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6 May 2017

Anger in the land of Marine Le Pen: “In 1985, we lived a hundred times better than today”

Former miners plan to vote for the leader of the far-right Front National in the final round of the French presidential elections. 

By Pauline Bock

Just before the A4 highway from France to Germany crosses the border, it passes through an area called Moselle. After Metz, the last large French city on the route, there are two big landmarks in the leafy countryside. One can be seen from afar: the petrochemical site at Carling, with its grey chimneys rising above the woods around the small town of Saint-Avold. The other is a large sign at the side of the road, a few miles before the frontier. It shows a miner in his helmet, his face dirty from coal, standing near the pit entrance. It’s a landmark for the “houillères du bassin de Lorraine” (HBL), meaning “the coal-mining area of Lorraine”.

This area of France was once dominated by the coal industry. Until the 1970s, it employed tens of thousands of people here, producing 45 per cent of the nation’s coal. Hiring in the HBL began to slow in the 1980s and the last mine closed in 2004. Unemployment is 3 points higher than the national average, at 12.7 per cent.

The economic instability in this post-industrial region has had political consequences. Disillusioned voters are turning to Marine Le Pen’s far-right Front National as it attempts to translate growing anger among the French working class into electoral momentum behind the FN in the French presidential campaign. Nationally, Le Pen came second in the first round of the election on 23 April, securing 21.3 per cent of the vote (behind the centrist front-runner, Emmanuel Macron, on 24 per cent). But in Moselle, Le Pen topped the ballot with 28.35 per cent, adding more than 17,000 votes to her 2012 result.

Marilyse Deunette, 46, from the Moselle mining town of Forbach, voted for Le Pen. “Everything in Forbach is closing. It’s becoming a dead area,” she tells me, after casting her first-round vote at the community centre. She supports Le Pen’s pledges to close the borders and to “give jobs back to the French”. “Put French people first,” she says.

Deunette’s partner, Sylvain, who is 48, grew up in Forbach. He is the son and grandson of miners. “I was 16 in 1986, when the mines school closed. My whole life, I wanted to be a miner.” People born before him went to work for the HBL and are now retired with a house and good pension, he explains, but he was two years too young to get a similar deal. “The HBL was Forbach’s life. When it gave way, everything gave way with it: health insurance, housing . . .”

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Sylvain hopes that the FN “will do for France what the HBL did for Forbach – for the miners, for the French people”. Young people have no future in this part of France now, he says. “In 1985, we lived a hundred times better than in 2017. It’s worse and worse.”

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In the nearby town of L’Hôpital, Le Pen won 42.43 per cent of the vote in the first round. This town of 5,400 people – which, despite its name, has no hospital – borders the petrochemical site in Carling, built near an abandoned coking plant that closed in 2004. In faded letters, the old cement bridge across the road still reads: “Ralentissez, sortie d’usine” (“Slow down, factory exit”).

At the town-hall polling station, a nursery school assistant – who says she did not vote FN but declines to be named – reflects on Le Pen’s rise in the region. “[François] Hollande’s five-year term was full of injustice [and] it drives voters to the far right,” she says. “We shouldn’t be surprised by people voting Le Pen when they earn pensions worth only €900, sometimes even €700.” Her son has been unemployed for two years after losing his job in the car industry. “We don’t have jobs for everyone and we take in all the world’s poor. Left, right, left, right, governments follow each other and nothing changes.”

The FN has been rising steadily in popularity in the most impoverished regions of France since 2011, when Marine Le Pen took over from her father as the party’s leader. After the 2014 local elections, there were FN officials sitting on 16 city councils in the Moselle region. L’Hôpital alone has five.

“They are dumber than mean, but very fussy about procedure,” says the Parti Socialiste (PS) mayor, Gilbert Weber. “They’re always in touch with the FN general staff. But they don’t do anything.” In Saint-Avold, where the FN has three elected representatives and Le Pen led the first round with 28.86 per cent, town-hall staff tell a similar story. “We haven’t seen one of them for months. She just stopped attending meetings,” one staff member tells me on the phone.

On 24 April, Le Pen stood down temporarily as the leader of the FN to focus on being the party’s presidential candidate. This decision will not change how her voters perceive her: in Moselle, everyone calls her “Marine”, just as her second-in-command, the polished Florian Philippot, is “Florian”.

Philippot is her envoy in the HBL, and he ran for mayor of Forbach in 2014. He lost to the PS but will stand again in the June parliamentary elections. At present, the FN has just two MPs in the national parliament, but it is hoping that the “vague bleu Marine” (“Marine blue wave”) will give them dozens more.

Not everyone here votes for Le Pen. In Forbach, L’Hôpital and Saint-Avold, the hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon came second. “I was disgusted with Hollande after they bowed to ArcelorMittal’s privatisation bid at Florange,” says Marie Boutter, a midwife from Saint-Avold who voted for Mélenchon. “The Grundfos factory in nearby Longeville was delocalised to Serbia recently. This is disaster zone.”

Philippot denounced the closures and blamed “unfair international competition”. “This could have been avoided . . . Make this presidential election a referendum on wild globalisation,” he urged.

During the televised election debate on 20 April, Marine Le Pen was asked to show an object that she would bring with her to the Élysée Palace, should she be elected president. With a grin, she brandished a key on a cord. “A small business owner from Moselle gave me the key to his company,” she said, and she pledged to “give back to the French the keys to their home, France”.

The small business owner? He was from Forbach.

This article appears in the 03 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Russian Revolution