journalists, political opponents and activists in recent months.

In June, his administration began boycotting regional newspaper Var-Matin, accusing it of talking down the town and political bias.

At the same time, the mayor became involved in a public row with center-right city councillor Francoise Cauwel, prompting her to file a complaint with local police accusing Rachline of a sexist slur.

Rachine says he does not recall using the disputed phrase and that it would not have been that bad even if he had said it.

"Things are getting increasingly tense, more radical," Cauwel told Reuters.

After articles on trees being cut down to make space for a concert by veteran rock star Johnny Hallyday, of whom Rachline is a huge fan, the municipality said it would not talk to Var-Matin's local reporting team any more. It also stopped providing the newspaper with routine information including birth and deaths in the town.

The municipality's own monthly magazine, distributed to residents for free, devoted three pages in its September edition to complaining about the daily's coverage under the headline "Var-Matin is sullying our town."

Eric Farel, the head of Var-Matin's Frejus team, says such a move is unprecedented.

"My feeling is that as we're getting closer to the presidential election they don't want stories that would allow one to say the FN's management of a city is not fine."

Some local activists also complain.

"We're against the city's current policies and in an FN city when you're against them, you are the enemy, you are ostracized," said Jean-Paul Radigois, the head of an association of inhabitants of Frejus' beach area that opposes the mayor's development plans there.

Rachline brushes this aside, saying his project is necessary to develop tourism and give city staff a better place to work.

"Democracy is at the moment of elections, I don't know if they (activists) know about that. It's not about petitions," he said.

NO MONEY FOR MIGRANTS

As for the mosque, now built and operational in an under-privileged borough, Rachline insists his opposition to it is about building permits and not against having a mosque as such.

The city and the association that built the mosque have been embroiled for years in legal proceedings that are still ongoing.

"In the absence of a building permit, it (the mosque) must be destroyed -- like any building, I insist, that wouldn't have a building permit," Rachline said.

He is much more blunt, however, about scrapping a subsidy to the ASTI association that gives support to migrant workers on issues including how to claim pensions.

Asked to confirm the end to municipal subsidies to ASTI, Rachline said: "Well, obviously!" And added: "I don't give a cent to migrant workers or to migrants in general."

In the streets of the old town of Frejus, with typical Provencal, pastel-colored houses, reactions are mixed.

Restaurant owner Patrick Loidreau says things have never been better.

"When we see how well Rachline and his team are managing Frejus, reducing the debt without raising taxes, if Marine Le Pen came to power, we would be saved," said Loidreau, an FN voter who agrees with the party's anti-immigration agenda.

But others differed.

"It's hard to be a political opponent in an FN city, we are constantly singled out," said Insaf Rezagui, a local Socialist party representative. The young woman of Algerian descent says her origins are one of the reasons why she's targeted.

In April, Rachline commented on a tweet by a journalist who wrote Rezagui might be a candidate in general elections by asking if there were elections in Palestine.

Rachline points out that the FN increased its share of the vote in regional polls that took place 18 months after his election, saying this is proof that residents back his policies.

He says he's getting results. The municipality's website says the town's debt per inhabitant will have dropped from 2705 euros ($3,020) in 2014 to 2447 this year.

"We've been told a lot that we wouldn't be able to manage local authorities ... I believe we are showing here that we are capable of this and that we are even more capable than others," he said. ($1 = 0.8954 euros)

(Additional reporting by Michel Bernouin; Editing by Keith Weir)



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