Far-right parties expect to gain in vote for European parliament

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HENIN-BEAUMONT, France -- This former coal-mining town of 26,000 languishing in the economic badlands along the border with Belgium is about as far as you can get from the postcard image of this country as a land of wine and romance.

Street after street of red-brick row houses lie in the shadow of mountainous spoil tips left behind by long-dead mines that once attracted waves of migrant workers from Italy, Poland and North Africa.

Downtown, shuttered stores are common. Among those that survive, traditional patisseries and charcuteries -- bakers and butchers -- are outnumbered by Turkish fast-food joints plastered with garish photos advertising kebab and fries.

In the cafes, men wearing tracksuits drinking mid-morning beers are a reminder that the 17 percent unemployment rate is among the highest in France.

Since March, Henin-Beaumont has also been a National Front town. The ultra-nationalist party swept to a landslide victory in municipal elections, ending decades of left-wing rule.

Now, the party is hoping to repeat that success at a national level by harnessing voters' anger with the political mainstream to become France's biggest political party in the elections ending today for the European Parliament.

"They promised us prosperity, we got recession," party leader Marine Le Pen told supporters at a rally earlier this month. "They promised us strength, we got dependence and humiliation. They promised us security at Europe's borders, we got Romani camps and out-of-control immigration."

That kind of rhetoric is striking a chord across France. A poll Monday showed the National Front leading the pack, with 23 percent, ahead of the mainstream conservative opposition party, with 21 percent. The Socialists of President Francois Hollande had just 17 percent.

That picture was being repeated across much of the European Union, as its 380 million voters prepared to vote (or abstained, as many do) in the world's second-largest democratic selection after India's general elections. Elections began Thursday and continued through today.

Far-right parties and other radical new forces opposed to the European Union have been polling first or a close second in nine of the 28 EU countries, including Britain, Italy and the Netherlands.

In Britain, local elections that took place on May 22 showed gains by Nigel Farage's U.K. Independence Party, which wants to pull Britain out of the EU.

Anti-EU politicians are poised to more than double their share of seats in the Parliament to almost 20 percent, with post-communist parties also forecast to make gains. The results of the election, involving about 400 million eligible voters, are scheduled to be announced from 11 p.m. in Brussels tonight.

Initial exit polls from the Netherlands showed a setback for Geert Wilders's anti-EU Freedom Party, which may have come in fourth after targeting a first-place finish. That preliminary picture prompted cheers from backers of greater European integration.

Although there are a myriad of local factors at play across europe, the discontent that led Henin-Beaumont to embrace Ms. Le Pen helps explain why voters around the continent are looking for radical solutions. local voters say previous administrations' corruption and mismanagement are the main reasons for the rightward turn. There's much to complain about.

The long-serving Socialist mayor, Gerard Dalongeville, hiked local taxes 85 percent in 2004 in an effort to reduce one of France's highest levels of municipal debt. Five years later, he was dismissed by the national government amid a storm of corruption allegations before receiving a four-year prison sentence for embezzlement in August.

"The way the town was managed was catastrophic," says local teacher Paul Tondelier. "There was a huge disappointment with the Socialists, and people said at least the National Front people weren't involved in all those shenanigans."

At a national and European level, Ms. Le Pen and other radical leaders on the left as well as right have seized on voter dissatisfaction with traditional parties. Mr. Hollande has seen his popularity ratings plummet to 18 percent just two years after he was elected with 51 percent, by voters disenchanted with his center-right predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy.

With mainstream leaders across the spectrum failing to answer citizens' concerns over the stagnant economy and rising unemployment, the National Front is finding fertile ground for its kick-the-bums-out message, coupled with populist solutions such as a return to protectionist trade restrictions and tougher immigration controls.

Parties such as the Five Star Movement of rabble-rousing comedian Beppe Grillo in Italy and the far-left Syriza party in Greece have tapped into similar voter discontent to challenge for the top spot in their countries' European elections.

Attacking the European Union has become an even bigger vote winner. The French were once solid supporters of greater unity across the continent, dismissing euro-skepticism as an annoying eccentricity of their neighbors on the other side of the English Channel. Not anymore. Just 39 percent of French voters now think the EU is "a good thing," according to a poll published Monday by daily newspaper Le Monde.

Henin-Beaumont was ahead of the national curve. In 2005, 75 percent voted "no" in a referendum on a treaty designed to give more powers to the EU, compared with 54 percent nationally.

"Europe is really not popular here," says Christophe Le Couteux, a journalist with the regional newspaper La Voix du Nord. "There's a feeling that Europe does not defend jobs, that Europe supports neo-liberalism, that it favors factory closures. Europe is detached from people's lives."

Factory closures in the early 2000s were partly blamed on EU laws allowing companies to relocate to countries with cheaper labor costs. More recently, the EU has come in for criticism in France and across southern Europe for imposing austerity programs demanded by Germany and other northern nations in exchange for bailout programs.

Bloomberg News contributed.



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