France has announced a €5million plan to protect mayors and other local officials against violent attacks.
The home of Vincent Jeanbrun, mayor of Paris suburb L’Haÿ-les-Roses, was rammed in July with a car which was then set alight.
The mayor’s wife suffered a fractured tibia as she ran to escape with their children. Mr Jeanbrun was at the mairie at the time.
The attack took place during the riots that erupted following the fatal police shooting of a teenage driver who failed to stop when ordered but it is just one example of recent targeted harassment.
In May, Yannick Morez resigned as mayor of Saint-Brevin-Les-Pins, near Nantes, after his home and cars were set on fire. He also received death threats amid far-right pressure over an asylum seekers’ reception centre project.
Security cameras and psychological support
Local government minister Dominique Faure has revealed plans to make legal protection insurance automatic for mayors who wish to press charges. This will be paid for by the state for communes of fewer than 10,000 inhabitants, up from 3,500.
In addition, €1million is to be given to provide psychological support to mayors and their families in the case of attacks or threats.
A further €3million will go towards installing security cameras and systems in front of mairies and mayors’ homes.
The mayors will be given small boxes with a button to press if they feel under threat. This will automatically call five programmed numbers until somebody answers, and allow for GPS tracking.
The minister also announced that the harassment of local officials would be considered an aggravating factor, allowing for tougher sentences, while physical or verbal attacks on elected officials will be punished as harshly as attacks on uniformed officers.
Those measures will feature in a bill to be brought forward in the autumn.
Ex-maire wants MPs’ behaviour to change
Christian Blanckaert, who has written about his 31 years as deputy and then mayor of Varengeville-sur-Mer in Normandy in the book Journal d’un maire de campagne, said he was “shocked by the violence” of the attack on Mr Jeanbrun’s home.
He believes the government’s announcements are a good start.
He said there had been an increase in threatening language since he left office in 2008, alongside the rise of social media.
“Each time you say ‘No’ – and you often say ‘No’ as a mayor – people put your name on social media,” he said, adding that he would hesitate to run for office today because of this increasingly hostile environment.
He believes national politicians fuelled the situation with their use of extreme language, during the pension reform debates in particular.
“Most mayors I meet are shocked by the behaviour of MPs in parliament.”
He says changing MPs’ behaviour is crucial to making the role of mayor more attractive and suggests allowing MPs to be mayors at the same time.
“If they could be mayors of a small village of 1,000 people like mine, it would be great. When you are a mayor like that, you are forced to behave differently. You can’t shout and be violent.”
Mr Blanckaert says everyone should be concerned.
“When you attack a mayor, you attack democracy. And not only the people but also the buildings – mairies are the symbol of democracy.”
160 physical attacks last year
Ms Faure announced a series of measures in May after the resignation of Mr Morez threw a spotlight on the problem. She said 5,159 elected officials, including 1,769 mayors, had signed up to a database allowing the police to intervene more quickly when called.
Between 2021 and 2022, the number of recorded physical or verbal attacks on local elected officials is reported to have increased by 32%, from 1,720 to 2,265.
Physical attacks accounted for 160 of the cases last year.
In another sign of increasing violence, the entire municipal police force in the Lyon suburb of Vénissieux began a strike in July to demand they be equipped with ‘category B’ weapons, which include handguns.
They say they too feel like a target because of their uniform.
Many of France’s municipal police officers are armed but this requires the mayor’s approval.
How much power do our maires have?
France’s 35,000 mayors are representatives of their commune, tasked with executing decisions taken by the council, and of the state.
They represent the commune in court, prepare the budget, manage public buildings, organise elections, and issue decrees.
Municipal police are under the direct authority of the mayor. They also have an important ceremonial function, including presiding over civil wedding ceremonies.
Robert Ménard, the far-right mayor of Béziers, recently caused a stir when he refused to allow the marriage of an Algerian man who was under an OQTF order to leave France.
He claimed the groom was marrying so he could stay in France.
There is no legal basis for such a refusal. A mayor can inform the public prosecutor if they have a doubt about the identity or sincerity of the couple, but the prosecutor had already given the go-ahead.