Rural French Voters Embrace Marine Le Pen’s Far Right Vision

TThe door to the tiny white house slowly opens at the sound. It is then flung open. Jean-Luc Henault, a 65-year-old pensioner smiles broadly at the election campaigner on his doorstep, who is clutching leaflets for France’s far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen. “I am definitely voting for Marine,” he says, speaking on April 13—just a few days after Le Pen and centrist President Emmanuel Macron made it to the second round of the presidential elections. “Macron promised to change France, but that has not happened in five years.”

Henault, who is disappointed with Macron in Beaucamps-le-Vieux (a former industrial center three hours north from Paris), isn’t the only one. Le Pen, an anti-immigrant hardliner, won the first round in this small village where only 786 votes were cast. Le Pen won twice as many votes as Macron, and four times as many as Henault’s once-favored politician, far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Henault is like so many others who have switched from far left to far right, ignoring the republicans and traditional socialists.

A tiny minority will not be able to make a significant impact on a nation of 67million people when Macron and Le Pen face off in an April 24 run-off vote for French president. Yet even so, it is the deep challenges in communities much like this one—declining public services, and limited job prospects—that could help determine whose vision of France finally prevails.

Polls suggest Macron will win another five years in the Elysée Palace in Sunday’s race, with about an eight-point lead over Le Pen. However, the distance between the two men has been razor thin in recent weeks. And it’s much smaller than the 32-point margin Macron had over Le Pen in 2017, underscoring the exceedingly high stakes in this election not only for France, but for Europe and the U.S. too.

Macron (44), a former investment banker and youngest president of France, has advocated for an E.U. that is more powerful since his election five years ago. Macron has been a strong advocate for a more powerful E.U. globally. He even closes his rally with it. anthem, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” He has streamlined France’s labyrinthine labor laws, making it much easier to hire and fire staff, and to launch innovative businesses, in what he deems the “start-up nation.” He also says he intends to raise the public-pension age from 62, perhaps to 65.

Learn More Emmanuel Macron is on track to win re-election. It could be more difficult.

Le Pen, aged 53, has a different platform. Le Pen promises to cut the sales tax on oil and gas as well as electricity. He also plans to scrap income taxes for many young French workers. And raise the minimum wages by 10%. She is also vowing to defy the E.U.’s core rules, by giving French citizens preference for jobs, housing, and welfare benefits; imposing border controls around France; drastically cutting immigration; and blocking Muslim practices like wearing headscarves in public, and traditional Halal meat slaughtering. (Macron has also cracked down on what he regards as extremist Mulsim preaching, drawing fierce criticism from France’s large Muslim population.) Le Pen also wants to block the E.U.’s Russia sanctions and repair relations with President Vladimir Putin. It is possible for France to decide to quit the E.U., she suggests. It could break down the bloc completely, which would likely reshape Western alliance.

The political struggle sounds familiar to both Americans and Europeans. Like Donald Trump’s presidential victory in 2016, and the successful Brexit referendum that same year, which resulted in the U.K.’s withdrawal from the European Union, the contest feeds on profound economic shifts.

Just like Trump, Le Pen is supported by some wealthy voters. Perhaps this was evidenced at her first round electoral celebration held April 10th, in an exclusive party venue. It featured lots of gourmet food, customized beverages, and plenty of personalized entertainment Champagne bottles labeled “Marine Présidente.”

Le Pen, however, has been able to tap into the deep feeling of abandonment that millions of French citizens feel, particularly those of white working class. With fewer educational qualifications and dependent on factory jobs, these voters feel they have been left badly trailing by globalization and the tech revolution–and see their leaders as uninterested or incapable of reversing their decline. Travel around the once-manufacturing hubs of France, and one can imagine being in parts of the U.S. Midwest or Britain’s Lincolnshire.

Le Pen’s campaign slogan, “give the French back their country and their money,” echoes the nationalism of Trump’s “America first” and the Brexit slogan “take back control”, which helped drive those campaigns to victory. “The parallels are striking,” Stéphane Bussard, journalist for the Swiss newspaper Le Temps and author of a book on Trump, wrote on April 12. “Several economic, social, and political conditions favorable to [Le Pen] strongly resemble those which allowed Donald Trump to be elected to the White House in November, 2016.”

These conditions will remain, even if Le Pen wins on Sunday. In some ways, France’s far-right has already won, by becoming a viable force in mainstream politics. With 10.6 million voters choosing Le Pen, Macron won 20.7 million. Polls suggest she might win 40% or more this time.

Learn More What a Marine Le Pen Victory in France’s Elections Could Mean for the War in Ukraine

Ironically, Macron himself set the scene for France’s drift to the political extremes. The French president launched his own party centrist in 2016. This is roughly The Republic on the Move. It has overthrown the main socialist and republican parties which ruled France for many decades. These traditional party leaders combined polled only 6.53 percent of votes by April 10, leaving their campaigns at risk of being bankrupt.

For millions of French, just recovering from the pandemic and facing 4.5% inflation—the highest rate in a generation—Le Pen’s message has hit home. Of the 12 candidates on April 10, Le Pen won more than 8 million votes, 23% of the total—and just 3.7% behind first-place Macron. Together with votes for anti-Muslim pundit Éric Zemmour, nearly one in three French voters cast their support for the extreme right. (Far-left Mélenchon won a further 22%, by promising to curb price increases and expand public benefits.)

Le Pen ran an unabashedly antiimmigrant and rabble-rousing campaign when she last faced Macron. This time, armed with a relaxed smile, she has been barnstorming across France as a working-class champion, bemoaning people’s economic struggles, and the rising cost of living—which polls say is voters’ top priority. Campaign buttons and posters, and her voters, call her simply “Marine,” handily distancing her from her initial mentor, her father, the rabidly anti-immigrant right-winger and convicted Holocaust denier Jean-Marie Le Pen.

In the village of Beaucamps-le-Vieux, it’s clear why Le Pen has been able to make inroads. The area was once a major manufacturing hub, including factories that made metal chairs and a long-standing textile industry. Almost all of the plant’s production stopped or was moved to China in the 1980s. According to statistics from government, the unemployment rate in this community is around 21%. This figure is more than twice the national average.

“I worked from the age of 15, in three different textile factories,” says Henault. A lifelong Communist, Henault backed far-left Mélenchon on April 10, drawn to his platform of expanded welfare. Henault believes there’s little that separates left-wing ideas from Le Pen’s, who he claims cares for poor people as himself. By contrast, he says, Macron embodies Paris’s disconnected elite. “I have a pension of €1,000 ($1,080) a month,” he says. “It is impossible to make ends meet.”

These stories are not uncommon in the northwest France region, where closures of factories have become an everyday part of daily life. “There are two Frances: The rural France, the forgotten France; and Paris,” says Philippe Théveniaud, 60, a retired trade-union official, who has been campaigning for Le Pen in Beaucamps-le-Vieux. “Paris is totally disconnected from the reality beyond it.”

In 2014, hundreds of workers lost their jobs when the U.S. tire company Goodyear shut its factory in Amiens, a nearby city and Macron’s hometown. The U.S. appliances giant Whirlpool made the decision to close its Amiens clothes dryer plant and relocate production to Poland. Poland has lower wages and taxes than France and is still part of the E.U. The move became a major political flashpoint, with Le Pen seizing on it to rage against the E.U.’s borderless labor market. Macron and her both pledged to protect the 290 factory job.

Five years on, the sprawling Whirlpool factory sits abandoned—so empty that I was able to walk through its open entrance one afternoon, and up into vacant offices, with leaves and papers scattered about, and no one in sight.

Macron has not been able to stop the factory closures as President—and there is little reason to believe Le Pen would have any more success. Amcor, an Australian plastic-wrapping firm, closed its Amiens factory and laid off 124 employees. It then moved production to Portugal at a lower cost. The Japanese tire company Bridgestone closed the plant 60 miles north-east of Amiens, leaving 863 jobless.

“Many among us feel that these past five years have been catastrophic under Macron,” says Patrice Sinoquet, 59, a former Whirlpool worker who fought unsuccessfully to save the factory. In 2018 and 2019, he joined the yellow-vest movement—a nationwide protest movement centered on economic hardship, which rocked France for months, and severely rattled Macron’s presidency. “Between the inflation and the cost of living, and the retirement age, it is a disaster,” Sinoquet says.

This sense of catastrophe is not easily understood by many in Paris, the capital city. On paper, France’s economy is booming, with 7% growth last year, and a 7.4% unemployment rate, the lowest in 13 years.

Macron’s election campaign trumpets all of this. However, for those in the midst of factory closures, little growth around them and a shrinking rural population, it seems impossible to believe that the boomtime has arrived. This is especially true when you consider the 20% who live in rural areas. “It is something nobody really feels,” says Emmanuel Rivière, head of international polling for Kantar Public in Paris. “There are many stories, true stories of real people, who have lost their jobs.”

That disconnect has fueled the anger against Macron—and turned it deeply personal, as voters accuse him of dismissing their concerns. “This is the first time, thanks to you, that I’m going to vote for Marine Le Pen,” one man shouted at Macron, inches from his faceThe French leader, who was greeting the voters in a busy street close to Strasbourg during his campaign stop, made this comment. “You are Machiavellian, you are a manipulator, you are a liar,” the man cried. Macron briefly became stunned and fell silent before defending his record, saying he was ready to discuss the issue.

For weeks, Macron has urged voters to block Le Pen’s path to power, warning them that a far-right victory would spell disaster for Europe, and threaten France’s standing in the world. “Don’t heckle them, beat them on April 24!” he told an election rally on April 16, standing in the dazzling sun in the port district of Marseille. Similarly, the far-left leader Mélenchon, in his concession speech after the first-round election, implored his seven million voters to “not give a single vote to the extreme right,” in the run-off on April 24.

The pollster Rivière says those pleas to stop Le Pen are having some effect, as she appears unable to overtake Macron. Riviere believes the reason for Le Pen’s shortfall is a deep suspicion among French of extremism. “If Marine Le Pen was not still the representative of the extreme right, there would be no doubt about her election,” he says.

However, it’s not known if many voters will opt to stay at home and vote for Macron.

After the April 10 vote, students at Paris’s Sciences Po and Sorbonne universities staged sit-ins and protests over the lack of left-wing candidates left in the race. Some conservatives say they won’t vote for Macron, while others are angry at the left. “I’ve fought against Emmanuel Macron’s politics his whole term,” says Stéphane Le Rudulier, a local representative in the South of France for the traditional mainstream center-right Republicans party, which won just 4.8% in the April 10 vote. According to him, he won’t vote Sunday. “I can’t see myself falling into his arms now.”

And up north in Beaucamps-le-Vieux, the former textile worker Henault has rejected the call from his hero, the far-left Mélenchon, to block Le Pen. “He does not control my vote,” he says, explaining why he will vote for Le Pen. “And it cannot be worse.”

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