The far-right seduces French workers


The Front National made strong gains in the second round of the municipal elections in France. With 14 municipalities now on the extreme-right of the political spectrum, the party has managed to establish itself in the traditional left-wing strongholds of France’s industrial regions.

It came as a bolt from the blue, but on 23 March, in Hénin-Beaumont, northern France, the Front National won the election in the first round.

Steeve Briois garnered 50.25 per cent of the vote in this former mining town of 26,000 inhabitants.

Supporters expressed their delight and enthusiasm as the new municipal team moved into its quarters at the town hall.

A café owner from the town centre proudly appeared in a local newspaper photographed alongside the party’s president, Marine Le Pen.

The ballet of pushchairs outside school gates across the town is animated by the big event. “At last someone is going to look after the people,” a young mother tells Equal Times. “The new mayor is a very nice man; he listens to us.”

A ‘son of the soil’, Briois has been a member of the Front National since 1988. He has stood as a candidate at every local election since 1995, increasing his percentage every time.

According to Octave Nitkowski, a 17-year-old blogger and author of an essay on the Front National in the region, this proximity is Briois’ main asset.

“He is a very cheery, attentive person who never forgets to say hello, kiss or shake hands with people at the market. The left, meanwhile, has become self-satisfied. They don’t even canvass anymore.”

The local socialist party, moreover, has been marred by scandal. Gérard Dalongeville, the former mayor elected in 2008, has been sentenced to four years in prison for the misuse of public funds. Dalongeville has since appealed against the decision.

Following the court ruling, a former headmaster, Eugène Binaisse, took over the post. He secured no more than 32 per cent of the vote in 2014.

An air of despondency hangs over his local campaign office. The boxes have already been packed up and the posters taken down.

Binaisse, however, promises he will “remain vigilant”, keeping a close eye on the work of the new municipal council.

“It’s a populist party. There are 10,000 people on the breadline, housing problems... Briois is promising to change all that with the stroke of a magic wand and it works.”


Social shift

In Hénin-Beaumont, the unemployment rate is over 18 per cent, double the national average.

While the last mine was closed back in 1970, several factories such as Samsonite have shut down over the last few years. David, a mechanic, explains his choice during his cigarette break. “It’s difficult for everyone here. We’ve seen the right, the left, now we’re trying the FN.”

For Valérie Igounet, a historian specialised in the far right, “The FN has adapted to the socio-economic context and is adopting a much more social discourse.”

There is, indeed, a degree of conformism to Briois’ programme. Aside from strengthening security through the now commonplace CCTV cameras, the new mayor is promising more culture, and organic meals in the canteens.

The party, moreover, has no qualms about putting forward candidates recruited from the far left.

Fabien Engelmann, a former member of the Confederation Générale du Travail (CGT), from which he was barred in 2011, took control on Sunday, under the Front National banner, of the Hayange town council.

Situated in the valley of Fensch, in the east of the country, traces of the iron and steel industry still remain in the shape of the ArcelorMittal works.

It could not be more symbolic. A 34-year-old worker acknowledges that he would never have joined the FN before “Marine Le Pen, who has given a new face to the party, came on the scene.”

Engelmann, who has pledged “to be on the side of all the workers”, hopes to offer a free town shuttle service for the local population.

He also intends to ban begging and the consumption of alcohol on the streets. He advocates not only “economic patriotism” to save jobs and French industry “but also migratory patriotism”.

Studies by Florent Gougou, a researcher specialised in the world of work, reveal that “immigration remains at the heart of FN voters’ concerns”.


Targeting the European elections

Valérie Igounet nonetheless insists that the recent successes of the “party most voted for by blue-collar workers” should not be blown out of proportion.

“This socio-occupational category also abstains on a massive scale. Moreover, of the 210,000 municipal councillors just elected, only 1500 belong to the Front National."

But the FN is now entering a new election cycle, with the upcoming European elections in May.

Marine Le Pen, resolute in her offensive against European policy, has adopted a line that appeals to an increasingly Eurosceptic population.

She hopes to see her party come first in these elections. With 22 per cent of intended votes, according to a recent IPSOS poll, it could come shoulder to shoulder with the (right-wing) Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP).

And as Engelmann insists: “We have just tasted the plat de résistance; time for desert!”