December 12, 2015
Hénin-Beaumont | From the print edition
IT IS market-day in this red-brick former mining town in northern France. Stall-holders wrap up fat slices of rabbit terrine, or flog discounted hairspray and nail varnish. Outside the town hall, workmen are putting up wooden chalets for the Christmas market. Inside, the National Front (FN) mayor has installed a Nativity scene with life-size figures. French public buildings are meant to be strictly secular, but Steeve Briois insists he is just bringing back a French “tradition”. Last year he was elected mayor with 50.3% of the vote. On December 6th in the same town, Marine Le Pen, the FN leader running for president of the surrounding region, got 59%.
Ms Le Pen heads into the second round of regional elections on December 13th on the back of resounding first-round scores. The far-right FN came top countrywide with 28%, beating its previous national record of 25% in European elections last year, and more than doubling its result in regional elections in 2010. Her party finished first in six of France’s 13 regions, including some, such as Burgundy or the Loire valley, with no strong history of supporting the FN. In both Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie, where Ms Le Pen is running, and Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur in the south, where her niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen is the candidate, the party grabbed fully 40%.
Up to a point, the French saw this coming. Since she took over in 2011 from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the party in 1972, Ms Le Pen has racked up electoral successes. Polls have long suggested that she could top first-round voting at France’s next presidential vote, in 2017, securing a place in the run-off, as her father did in 2002. For months Manuel Valls, the Socialist prime minister, has warned that the FN is “at the gates of power”.
But France has been shaken nonetheless. Unlike Mr Le Pen, who traded in outrage and provocation (and whom she evicted from the party for it), Ms Le Pen is intent on appearing respectable—and on governing. The northern region alone is more populous than Denmark. Le Monde called the result an “earthquake”. Mainstream parties are scrambling for a way to thwart her. Mr Valls ordered three Socialist candidates who came third to step down (one refused), and urged voters to back the centre-right instead. For the long-ruling Socialists in the north, asked to tread pavements and hand out leaflets for the centre-right, this was a cruel defeat indeed.
Polls suggest the run-off will be tight, and the FN may struggle to win even a couple of regions. But that would still be historic. Should Ms Le Pen or her niece fail to win, the party will play the victim card and denounce the ruling elite for ganging up on it. In his turreted grey-stone town hall, Mr Briois says with a grin: “We win either way.” For these elections are part of a long-term strategy: to build up a network of local officials, and a record of government, as a stepping-stone to the Élysée Palace. An FN poster says it all: Marine, présidente.
To this end, Ms Le Pen has distanced herself from the ultra-nationalist and anti-Semitic rhetoric of her father and told her 11 FN mayors to concentrate on making their towns work properly. In Hénin-Beaumont, where she was once a councillor, the Nativity scene—a thinly veiled reaffirmation of Catholicism—is about the most controversial move by Mr Briois, along with a cut to subsidies for a human-rights group. The Christmas market is popular; so are policies such as installing more speed bumps. “He’s put in more flowers and mended the roads,” says Mahir Kurtul, who runs a Turkish kebab shop. “Maybe they want it to be a model for the FN.”
Le Pen, mightier than the scimitar?
Above all, there seems to be an urge for an alternative to the Fifth Republic’s two-party dominance. Recent crises over migrants and terrorism have played into Ms Le Pen’s hands. For years she has been treated as hysterical by polite society for railing against radical mosques and leaky borders. An FN election poster in the Paris region trades on fear of Islamism by portraying a woman in a face-covering burqa. Yet today it is a Socialist president, François Hollande, who has introduced a state of emergency, reintroduced border controls and shut down three Islamist mosques.
Still, there is also popular disillusion with the unkept promises of the Paris-based elite. Unemployment rose in the third quarter to 10.6%, its highest level for 18 years. The FN is now the most popular party among working-class voters and those who left school without qualifications—the “forgotten people of the republic”, says Ms Le Pen. Next to a former president (Nicolas Sarkozy, leader of the centre-right) and the current one (Mr Hollande), Ms Le Pen, who learned politics at her father’s knee, appears positively fresh. “We’ve tried the right, we’ve now got the left, why not try something else?” shrugs a voter at a café in Hénin-Beaumont.
The FN’s success in playing the people against the elites is confounding not only the left. Mr Sarkozy’s refusal to withdraw candidates in order to block the FN has dismayed those in the party who fear it hands the moral high ground to the left. Between Mr Hollande’s tough security line and Ms Le Pen’s anti-immigration agitation, Mr Sarkozy’s space has been squeezed. Whatever the final result, both left and right have some deep thinking to do. “People see Marine Le Pen as a life-belt,” says a forlorn Eugène Binaisse, the former left-wing mayor of Hénin-Beaumont. “It’s dramatic what’s happening to France.”