FRÉJUS, France—In the 10th century, Muslim invaders famously came ashore at what is now Saint Tropez, holed up in the thick forests of the Massif de Maures and went on to sack and pillage towns all over Provence.
Nearby Fréjus, once a key port city established by Julius Caesar in 49 B.C., was one of the first and hardest hit by what were then called the Saracens. Much of the town was razed and people fled.
Today, Fréjus is Ground Zero for the far-right, anti-immigration National Front party. Its leader, Marine Le Pen, is at the front of a tight, unpredictable presidential race that could tip all of Europe in a frightening new direction if she wins.
“The choice [next] Sunday is simple,” Le Pen said at a National Front rally last week. “It’s a choice between a France that is rising again and a France that is sinking.”
To listen to Le Pen supporters in Fréjus talk this week in the run-up to the first round of elections on April 23, they’re in as much danger now as they were 11 centuries ago.
“The Arabs and blacks have just moved in here like they own the place but they don’t want to be French and they don’t care about France,” said Françoise Boyet, 67, a longtime resident who sells vegetables from a stall at the weekly outdoor market. “They’re going to outnumber us soon if we don’t do something.”
Pierre Falisse, 71, said he was not racist but does not recognize his town—or country—anymore. “We are losing France,” he said, “and if we say a word about that we are automatically called racist. Muslims get more respect than we do. That’s scary. Is it racist to love your culture and want to protect it and make sure it is still there for your grandchildren?”
Fréjus, which includes a slice of Mediterranean beachfront and seaside burger stands about halfway between Saint Tropez and Cannes, and a town center set inland among the ruins of the old Roman aqueducts, is where Le Pen kicked off her campaign last September.
The mayor, David Rachline, is her campaign manager. He won his own election here by promising to demolish the brand new, imposing mosque in the shabby outskirts of town where most of the local Muslim population lives. To the chagrin of Rachline and many residents, a local court shot down the plan in February and the mosque has remained open.
The extreme right gets most of the press here but the Muslim residents jammed into U.S.-style housing projects on the edge of the city are a formidable force in their own right.
Men in traditional dress (“Please don’t describe it as Salafist!” one man told me) walk back and forth to the El Fath mosque for prayers five times a day.
Mohammed Assarikhi, 31, who is of Moroccan descent, was born in Fréjus. While his childhood was somewhat segregated, he said he never experienced extreme racism until the attack on the World Trade Center on 9/11.
“After that people started looking at us suspiciously and it’s just gotten worse,” said Assarikhi, who acts as a de facto spokesman for the mosque. “It’s been very sad to see the change and the anger toward us. But at the same time, I’m not sure that if Marine Le Pen wins it will be as bad for us as people think. We have our faith.”
But there are obvious sources of concern, especially at a moment when the French security forces are on high alert lest there be a terrorist attack that tilts the election results. On Tuesday, authorities announced they had foiled a planned Islamic State attack in Marseille, about 150 kilometers down the coast.
Last month, Mohammed Khan Wazir, a 30-year-old Fréjus resident and Afghan national who had named his baby son “Jihad” was sentenced to 18 months in jail for threatening to shoot French judges with a Kalashnikov assault rifle because he was tired of waiting for the boy to get a French passport.
The 3-year-old had been taken to Islamic-State-held territory in the Middle East by his mother. Upon their return, the mother was jailed in Paris and the child was put into foster care. Wazir, a former imam, got upset and started making the threats while visiting his son in a daycare center.
But many Fréjus Muslims like Assarikhi play down the presence of Islamism in the town. It would seem theirs is a long game.
The 29-year-old imam of the Fréjus mosque was initially reluctant to speak because he said he feels Muslims are often misunderstood. But he agreed because he said he feels it’s important that people know the Muslims of Fréjus are not angry, even with the threat of their mosque being demolished.
“You have to always stay calm,” said Abdelhamid, who did not want his last name used.
“Before us, our prophet Mohamed suffered much more than we do. He was beaten, he was stoned, he was said to be crazy, he was insulted. But no matter what he was patient. He preferred to be patient than fight. We have faith. Faith is the basis of our religion. We have one obligation—to obey our God. That obedience permits us to be patient. We know that Paradise awaits us so even if someone is against us, we are going to be patient and apply our religion and not bother anyone.”
Fréjus’s imam may be patient but there is one segment of the population that gets almost no attention and that is the residents here who are against the National Front and ashamed to be associated with it.
Jean-Paul Radigois, 67, is president of a longstanding local association currently at war with the mayor over his plans to develop environmentally sensitive areas in the town. He rolls his eyes at the very idea of Le Pen and her supporters.
“Fréjus has become a test village, a laboratory, if you will, for the National Front,” he said. “The FN is promising French people a better life, an exit from the EU, an end to the euro. But it’s all a fantasy. Her ideas are a pipe dream for people who want to return to the 1950s. If Marine Le Pen is elected it will be a catastrophe.”