Steve Briois sits in a café on Hénin-Beaumont’s market square, nursing a glass of wine. He squints in the bright sun, exuding an air of smug satisfaction. “Marine Le Pen had 35 percent of the votes here five years ago. This election she’ll get over 50 percent,” he says confidently.
The 44-year-old Front National member has been mayor of the small town in the north of France for three years. It is one of the strongest bastions of far right extremism in France: 28 of the 35 members of the town council are members of Le Pen’s party, the Front National, or FN. Socialists dominated the whole region for years. But when their cronyism became unbearable – Mr. Briois’ Socialist predecessor traded his mayoral office for a prison cell – the voters searched for an alternative and found it in the FN.
Conditions there were perfect for the populists. The coal mines were dying, industry was at a standstill and the textile industry had shifted oversees. That is even though the greater region of Hauts-de-France is a hub for logistics. The Socialists in the north of France neglected to engage in forward planning and today, 20 percent of the population of the départements – the French term for a municipality between the larger administrative regions and the smaller “communes” – around Hénin-Beaumont live below the poverty threshold.
That is a record for mainland France. Now the state is paying the price for that, in the form of massive gains in the number of votes for the far right.