‘People are lost’: Voters in France’s ‘Trumplands’ look to far right

The deindustrialisation that fuelled Brexit and Donald Trump's rise to the White House has created fertile ground in eastern France's rust belt for far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

'People are lost': Voters in France's 'Trumplands' look to far right
France's rust belt, where voters "will either not vote or vote National Front. Photo: AFP

Towering above the Moselle valley in northeast France are two rusting testaments to the dashed hopes of Francois Hollande's presidency that loom large over the election of his successor next year.

Five years after steel giant ArcelorMittal snuffed out the last two blast furnaces in a crucible of France's heavy industry, the workers who fought to save their beloved “cathedrals”, as they call them, are still seething.

Lakshmi Mittal, the Indian billionaire owner of the sprawling steelworks that runs between the towns of Florange and Hayange, is the target of much of their ire.

But the ruling Socialists are also feeling the heat.

They are accused of betraying voters who elected Hollande on a promise to tame capitalism and keep the Florange fires burning.

“I will never again vote Socialist. Never. It's over,” said Lionel Burriello, a 39-year-old mechanic, who followed his Italian immigrant father into the steel mills.

“It was a shit job, toiling in the heat and the dust. But we took pride in it,” said the trade unionist, one of the 629 workers who were moved to jobs in the site's rolling mills or pensioned off under a 2012 compromise brokered by the government.

For Olivier Weber, another son of the valley who carried out the last smelting operation in October 2011, the loss of the hot steel mills robbed the region of a key marker of its identity.

“Seeing the furnaces is like seeing the graves of relatives in the cemetery. It's painful,” the 35-year-old said.

(Florange steel workers protest closure of furnaces. AFP)

When steel was gold

The deindustrialisation that fuelled Brexit and Donald Trump's rise to the White House has created fertile ground for far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who is hoping to pull off a similar upset in the April-May election on a protectionist platform.

More than 1.5 million manufacturing jobs have been lost in France in the past 25 years, with some of the country's best-known manufacturers like Peugeot and TGV high-speed train maker Alstom among those requiring a leg-up recently from the state.

Situated at the crossroads between France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany, the Lorraine region where the Moselle valley is situated has kept afloat thanks to a broad manufacturing mix.

But the signs of decline sparked by the crisis in Europe's steel sector, which claimed a steelworks in Gandrange in 2008, are starting to stack up.

“It's becoming a wasteland here,” said Gabriele Mariotti, the owner of a cafe on the main street of Hayange, a grey town at the foot of the blast furnaces.

“The gold in this valley was steel. Now there's nothing left. They sent it all overseas,” said Fernand, a scrap metal dealer and FN supporter whose son was among hundreds of people laid off from ArcelorMittal subcontractors in the past five years.

(French far-right Front National (FN) mayor of Hayange Fabien Engelmann)

Hayange made headlines when it dumped its longtime Socialist mayor for a young gun from Le Pen's National Front (FN).

Trade unionist Frederic Weber fears the FN could spring a similar surprise in the presidential election, which polls show ending in a duel between Le Pen and Francois Fillon, a Thatcherite conservative.

“People here are lost,” says Weber. “They tell us they will either not vote at all or vote FN.”

On a visit to Florange in October Hollande defended the five-year commitment he secured from ArcelorMittal in 2012 to preserve jobs and plough 180 million euros ($193 million) into the area in return for the mothballing of the furnaces.

“The battle was won,” Hollande declared — an assessment contested by theworkers, who resent him for overriding former economy minister Arnaud Montebourg's proposal to temporarily nationalize the site.

Last week, Hollande announced he would not stand for re-election, paving the way for his prime minister, Manuel Valls, to throw his hat in the ring.

“Whether it's Hollande or Valls, it's the same thing. It's just a change of packaging,” Weber said.

Globalisation's losers

Local Socialist lawmaker Michel Liebgott accuses “Made in France” champion Montebourg — who is also running for the party's presidential nomination — of perpetuating “a romantic vision of the working class that no longer exists”.

“In today's factories, people are sitting at computers,” Liebgott argues, calling for greater investment in training people to work in high-tech plants.

Burriello, who is running for parliament next year on a hard-left list, said voters drawn to populist candidates faced a choice between two “us-versus-them” programmes.

“With the National Front, it's us versus contract workers from other European countries. With the far left, it's us versus the financial oligarchy.”

The opportunities and pitfalls of Europe's open borders are on daily display in Lorraine, where 90,000 skilled workers commute across the border each day to Luxembourg for better wages, while the unskilled eke out a living at home.

It's a politically toxic cocktail for Liebgott, whose 20-year parliamentary career could be in jeopardy if he stands again in the general election in June.

“I'd be happy to make it to the second round,” he says.

by AFP's Clare Byrne

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Le Pen narrowly tops European election polls in France in blow for Macron

The far-right National Rally party led by Marine Le Pen finished top in European elections in France on Sunday, dealing a blow to pro-European President Emmanuel Macron.

Le Pen narrowly tops European election polls in France in blow for Macron
Marine Le Pen and Jordan Bardella. Photo: AFP

Results released on Monday morning by the Ministry of the Interior, which have yet to be formally verified and declared by the National Voting Commission, showed that the far right Rassemblement National (RN) party topped the polls with 23.3 percent of the vote, beating French president Emmanuel Macron's La Republique En Marche.

They were closely followed by Macron's party, which polled 22.4 percent.

Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron at a polling station in Le Touquet earlier on Sunday. Photo: AFP

The allocation of seats in the European Parliament has been complicated for France by the UK's delayed departure from the EU.

The Parliament had already decided that after Brexit, some of the seats that had been occupied by British MEPs would be reallocated to other countries, with France set to gain an extra five seats

However, last minute delays to Brexit meant that the UK had to take part in the elections, with the result that France will not gain its extra seats until Britain leaves the EU.

On last night's polling results, the RN will get 22 seats in the European parliament immediately, and an extra seat once Britain leaves.

Macron's LREM will get 21 seats now and 23 after the UK leaves.

The green party lead by Yannick Jadot was placed third with 13.4 percent of the vote, gaining 12 seats now and 13 after Brexit. 

The two parties that between them had dominated French politics for decades until the rise of Macron both polled in single figures. Nicolas Sarkozy's old party Les Republicains polled 8.4 percent, while the Socialist party of Francois Hollande was on 6.31 percent, winning them eight and six seats respectively.

Meanwhile the 'yellow vest' candidates scored just 0.54 percent of the vote, below the Animalist party which polled 2.17 percent.

Nathalie Loiseau with LREM party workers. Photo: AFP

Although a total of 34 parties fielded candidates in the European elections in France, the election had largely been framed as a contest between Macron and Le Pen.

Macron's La Republique En Marche party, its list headed by former Europe Minister Nathalie Loiseau, was contesting its first European elections.

Marine Le Pen, on the other hand, was hoping to replicate her 2014 European election victory with her Rassemblement National party, its list headed by a political novice, the 23-year-old Jordan Bardella. Bardella called the results a “failure” for the LREM ruling party and sought to portray Macron's defeat as a rejection by voters of his pro-business agenda in France and pro-EU vision.

Macron had made no secret of the significance he attached to the results, telling regional French newspapers last week that the EU elections were the most important for four decades as the union faced an “existential threat”.

Jordan Bardella, head of the RN list. Photo: AFP

He has jumped into the campaign himself in recent weeks, appearing alone on an election poster in a move that analysts saw as exposing him personally if LREM underperformed.

The score of the National Rally is slightly below the level of 2014 when it won 24.9 percent, again finishing top.

Le Pen had placed herself towards the bottom of the RN list, so she will be returning to the European Parliament, where she served as an MEP from 2004 to 2017.

Turnout at the polls in France was the highest in recent years, with 50.12 percent of people voting, significantly up from 35.07 percent in 2014.

Veteran France reporter John Lichfield said: “After six months of 'yellow vest' rebellion, that Macron list has 22 percent is respectable. Much better than President Hollande did in 2014 (14.5 percent).

“But he made the election all about himself and lost. His hopes of emerging as de facto EU leader or enacting more French reforms are damaged.”