Brexit cited as first round of vot­ing nears

Regina Leader-Post - - NP - MATTHEW FISHER in Hénin-Beau­mont, France

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.”

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