The far-right leader’s supporters in her rust-belt heartland show few signs of turning to Nicolas Sarkozy in the runoff
Alain, a repair man, was up a ladder fixing shop signs and, as he put it, “working like a dog to earn 900 pounds a month and still barely feed the family”. But the 49-year-old couldn’t hide his good mood. In the heart of France’s northern rust-belt, in Marine Le Pen’s Henin-Beaumont fiefdom – a depressed, former coal-mining town struggling with high unemployment and factory closures – he called himself a typical extreme-right Front National voter: working class, poor and disillusioned with mainstream parties.
“She’s got this great way of speaking. It’s not all about being against Algerians, you know. It’s not all anti-immigration, it’s about spending power, making ends meet, the financial crisis and what to do about it. She wants to take France out of euro and back to the franc and I agree. Since the euro came in, my salary’s gone down and I can barely afford to go out or to the cinema.”
Henin-Beaumont in France’s Pas-de-Calais saw Le Pen top the poll with 35.48% of the vote in the first round of the French presidential election on Sunday night. It was her top score in a record night which saw the best showing ever for France’s extreme-right Front National. Alain, who is proud of choosing the extreme right but still didn’t want his real name printed, is one of the 6.4 million Le Pen voters who are now the kingmakers in deciding who becomes the next president of France. If the Socialist François Hollande topped the poll, beating the rightwing president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and gaining momentum for returning the left to the presidency for the first time in a generation, it is Le Pen whose high showing and third place now holds the election in the balance. What Le Pen’s voters now choose to do is crucial in the 6 May final runoff between Hollande and Sarkozy.
It has made the race tense and less predictable. The president needs Le Pen’s voters to massively line up behind him if he is to have a chance at re-election. But it is not certain they will. A large part of Le Pen’s voters are anti-Sarkozy and fiercely opposed to what they see as a lack of principles in the French political elite. “I can’t bring myself to vote Sarkozy, he’s lied so much, he stole Le Pen’s ideas then let us all down,” Alain said.
Pollsters divide on what portion of Le Pen’s supporters would vote Sarkozy in a second round. Some say around half, with one-quarter abstaining and one-quarter voting Hollande. Le Pen, who will hold a rally in Paris next week for the party’s annual May day and Joan of Arc memorial celebrations, is unlikely to push her voters to support Sarkozy. Her attacks on the president are scathing and she sees him as a busted flush, placing herself at the heart of drives to rebuild the French right after Sarkozy “implodes” at the election.
One senior Front National adviser said for Le Pen’s voters to chose between Hollande and Sarkozy would be like “voting for the plague or cholera”.
This uncertainty over the race for the extreme fringes and populist vote will set the tone for the remaining two weeks of the campaign. Sarkozy, whose resolutely rightwing campaign on issues such as too many foreigners and too much halal meat in France failed to win over Le Pen’s extreme-right voters in the first round, is now expected to lurch even further to the right to try to win them in the final runoff.
“Front National voters must be respected, they’ve expressed a choice. It’s a vote of suffering, a vote of crisis. Why insult them?” he told reporters outside his Paris campaign headquarters. He will push topics such as crime and security, immigration, tightening borders and protecting French people against the financial crisis, as well as what some of his advisers began hinting was “preserving” a “French way of life”.
In the last election in 2007, Sarkozy’s rightwing drive won over Le Pen’s voters, annihilated the Front National vote and left the party cash strapped and battling for its politicalsurvival.
Opponents now say Le Pen’s resurgence is an indictment of Sarkozy’s five-year term in office in which he failed to unite the right around him. Commentators say Le Pen’s surge is a bitter verdict on the fractured, divided nature of French society, driven by “fear”. But it cannot be ignored. Hollande also appealed to those voters, saying he “heard” their anger.
If Le Pen called her voters the “invisible” and “forgotten” of France, Sarkozy and Hollande’s campaign team are now working furiously to define who they are. Studies show Le Pen has attracted the working-class vote, more so than Hollande or the Socialist party; also that her supporters tend to be poor, unemployed or in precarious jobs. They are in rural areas and rural towns, or on the periphery of big cities. They have often been hit by the death of French industry and closing factories. Many were first-time voters. Le Pen did well in the Calais region but also in the former industrial areas of eastern France. She topped the poll in the southern department of the Gard, in the small towns around Nimes, seen as a holidaymaker’s paradise but hit by unemployment and tension against local people seen as having north African roots. She also did well in Corsica and moved her vote beyond her father’s traditional heartlands on the Cote d’Azur.
Much of her support in Henin-Beaumont in recent years has been built on disgust at the corruption scandals surrounding former leftwing leaders in the town. A 23-year-old who worked in record company and recently joined the Front National said she and her wide circle of Le Pen voting friends would abstain from the second round.
“I voted for her on crime and security, immigration and instating a system of ‘French preference’, where French people take priority over immigrants for jobs and housing.” She said the Toulouse shootings by 24-year-old Mohamed Merah, who said he was inspired by al-Qaida, had heightened concerns about crime and immigration. “I could never vote for Sarkozy, he has failed in all his promises. As for Hollande, he tries to say all is well and everyone is equal. That’s rubbish; they’re not.”
A Front National party worker who once worked in a long-closed textile factory said: “There’s no question of voting for Hollande or Sarkozy, they represent the system. Spoiling my ballot paper is the only option. Everyone I know thinks the same.”
A handful of Le Pen voters who had been at her rally in Paris last week showed how they were split. A 20-year-old, well-dressed, Catholic, business student who opposed abortion and gay marriage said he would now vote Sarkozy – “the only person protecting family values”.
A 50-year-old bank clerk said he would now vote Sarkozy to block Hollande and prevent “another Mitterrand ruining the economy”. But a 40-year-old public sector worker from the tax office, who complained about immigrants and people abusing the benefits system, said he would chose Hollande “to punish Sarkozy” and because he “can’t stand what Sarkozy is doing with job cuts to the public sector”.
“I voted Sarkozy in 2007. Never again.”