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What happens to your town once a far-right party comes to power?

In March’s local elections, the French far-right party the Front National took control of new towns in the rust-belts of the north and south. What has changed there since they came to power?

There’s a sign hanging on the wall of a spent-looking French Communist Party (PCF) constituency office: “Their smiles only trick those who are fooled by appearances,” it says.

500 meters away, outside the Town Hall in Hénin-Beaumont - an old industrial mining district - Steeve Briois is all smiles. After 18 years of campaigning for the far-right Front National (FN) the city is under his control. In the end all he needed was a single round of voting.

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Across France, the FN has been gaining ground. March’s local elections were the most successful in the party’s 42-year history with just under 1,500 local councillors and 11 new towns won in the rust-belts of the north and south. Results from last week’s European elections confirm what so many had dreaded: that the FN, a party untouchable only a few years ago, is now a major force in French politics.

In the national press, Hénin-Beaumont has become a symbol for this success. Here, as in many places, former communist voters have shifted to the far-right, swayed by an interest in local grievances they believe to be honest, and a populist anti-capitalism that appeals to their intellectual roots.

“The mayor has been using the exact same speeches as the far-left syndicalist movement,” says Octave Nitkowski, a local blogger studying in Paris. ”It’s working because the socialist and communist parties are completely rotten.”

An anarchist symbol sprayed over Le Pen. Photo: Philip Kleinfeld

An anarchist symbol sprayed over Le Pen. Photo: Philip Kleinfeld

Towards the rural end of Hénin-Beaumont a factory once belonging to the baggage company Samsonite is stripped bare, half-collapsing. Dulled splats of color from paintball guns pepper the walls. The local kids have found a playground in capitalism’s ruins.

Inside the abandoned Samsonite factory. Photo: Philip Kleinfeld

Inside the abandoned Samsonite factory. Photo: Philip Kleinfeld

They weren’t the first. In 2005 the facility was owned by Mitt Romney’s private equity vehicle, Bain Capital. The group sold it off for one euro to a company that promised to make solar panels but drove it into bankruptcy. According to the workers, Bain engineered the entire situation: relinquishing unwanted production without paying their staff the redundancy they were due.

It’s a story that captures the bitterness of a town where 18 per cent are now unemployed and few believe in the centre-right (UNP) or centre-left (PS) as a realistic solution.

“The politicians have completely abandoned our area,” says Benichau Fahim, 39, the son of an Algerian immigrant. “There are no passionate individuals anymore.”

This is what Steeve Briois has promised to reverse. Throughout the campaign he was visible, at the market twice a week, listening to the locals, shaking hands. Making compromises, even. Outside the Flemish-Gothic town hall he now runs, a European Union flag sits uneasily next to the tri-colour after a protest from local activists.

“I don't like the term 'ideology',” he tells us. “I find it pejorative. Our programme was based on budgetary matters, local taxes, crime and punishment. We talked about the local swimming pool, the football pitch, cultural issues, public servant pay.”

Race, immigration and the “contradictions” of Muslim settlement are curiously absent from this discourse. But after only a month in office Briois’s image as a pragmatic town manager has been dented by ordering the eviction of a local branch of the Human Rights League, a group that has fought anti-Semitism and racism since the Dreyfus Affair. Intimidating messages from the FN have also been sent to the town’s church according to Nitkowski, after its priest, Jean-Marie Lokhay, described the views of the FN as incompatible with Catholicism.

The locals don’t seem to be affected, however. The image the FN wants to project: of trustworthy, practical town mangers, of politicians that get things done, seems to be working.

“Perhaps they are hypocrites but nothing has changed for us,” says a Turkish man, who owns a restaurant just next to the town hall. “Even Marine Le Pen has walked by and shaken our hands.”

Steeve Briois in the town hall. Photo: Philip Kleinfeld

Steeve Briois in the town hall. Photo: Philip Kleinfeld

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If Hénin-Beaumont provides ammunition to claims that the FN has detoxified – elsewhere things are different. In Mantes-La-Ville – a small industrial suburb of Paris – the evidence of more traditional FN dogma is everywhere. Here, a generation nostalgic for a period of post-war growth it calls the Trente Glorieuses, the “thirty glorious years”, has grown bitter.

“Materially poor people are blaming their poverty on other people,” says Frederick Aumonier in his well-kept apartment in the middle of town. “They are motivated by jealousy and fear - claiming the foreigners are stealing from the nation’s riches.”

Frederick is 55 and has lived in Mantes-La-Ville his entire life working as a plumber, a cab driver and now, like his father, in a local factory. He is unaffected by the town’s hostility towards immigrants but his wife, Dada, a 28 year old Senegalese immigrant, is not.

“I was using the phone quietly on the train to Paris when a woman asked me to be quiet. When I told her she was being impolite she said. ‘Let’s see what happens in the elections.’ She was implying that I will be going back.”

According to the party and political commentators, Marine Le Pen has softened the FN, turning it from a group of collaborationists and revolutionary nationalists into an anti-racist, even liberal, party. But in Mantes-La-Ville, where a third of the population is Muslim, the same old racism is seeping through.

“We are not comfortable,” says Azzedine a 54-year-old practicing Muslim who has lived in France his whole life. “Islam has existed for centuries, we are for freedom and peace for everyone. What is happening is unjust.”

Azzedine is standing outside a ramshackle local mosque, too small for the community it is trying to serve. The walls are peeling and the roof is propped up by makeshift corrugated plastic.

Under plans ratified by the last mayor the mosque will be torn down and replaced by a parking lot. Blueprints for a much larger place of worship, adapted from a regional treasury building, had been accepted by the previous administration. But Cyril Nauth, the new FN Mayor, has now refused them. Once the present council-owned building comes down, the local Muslim community will have no place of communal worship.

“Things have changed a lot,” say Abdelaziz El Jaouhari, the mosque’s president, just after afternoon prayers. “Tensions are rising very seriously. We received several letters from FN militants with insults and threats. They put pork in the letterbox and said the mayor should cleanse the city of the Muslim race. The FN wants to normalise themselves as a republican party. But the ideologies of the FN militants haven’t changed at all.”

Abdelaziz explains his plans for the new mosque. Photo: Philip Kleinfeld

Abdelaziz explains his plans for the new mosque. Photo: Philip Kleinfeld

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A giant concrete viaduct soars above the centre of Hayange, a once-successful steel town in the Val de Fensch. Cars fly past but few stop. Deep in the district of Lorraine, this is so-called “invisible France”; unemployment is high, industry has collapsed and confidence in politics has vanished.

In 2013 the town was struck by the closure of a huge blast furnace factory in neighboring Florange, the final straw in a long, slow process of economic and cultural decline. Hollande had promised to save the factory owned by ArcelorMittal after an exhausting industrial struggle but his words proved empty.

The closed furnaces in Florange. Photo: Philip Kleinfeld

The closed furnaces in Florange. Photo: Philip Kleinfeld

Only last year the town’s new mayor, Fabien Engelmann, was a CGT union activist and member of the leftwing New Anticapitalist Party (NPA). Now he spends his days critiquing “Mohammadean ideology” and clamping down on the ‘entitlements’ of immigrants. His words are rubbing off.

“Hayange used to be a very rich, lively town,” says Pascal, 68 in a local boulangerie. “Now it has become a cemetery. And where there is poverty the crows always come. I don’t understand why we give people from abroad help when the people here get nothing.”

Across the road at Le Bar Central, Daniel, a garbage collector, is drinking an espresso. His mother and father are Algerian but he was born in Hayange.

“It is making me sick at the heart,” he says quietly. “They want to get rid of the mosque, they are saying that there are too many halal butchers. The Mayor is blaming decline on foreigners; he wants to give priority to the French people.”

His fears are more than justified. Engelmann promised a “Pork Fest” in Hayange if he came to power. Now, should he have his way, the sons and daughters of practicing Muslims like Daniel will be unable to eat non-pork meals in their own schools.

“If it happens I will move away from the town,” Daniel says visibly moved. “For my children’s sake.” As we finish speaking he turns towards the toilets, tears forming in his eyes.

"What a waste". Photo: Philip Kleinfeld

"What a waste". Photo: Philip Kleinfeld

At the regional council of Lorraine, nobody wants the FN to succeed. The fear for Hayange is that crucial financial subsidies will be stopped as a kind of collective punishment, one that ensures the FN cannot look good to the local population.

It’s a depressing premonition for a town in desperate need of help but sadly not one limited to France. With the far-right gaining ground across the continent, at both national and European levels, the problems have barely begun.

Some names have been changed

Philip Kleinfeld is on Twitter @PKleinfeld

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As we reach the 50th anniversary of China's Cultural Revolution, are we seeing echoes of Mao?

With the official verdict being that Mao was “70 per cent good, 30 per cent bad”, his legacy is never far from the mind of today's politicians.

The Great Hall of the People on the western side of Tiananmen Square in Beijing is normally the scene for formal occasions, such as the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress. In early May, however, it resonated with singing by a group of young women, 56 Flowers, at a concert staged by an organisation calling itself the “Propaganda Department Office of Socialist Core-Value Propaganda and Education”. Tickets sold for up to £200.

The repertoire of the singing group was of a kind heard only rarely in China today. It consisted mainly of anthems from the Mao Zedong era, among them “Sailing the Seas Depends on the Helmsman”, which compares the chairman’s thinking to “the sun that never sets”. The maverick politician Bo Xilai used such songs in his campaign to challenge the central leadership earlier this decade but he is now in prison, serving a life sentence for corruption.

The singers, who describe themselves as “the socialist band fallen from heaven”, wear the sort of scarves worn by Young Pioneers in the Cultural Revolution that Mao launched, 50 years ago this month, to shake up China and assert his leadership.

Some other songs praised the current leader, Xi Jinping, but the event was determinedly retro, demonstrating nostalgia for the era before China embarked on its race for economic growth and before society modernised. In a country where the leaders shape history to their purpose, this was a distinct political statement, and that the performance was permitted at all raised eyebrows among China-watchers. There was even more puzzlement when the organisation that put its name to the show turned out not to exist. Speculation spread that the whole thing had been staged by opponents of the current leadership in an attempt to embarrass it.

While Mao remains the biggest figure in the narrative of the People’s Republic, his three decades in power were marked by killings on a huge scale and the repeated use of terror, ending with the ten-year disaster of the Cultural Revolution. His heritage poses a problem in a country with a vastly changed society that has little affinity with the rampaging Red Guards. The Communist Party-run state needs the Great Helmsman at the centre of its history and its conquest of power. But the kind of nostalgia peddled by 56 Flowers has little relevance in China today, where materialism is more important than Maoist Marxism and where the pressing issues are how to deal with a mountain of debt and reduce excess industrial capacity.

In an unprecedented move in mid-May, the party newspaper People’s Daily ran a severe condemnation of the Cultural Revolution as a grave mistake. However, Mao’s body still lies embalmed in Tiananmen Square, his head is on the banknotes and the official verdict is that he was “70 per cent good, 30 per cent bad”.

Mao launched the movement that convulsed his country after a politburo meeting on 16 May 1966, which identified “representatives of the bourgeoisie who have sneaked into the party, the government, the army and various spheres of culture” but were merely “a bunch of counter-revolutionary revisionists”, aiming to instal “a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie”.

The man who had led the Chinese communists to power in 1949 had been feeling disgruntled. He had been marginalised by his lieutenants Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping following the collapse of his attempt to industrialise the country in the Great Leap Forward at the end of the 1950s and the ensuing famine, which some estimate to have killed more than 40 million people. Mao was nearly 73 but he was not yet ready to be kicked upstairs into a ceremonial post.

Rousing himself for a final power play, Mao launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution to assert himself, to destroy the Communist Party’s “bourgeois” bureaucracy and to give China a shake-up as he led the nation’s young people on a crusade to “destroy the old”. Once more, he ruthlessly turned Chinese against Chinese to consolidate his power and to pursue a supposedly revolutionary adventure.

The effects were, as with earlier initiatives, catastrophic – politically, economically and socially – above all, for the many millions who suffered death, injury, torture and deprivations. The party, the army, schools, universities and practically all other institutions were caught up in the maelstrom.

The wrecking of the regime’s control mechanisms cleared the way to the economic reform that was officially approved by Deng after Mao’s death in 1976, as Frank Dikötter shows in his magisterial new book, The Cultural Revolution: a People’s History, 1962-76. But loosening control is the last thing that Xi Jinping has in mind. Since taking power in November 2012, he has pursued a crackdown on dissent and is centralising authority in a way not seen since Mao. At the same time, and in the lead-up to a crucial party congress at the end of 2017, he is trying to use his campaign against corruption to root out opponents and change the way that China works.

Some commentators have described it as a new Cultural Revolution, even though the attempt to impose draconian control from the centre under Xi hardly chimes with the Red Guards’ invocation to “storm the fortress” and destroy the centres of authority. Still, there are echoes of 50 years ago. In a speech published this month, the president denounced “careerists and conspirators” who were undermining party governance.

“We . . . must make a resolute response to eliminate the problem and deter further violations,” Xi added, in a tone that Chairman Mao might have used. The context changes but China’s leaders have always been adept at finding adversaries to be used to advance their own ends – though what happened under Mao should stand as a warning of where witch-hunting can lead.

Jonathan Fenby is the author of “Will China Dominate the 21st Century?” and “The Penguin History of Modern China”

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad