Focus on French Economy Fuels Gains by Far Right
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ABBEVILLE, France -- This small city in northern France has few immigrants and little crime. But in the last local elections here, the candidate of the far-right National Front eliminated the standard-bearer of President Nicolas Sarkozy's party in the first round of voting and then won 30.2 percent of the vote in the runoff, losing to a Socialist.
With the presidential election less than three months away, Mr. Sarkozy's party fears the same results on a national scale. The president is facing strong competition on the right from the National Front and its leader, Marine Le Pen, and his party is worried that she may eliminate the sitting president in the first round of voting on April 22.
What is most striking is how well she and the party are doing not only in the south of France, where immigration and radical Islam are traditional issues, but here in the post-industrial north, where the issues are more economic: unemployment, factory closings, competition from inside the enlarged European Union, from Poland and Slovakia, and from outside, particularly China.
In Abbeville, a city of 25,000 on the Somme River, numerous jobless workers who say they feel betrayed by the European Union, globalization and deindustrialization are turning not to the Socialist Party, but to the National Front, which promises a kind of patriotic focus on French jobs, French pride and French money. Some who once voted Communist now join others who are traditionally on the right -- like the hunting and fishing lovers who abound here -- to support Ms. Le Pen.
There are, of course, those who insist that France is being polluted by immigration and undermined by Islam. Anti-Semitism, however, an underlying theme of the party's founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, has been disavowed by Ms. Le Pen, his daughter. She concentrates more on Islam and those who, she says, refuse to assimilate to French habits, laws and culture, including secularism and gender equality.
"The motivations for a vote for the National Front are very diverse," said Nicolas Dumont, 35, the Socialist mayor of Abbeville. "It can be a way to say 'stop'; it can be a way to" express fury, he said, using a vulgar term.
"It's a way to make things move," he added. "It's the cry of victims, of people who think they can find easy solutions to difficulties."
Mr. Dumont, elected in 2008, is a local Socialist star. He thinks that Mr. Sarkozy's efforts to co-opt the voters of the National Front, which worked in the 2007 election, have since served to normalize the party and its discourse. "There is a porosity of themes and ways of speaking on these topics that has removed inhibitions," he said.
"My real fear is that Ms. Le Pen won't come in second in the first round, but that she will come in first," Mr. Dumont said. His expectation, of course, is that the Socialist Party's candidate, François Hollande, will then have an easier path to the presidency in the May 6 runoff.
Ms. Le Pen, because she is a woman and, at 43, a fresh face with less baggage than her father, has been easier for voters to support, Mr. Dumont said.
The northern province of Picardy remains important for French industry, but Abbeville does not. There are few immigrants because there are few large factories, and one of the last, the Beghin-Say sugar works, closed in 2009. The reason, Mr. Dumont says, as the National Front charges, is "Europe" -- beet-sugar quotas were shared with new members of the European Union, reducing the French quota, and the sugar factory, its chimney still prominent on the horizon, is empty.
"The National Front doesn't need propaganda; it attracts people naturally, as a protest vote," said Robert, 56, a bus driver who declined to give his last name. "There's a complete loss of bearings," he said, getting a kebab. "We don't believe in politicians anymore. There's a rejection of the political class. People are refusing both left and right and go toward the extremes."
Eric Rambure, 38, said, "The system is spoiled." He will not vote, he said; his wife cannot find a job, and his father-in-law was laid off. "Everyone is worried," he said. "There's no work."
Jean-Yves Camus, a political analyst who is an expert on the National Front, said the party was the strongest advocate of state control in Europe, attracting a generation that experienced the economic boom of the 1950s and the current decline.
It remains "the last party to represent a revival of the state, based on industrial value and injection of public money," Mr. Camus said, making it seem to some the true inheritor of Gaullism.
The leftist newspaper Libération caused a fuss here last month with a long article about Abbeville, describing it as a prototypical French town, white, peaceful and provincial, embracing the National Front. A front-page headline in the local newspaper, Le Journal d'Abbeville, asked "Abbeville, City of Racists and Rednecks?"
Local leaders of the National Front think the article was exaggerated. Michel Chevalier, 63, is the party's treasurer for the Somme district. "It's a very Parisian view," he said. "There are very few rednecks and racists here." People are turning to his party "because they are disappointed with both the politicians and the unions," he said.
Workers "are sick of paying for people who aren't working, and I'm not speaking just of immigrants," he said. But immigration is an issue, said his colleague, Christian Mandosse, 51, who runs a party Web site. People are tired of "France importing the unemployed and their families," he said, especially those who do not share French "culture, values and religion."
Mr. Chevalier, who voted for the Socialist François Mitterrand as president, said that "people are so fed up there's potential for political revolution." The party officials denounced what they said was the effort of Mr. Sarkozy's party to deny Ms. Le Pen enough signatures to get on to the ballot.
"It's not democracy when you deprive people of the right to speak or vote for whom they want," Mr. Mandosse said.
They believe that Ms. Le Pen will get at least 25 percent of the vote in the first round and could run ahead of Mr. Sarkozy and even Mr. Hollande.
Emanuel Ozanon, 38, who runs the restaurant Le Charlotin here, said he was considering a vote for Ms. Le Pen. "There's a lot of insecurity and sadness, a sense of no solution and that it's time for real change," he said. "I'm not a very political person. But I understand what's happening. Hollande is full of hot air, and she has the ambition to change things."
Mr. Dumont concedes that voters are fed up. "There's a loss of faith in the capacity of both the right and the left to change their lives," he said. Part of the failure, he admits, belongs to his own Socialist Party -- "Since 1995 we have not known how to talk to these people." But what consoles him, he said, is the unpopularity of Mr. Sarkozy.
"There's a real will to reject Sarkozy and kick him out, like I've never seen before," he said, then smiled a bit. "It's easier to say 'stop' then to say 'again.' "
Maïa de la Baume contributed reporting.
First Published February 6, 2012 12:01 am