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.
His greatest hope is a new Burger King branch. This is despite the Front National’s ongoing complaints about the U.S.’ alleged global dominance.
So the FN is dominant here: But what have they changed? “We’re putting the administration in order and trying to do something about jobs, but we haven’t been able to do much,” says Mr. Briois, immediately dampening expectations. But the genial chap concedes he doesn’t actually know much about the job situation over the past three years.
His greatest hope is, of all things, a new Burger King branch in town. This is despite the FN’s ongoing complaints about foreign companies and the U.S.’ alleged global dominance.
“The main thing is that jobs come,” says Mr. Briois, with a shrug. He joined the FN at 16 and at one stage, acted as Ms. Le Pen’s campaign manager. Nevertheless, he doesn’t seem like a hardened ideologist. When he talks about the FN’s demand for preferential treatment for French nationals in the workforce and for housing, he is almost apologetic: “That’s not racist, you must understand.”
“A lot of flowers, signs everywhere announcing municipal works, a lot of celebrations – that is his recipe for success,” says Coralie Rembert, criticizing the FN mayor. She is the local representative of En Marche!, the social-liberal party headed by Emmanuel Macron. Nothing has changed for the people, Ms. Rembert says, and the FN is making no effort to have companies move here.
Unionist, Bernard Wawrzyniak of the General Confederation of Labor, a French national trade union center, confirms that, adding: “The FN is maintaining a moderate profile. Only the city’s civil servants are experiencing political pressure, not the citizens.”
The whole region is in a bad way, Mr. Wawrzyniak says. “When there are jobs, like at a large call center in Arvato, the working conditions are bad. You have to sign out to pee,” he notes.
Marseille, France’s second largest city on the Mediterranean coast in the south, is the other ideal habitat for the FN. In the presidential elections five years ago, Marine Le Pen got 21 percent of the votes in the first ballot.
“Marseille is divided. The center is fantastic, but behind it, the city is neglected and squalid,” says Jean-François Luc, an FN member on the regional council. At the age of 37, he is one of the FN’s up-and-comers.
We meet Mr. Luc in his improvised campaign office in downtown Marseille. Books on the dangers of jihadism are on display, as is the FN’s election manifesto with its 144 program points. Marseille, says Mr. Luc, should be “a French city” again. He plans to have all immigrants without valid documentation deported, the Salafist mosques closed and to give preferential treatment to agricultural products from the region. Projects, like the old harbor being renovated by workers from eastern Europe, won’t happen again. Projects financed by their taxes should favor the people of Marseilles, he continues. Violations of E.U. laws are of no interest to him. For him, it’s “France and Marseille first.”
Marseille may soon be the first city in Europe with a Muslim majority, warns Mr. Luc. Radical Islamists, he says, are challenging the French state. That’s why he wants to ban burkinis – a fully-body bathing suit worn by mostly Muslim women who subscribe to a religion-based modesty doctrine – on the local beach. Last summer, a higher court lifted just such a ban.
Parts of Marseilles are under the control of a drug-dealing mafia. And organized crime is nothing new for the port city, says the sociologist Laurent Mucchielli. But what is new is the feeling many citizens have that politicians don’t care about them, says Mr. Mucchielli, who works at the research center called Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. “People feel abandoned by the state.”
Mr. Luc sees the people on the fringes as potential FN voters. In addition, he counts those who say they hold traditional French and regional values as important, as well as workers and pensioners who are forced to survive on €800, or about $849, a month, as potential FN supporters. He vehemently rejects the accusation the FN is racist. “Muslims have also joined us,” he asserts.
But when it comes to Ms. Le Pen’s actual chances, Mr. Luc dodges the question. Ms. Le Pen has continuously slid in the polls throughout France, from 28 percent to between 23 and 24 percent. He blames the media: “They’re very hostile toward us.” And in the run-off, he believes the negative coverage will get even worse.
Interestingly Ms. Le Pen herself seems to be becoming the FN’s biggest enemy. Her call to exit the euro zone is extremely unpopular. Older French people are worried about their savings. However voicing any criticism of Ms. Le Pen’s suggested Frexit is something neither Mr. Luc nor Mr. Briois dare to do.
Handelsblatt’s Thomas Hanke is a France correspondent working out of Paris. Pierre Heumann is a correspondent for Handelsblatt and reported out of Marseille. To contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com