THE NATIONAL FRONT’S MARINE LE PEN MAY TAKE ROUND ONE OF THE VOTE FOR FRENCH PRESIDENT THIS WEEKEND.
BUT ROUND TWO NEXT MONTH IS EXPECTED TO BE AN ENTIRELY DIFFERENT MATTER.
The National Front’s Marine Le Pen may narrowly win the first round of voting for the French presidency on April 23.
But the widespread expectation of the French establishment is that the charismatic extreme-right-wing leader will decisively lose a second runoff on May 7, most likely to another outsider, the progressive independent reformer Emmanuel Macron. (Or, perhaps, to yet another outsider: the fiery hardline communist candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, whom pollsters reckon is staging a late rally.)
That two radicals from the right and the left, with ferociously different ideas about everything except that France should quit the European Union, might face off against each other next month says everything about how confused and fragmented the country has become, and how trust in France’s political establishment — trust which has never been strong — has evaporated.
This disorder and discontent can easily be seen in this down-on-its-luck city in the Pas de Calais, which Le Pen adopted as her hometown and political base a few years ago and where a National Front member, Steeve Briois, is the hugely popular mayor of the Front-dominated city council.
Hénin-Beaumont is a city of 27,000. It is only be an hour north by high speed train from Paris, where the country’s business, cultural and media elite regard Le Pen as a fascist and a xenophobe, but it might as well be on a different planet.
Until 10 years ago HéninBeaumont routinely gave 60 per cent of its votes to the socialists and 20 per cent to the communists. But it has now so heartily embraced Le Pen’s stark anti-immigrant, anti-EU and anti-globalization platform that she is expected to receive at least 60 per cent of the ballots cast here on Sunday.
This is a city where unemployment has, at more than 19 per cent, been double the national average for years. The coal mines that had been its original raison-d’etre closed 40 years ago. Its factories have disappeared since then, their jobs exported to Central Europe or the Far East.
On a recent visit, Le Pen’s admirers in Hénin-Beaumont made reference again and again to Donald Trump’s unexpected victory in the U.S. presidential elections and to the shock vote in the Brexit referendum in favour of pulling the United Kingdom out of the EU.
“Polls don’t mean anything anymore,” said Christophe Szczurek, the National Front’s deputy mayor in Hénin-Beaumont, as he dismissed a stream of surveys that have indicated that however well his friend Le Pen does in the first round, she will lose by a significant margin on the second goround.
“The polls were wrong in the U.S. and in Britain because people do not openly register how they vote in secret. Nobody can predict what will happen next here.”
The trio of leading candidates are thought by pollsters to each have the support of somewhere between 20 and 24 per cent of the electorate. They have profited from public disgust with the corruption-plagued regime of President Francois Hollande, who is so hugely unpopular that he did not dare seek a second term.
But only Le Pen has exploited the fear, anger and trauma in France over a series of bloody terrorist attacks by men claiming to act in Islam’s name. This grim theme has been particularly popular with older voters in the north and south of the country and with young voters everywhere.
“Marine is superb,” gushed 29-year-old Marie Vasteene, an unemployed mother of five, as she walked home with a baguette in her hand. “We give too much to foreigners when we, the French, have needs, too. Every time we complain about terrorism, they say we are racists.”
Joining her on the pavement, her neighbour, 69-year-old Danielle Parsy, boasted: “I am a member of the National Front and I am not ashamed it. I don’t like foreigners who do not respect France.”
Hasibé Lesieux, whose father is Turkish, said she was likely to vote for Le Pen, too.
“We feel the tension here between Muslims and the rest of society and Marine looks strong and approachable,” said Lesieux.
A cop on the beat who is a Muslim from Algeria, said he, too, was for Le Pen because “she is the only one brave enough to take on terrorists and immigrants from the Middle East.”
Not everyone was convinced that Le Pen was the answer.
“We need change. That is clear,” said Regina Godar, 53, who runs a beauty salon. “But the more I hear from Marine the less I like her. I do not like her connection to Vladimir Putin. And with everything (the National Front) have produced before, I don’t want their extremism.” Nevertheless, she reluctantly conceded that the party had proven it could govern effectively in HéninBeaumont and that voters elsewhere might be encouraged by that.
“Everyone who wants power tell us stories,” said 61-year-old Beatrice Dey. “Will Marine be any different? All we know is that she is not Francois Hollande. I am not really with her but with everything that has happened we do not know really know who to vote for.”