Far-right knocks on regions’ doors but will they open?

The Front National (FN) led by Marine Le Pen could take control of its first ever region in the run-off elections this Sunday. It would be a major step for what began as a family start-up under Jean-Marie le Pen and now brands itself as France’s leading party. One of the key regions is Nord Pas de Calais-Picardie, formerly a bastion of the left. The conquest of the northern France all began in the small working class town of Hénin-Beaumont.

REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

The European flag no longer hangs on the front of Hénin-Beaumont town hall; pride of place goes to three red, white and blue French flags.

Underneath, a sign reads “Creche de Noel” inviting Christians to enter and marvel at the Nativity.

Town halls in France are meant to embody secularism… and adhesion to the European Union.

But the Front National mayor, Steeve Briois, has gradually put his mark on the town since he was elected in 2014.

Briois, a local boy groomed by Marine le Pen, has found a well of support in this former mining town, just half an hour’s drive from Lille.

“He’s invested in roads, there’s been a lot of renovation, there are more policemen on the streets” says 21 year old Antoine shortly after voting in the first round of the regional elections last Sunday. “And he’s everywhere, we see him much more than the previous mayor.”

Briois’ common touch has struck a chord in a town disillusioned with the left since a former Socialist mayor caught up in a corruption scandal left the council deeply in debt.

And where the closure of the mines and factories like Metaleurope and Samsonite has sent unemployment through the roof.

It now stands at 19%, nearly twice the national average.

“He introduced the Christmas market, locals really appreciate that, and he’s slightly reduced local taxes as promised,” says Dino, the owner of Café de la Paix. “But honestly, not that much has changed.”

The local economy, for example, remains in the doldrums.

“People open shops, they try something new, but they soon close down,” he says philosophically, serving coffee to the three customers.

But despite the lack of blue sky on the horizon, Front National militants are riding high after last Sunday’s historic results.

“They’ve lowered taxes just like they promised,” says thirty-something Valentin. “They’ve shown they can run a town, now we’re ready to move on to the regions.”

The FN has used Hénin-Beaumont as a springboard to building a power base across the region, which now includes depressed, rural Picardie (already won over by the FN), the economic power-house of Lille, the mining basin to its south and the refugee camp at the port of Calais.

In her last major campaign meeting in Lille, Le Pen said she saw a regional victory as the “foundation stone” for national success.

But running the Nord Pas de Calais-Picardie super region with its six million inhabitants and 3.3 billion euro budget is a very different ball game from Hénin-Beaumont, population 27,000 and a budget of 60 million euros.

Antoine is not ready to make the leap. “I’m not sure they have the experience,” he says. “And I’d be worried about seeing them get power on a national level.”

But his partner Audrey is ready to give the FN a go.

“We’ve tried the left, we’ve tried the right, nothing worked. Let’s give the Front National a chance,” says the 21-year old sales trainee, her eyes lighting up. “I may end up regretting it, but I’m prepared to take the risk.”

The newness of the FN under Marine le Pen is indeed a major plus point.

“The party is new and trashy,” says Pierre Mathiot, political scientist at Lille Sciences-Po institute. “They have a new way of speaking that’s attractive to voters. The mainstream parties come across as old.”

What’s more the FN offers a dream, albeit impossible to realise.

“The FN have managed to make people dream” political scientist Cécile Braconnier told France Inter public radio earlier this week.

“It’s the only party that’s giving people the desire to go out and vote. You can feel the enthusiasm,” she explains. “This is no longer a protest vote, people are adhering to the party and its policies.”

Those policies are national not regional. The party’s chief concerns include employment, security, tackling migration and fundamentalist Islamism.

Solutions include leaving the euro, closing borders and putting the French first.

But regional councils mainly deal with transport, high school, training and economic development. They have little or no impact on the big issues the FN is peddling.

Which is why, a fortnight ago, the Lille-based Voix du Nord daily newpaper took the unusual step of running attacks on Le Pen and her party, questioning their competence to rule.

“We’re saying think before you vote because the FN can’t deliver on its promises,” says deputy editor Pierre Mauchamp. “For example saying everything will be better without the migrants.”

The paper defends the region’s interests. For Mauchamp, the very nature of the FN is contrary to a region at the heart of Europe, between Paris, London, Belgium and the Netherlands.

“Our region has suffered a lot from the economic crisis and still does, but it has much more to gain from opening up to its neighbours. So a party that says you have to close in on yourself, close the borders cannot help the region prosper.”

It remains to be seen whether the Voix du Nord’s stance will have an impact on how people vote this Sunday. Some readers have cancelled their subscriptions. But the paper feel’s it’s done its job.

“Nobody can say they didn’t know what might happen,” says Mauchamp.

Having obtained nearly 41% of the vote in the first round, the latest polls show Marine le Pen losing out in Nord Pas de Calais-Picardie to Xavier Bertrand, candidate for the right of centre Les Republicains/UDI party.

This followed the withdrawal of the Socialist candidate in favour of a Republican front to block the FN. As a result, for the first time in 29 years, there won’t be one single Socialist councillor among the 170 making up the new region.

But if the FN is indeed beaten on Sunday, it will still cry victory says Joel Gombin, far-right specialist at Université de Picardie.

“Le Pen will say she’s a victim of an elite cabal, that her party lost only because the Socialists and the right joined forces,” he says. “It feeds into her claim that they’re interchangeable.”

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning

Keep up to date with international news by downloading the RFI app