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The filterless politician

Not many people travel from the extreme left to the hard right and back again. But Robert Ménard has

Beziers Mayor Robert Menard poses on May 21, 2015. Photo: JOEL SAGET/AFP via Getty Images

This is the story of a teenager born in Algeria, who moved with his parents to social housing in the southern French city of Béziers. For him, France in the 1960s was a new world of luxury. The apartment had its own toilet. He had a room all to himself. It was like paradise. The housing estate where he lived, in the working-class neighbourhood of la Devèze, was a harmonious mix of French citizens, immigrants, and families like his own who had returned from Algeria. Tensions were almost non-existent. 

Robert Ménard is now 69 and he is the mayor of Béziers. He no longer lives in la Devèze, but the housing estate where he grew up recently came to national attention. In April 2021, gendarmes broke down the front door of the apartment directly above his old home and arrested an 18-year-old named Leila B, who was planning a jihadist bomb attack. Midi Libre reported that she intended to attack a church. 

Ménard recounts this coincidence with almost disbelief. He was happy growing up in his old neighbourhood. But now, he tells me, it is a place where he “would no longer live”. There are too many veiled women, he says, too much insecurity. Even so, he still goes there every weekend to shop at the market, where he can buy the things that remind him of his childhood, spent across the Mediterranean sea in Algérie française

Ménard is an unclassifiable figure in French political life. He is a former loudmouthed journalist who started his career on pirate radio and who brings something of his old media fluency to his political performances. He was always enthralled, he says, “by a job that consists in confronting reality”. He is a man who sums himself up by saying: “I practise journalism when I go into politics, with headlines, catchy expressions, punch-lines.” Yet he keeps in mind a lesson that he learned long ago: “Write and say only what you could say, face-to-face, to those you criticise.”

Ménard’s story is an unusual one. His views have changed over time, and these fluctuations have reflected broader changes in the fabric of French society itself. Just as France’s political temperature has changed, so Ménard’s views have shifted, particularly in regard to immigration. He is, in that sense, an expression of a nation’s struggle to deal with the pressures and political contradictions of an open, globalised society.

To understand Robert Ménard, we must go back to his early life. He was born in Oran, in the French département of Algeria. One of his parents was a communist militant, while the other was a member of L’Organisation de l’armée secrète (OAS), a right wing terrorist organisation that refused to accept Algerian independence from France. From an early age, he was exposed to the extremes of both right and left.

His exile from Algeria was traumatic, and is even now a source of bereavement for Ménard. He still refers to himself as a pied noir (black foot), the derogatory term for French nationals born in Algeria. He resents what he sees as the betrayal of French Algerians by the Gaullists in 1962, who abandoned the pro-French Algerian soldiers, the harkis, to their fate. Some harkis were able to move to France, but many were massacred by the FLN, Algeria’s independence fighters, in a wave of vicious reprisals in which tens of thousands were killed. 

Ménard’s view is that France was cruelly indifferent to the suffering of those who were forced to leave everything behind. “The losers of history also have a right to compassion,” he says. In this way, the drama of France’s Algerian war shaped both his psychology and his political awakening. 

He started out as an activist and a radical. In Béziers, he took part in the May 68 movement, a series of riots and strikes by students and workers. An anarchist, a Trotskyist and briefly a socialist, Ménard still refers to himself as a “professional revolutionary”. In the 70s, he founded an illegal radio station, which he used as a mouthpiece to attack, among other things, the US chemicals giant Union Carbide. The company was using its Béziers factory to manufacture Sevin, the pesticide that killed thousands in the Bhopal disaster in India. This led to a career on local public radio and in 1985 he created Reporters Without Borders, a non-governmental organisation committed to defending freedom of expression. 

The moment when he shot to national prominence came during the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, when Ménard disrupted the Olympic flame-lighting ceremony in Greece. He then locked himself in Notre-Dame de Paris at night and unfurled the Tibetan flag. Ménard was all over the media, tirelessly denouncing the Chinese regime for its political suppression. 

“Emmanuelle taught me not to be ashamed of what I think,” Ménard says of his wife. He met Emmanuelle Duverger in 2000, when she was working at the International Federation for Human Rights. A devout Catholic from the north of France, she was to become his fourth wife and political companion. It soon became clear that his political beliefs were in a state of flux. In 2010, on a live TV show, he argued in favour of the death penalty and a year later, with his wife, they published a book whose title is self-explanatory: Vive Le Pen!

This period of political emergence was confusing for people who had worked alongside Ménard the journalist and who remembered his humanitarian campaigns. He was often to be found sounding off on TV and radio, but despite his high profile and forthright views, Ménard’s political identity seemed confused. His wife remembers: “We never said we were leaning to the right, because we weren’t asked. For all those who knew us, it went without saying.” 

The couple soon got into politics. Robert was elected as mayor of Béziers in 2014, with the support of Rassemblement National, Marine Le Pen’s party. Emmanuelle became an independent MP in 2017, also with Le Pen’s support. The Ménards then launched into a cultural fight – a crusade, even. They campaigned to identify the number of Muslim schoolchildren, even though statistics on ethnicity are prohibited in France. For comments he made about the number of Muslim children in some schools, he was charged with incitement to hatred and fined €2,000. He has also argued against kebab restaurants in Bézier’s city centre, against satellite dishes on balconies (which allow Arabic-speaking inhabitants to watch Al Jazeera) and against immigrants in general. In 2015 Ménard was responsible for a poster portraying refugees under the headline: “THEY ARE COMING”. 

The poster campaign got a huge reaction. Many found it outrageous and others thought it was simply racist. But despite the controversy, his poll numbers remained high. People seemed to like his “plain-speaking, which they consider as proof of his sincerity,” says Frédéric Dabi, who runs IFOP, one of France’s largest polling companies. In 2020, Ménard was re-elected as mayor of Béziers in the first round with nearly 70% of the vote. According to Dabi, “Ménard benefits from being a politician who doesn’t belong to the political community.” 

And then things started to change again. From 2017, the Ménards started to distance themselves from many of the politicians they originally supported, most notably Le Pen who, in Ménard’s view, “will never be able to win a presidential election”. But when the far-right troublemaker Éric Zemmour surged onto the political scene during last year’s presidential election, Emmanuelle and Robert thought he might provide a link between Le Pen and the traditional right wing Republican Party. The couple tried to get Le Pen and Zemmour to work together. But it didn’t work. Zemmour positioned himself too far to the right and Ménard supported Le Pen.

That support lasted until the second round of the presidential elections, in April last year, when Ménard did something that startled French politics. He put his name to a newspaper column calling on voters to support Emmanuel Macron. It made clear that Ménard no longer felt at ease in the far right. But Ménard – a macronist? His old friends choked in surprise. 

Benjamin Duhamel is a reporter on the far right and he remembers how supporters of Zemmour and Le Pen attacked Ménard for his sudden switch. “For them, he’s not trustworthy. And they all say they don’t want to have anything to do with him any more.” A Rassemblement National official puts it bluntly: “No one gives a damn about Ménard”. 

When President Macron visited Béziers in 2016, Ménard was all smiles, but people assumed at the time it was down to ongoing discussions about building a factory in Béziers, where unemployment is persistently high. Then, last January, Ménard was invited to the Elysée palace, where ceremonies took place to mark the 60th anniversary of the Évian Accords, which led to the end of the Algerian war. While there, Ménard heard Macron mention the other “unpardonable massacre of the republic”, that of the partisans of French Algeria. He wiped away a tear and said he was moved by these words.  

Two months later, the provocateur made his mea culpa on air. “I said, wrote, published in Béziers a certain number of things at the time… of the arrival of the refugees that I regret,” he said, referring to his notorious poster campaign. “I am ashamed of having said and done this because it was not good.” The French columnist Arlette Chabot, who has followed Ménard’s winding path, says: “Ménard has finally found Robert. He sank into a political detour that lasted 10 years. But he came back to his humanity.”

How has this happened? How could a man born into the far left then switch to the far right before settling in the centre? According to Ménard’s wife, there is no contradiction in any of this. Robert has simply remained faithful to his youthful worldview. “He wanted to change the world through revolution,” she says, when I meet her. “He has never reneged on his commitments to the left, but the priorities [of the present time] aren’t those of 1968.” There’s an old political saying in France: it’s not the weather vane that turns, it’s the wind. Hearing this, Emmanuelle bursts out laughing. But she insists: “Reality has changed over the years. It is therefore reality that has transformed us.

“We have no party line,” she continues. “We have no ideological assumptions. We are free in our way of thinking.”

Béziers itself has also changed. The friendly city in which Ménard arrived in the 1960s is now plagued by insecurity and poverty. Like some of their constituents, the Ménards moved into an apartment in a struggling neighbourhood and, in a gesture towards urban regeneration, they renovated it.

Among their opponents, Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, former premier secretary of the Socialist Party, has watched the zigzags of Ménard’s career. In his view, Ménard represents “populism without borders. His line is anti-elite, anti-party and anti-mainstream”. And while Cambadélis acknowledges the mayor’s talent, he notes that “Ménard is always against what is being thought at the moment”. Cambadélis believes his “winding” beliefs are “in step with a deep change in electoral behaviour”. That change was prompted by Macron’s victory in 2017. Following this, “bipartisanship exploded and opened the way to all forms of populism”. 

The title of “populist” is one that Emmanuelle Ménard happily accepts. “If being a populist means you listen to the people, then yes, we are populists,” she says. The political logic of this is fairly clear – for years the left has been criticised for being blind to immigration and security issues. The most disadvantaged feel abandoned by France’s traditional ruling parties, especially the socialists. The voters find their state schools are underperforming and the police are unable to get a grip on crime. 

Less well-off workers have complained that immigrants get preferential treatment. This leads to the idea that no one cares about French culture, while Muslim immigrant populations are gradually imposing their way of life on France, an idea known as “replacement theory”. Ménard believes the latest electoral victories for the hard right in Sweden and Italy are explained by the inability of the political class to confront the question of immigration.

Many former left wing constituencies, many of them in northern France, have been voting for far-right candidates for years and Ménard would appear to be only one small part of this evolution. However, according to both his supporters and critics, his sincerity cannot be doubted – or rather, his successive sincerities

Perhaps Ménard is best described as a politician without a filter. When he appears in the media, he doesn’t hold back. “I am not a black-and-white kind of guy,” he says. “And I speak without caution, without a well-designed strategy.” 

And what about the future? He smiles when I ask him. “I have always said I would be mayor for two terms only,” he says. He confesses to being “worn out” by the job. His time will be up in 2026. There are plenty of rumours about what he might do next. A position in government under Macron, perhaps? He dismisses the idea.

Instead, the focus of his efforts could now switch to his wife’s career. She is a steady MP with a reputation for hard work. At 54 she is younger than her husband, and though they share the same beliefs, she is less abrasive.

As a Catholic, she opposes medically assisted conception for female couples and is reluctant to grant a complete right to abortion – a very un-centrist set of views. These beliefs would prevent her from participating in any progressive coalition and she rejects the notion of cooperating with Macron. She also dismisses the idea of working in government under Le Pen. They have too many differences on Russia, particularly on sanctions against Putin. The Ménards are no Kremlin-lovers.

As for Robert Ménard, he is not a man of nuance – but even so, most French people like him. His changing beliefs, which he says are the product of common sense, paradoxically make him a kind of antidote to the general French distrust of politics. Ménard is someone who does the politically unthinkable – he says he is mistaken, acknowledges it and changes his views. Ménard is not a prophet. He is like a salmon, constantly swimming against the stream.

Valérie Nataf is a writer and broadcaster, most notably for the French TV station TF1

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