The hole in the centre ground: how France’s north-east coalfields turned to the populists

old cinema in Lens

This article is part of a series I wrote between the presidential and legislative elections in France.

When you arrive by train into the town of Lens and leave the station, opposite you stands the shell of the old Apollo Cinema (above). It opened in 1932 and in its time it hosted a whole host of contemporary stars such as Yves Montand, Coluche and Josephine Baker. It closed its doors on the 31 December 2000, but remains a dirty reminder of times gone by.

Lens used to be a stronghold for the centre-left Socialist Party, but this has changed too. The fate of the rustbelt town and the surrounding area exemplifies the political alienation felt by poor, rural areas, which swung towards the extremes in the recent presidential election.

In the first round of the election, Lens put far-right Marine Le Pen in first place and far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon second, ahead of centrist Emmanuel Macron, now president. The Socialists’ Benoît Hamon was left far behind. Both the far-right and the far-left have capitalised on the ex-mining town’s high unemployment rate and lack of self-esteem.

Relative to the rest of the country, Lens is very poor. The poverty rate is 32 percent, compared to 19 percent in the wider Nord-Pas-de-Calais region and 15 percent in Île-de-France, according to Insee, the French national statistics bureau.

The town of 30,000 lies in what is still known as the mining basin, even though the last lump of coal was brought up from underground in 1990. The lucrative industry took off in the area in the mid-19th century. Local business people put money into exploration companies, concessions to mine were granted, and villages were built close to the sites. The population of Lens rose from 2,796 to 24,370 in the fifty years from 1851.

Men worked in the mines; women worked above ground from the age of 12, unloading, sorting and cleaning. Once they married a miner they became a housewife. These wives were “always haunted by the fear of a husband, brother or child being killed in an accident,” according to a sleek information booklet for tourists.

The mines witnessed the big wars of the 20th century. The area was on the front line during the First World War and was occupied by the Nazis in the Second. The occupation of the mines saw strikes and patriotic resistance, met by arrests and deportations.

In 1945, Communist leader Maurice Thorez urged miners to redouble their efforts to help France’s recovery. General de Gaulle nationalised the mines, with a law enacted in March 1946. That year, the production target was set at 100,000 tons of coal a day.

A drive to rationalise and modernise the mines of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais basin brought about multiple closures: from 1945 to 1959 the number decreased from 109 to 60.

That number would only decline further over the next few decades as France committed to nuclear power. More than 200,000 mining jobs were lost in the basin from 1960 to 1990. However, the effect of the closures extended beyond unemployment.

According to Julian Perdrigeat, “the exploitation of coal is not just an economic activity.” Perdrigeat is the principal private secretary to Jean-François Caron, the current mayor of Loos-en-Gohelle, a town to the North-West of Lens.  The social and civic life which accompanied the industry deteriorated: football clubs, schools and hospitals were all linked to the mines.

BassinminierglobalNordPDC

On the face of it Lens today does not seem particularly run down. The streets are clean, there are few vacant spots on high street, and double-decker trains roll in and out of the station. It boasts a satellite of the Louvre museum. Despite the town’s size, its football club, Racing Club de Lens, won the national league 19 years ago. The team’s stadium (which could seat more than the entire population of the town) hosted matches in Euro 2016. The mining basin itself is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Nevertheless, Lens has an unemployment rate of 28 percent among 16-65 year olds, double that of the rate of France as a whole. Job growth in modern, post-indsutrial sectors like intellectual services, research and design, and the culture and leisure industry has been hindered by the difficulty in attracting highly skilled workers, according to Insee.

Marcel Caron, father of Jean-François and his predecessor as mayor of Loos-en-Gohelle, said the mine closures “were seen as a humiliating defeat, accompanied by a loss of hope and even by a feeling of public shame”. This despair has been seized upon by the far-right, who have upturned lifelong voting habits.

“It’s the first day of a new era,” declared Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front National (FN), on 30 March 2014.

Hénin Beaumont, a town to the east of Lens, had just elected Steeve Briois as mayor, handing the town hall keys to the FN. What a vindication for Marine’s dédiabolisation (detoxification) strategy to make the party more palatable to those outside its ultra-conservative base. It also showed the potential for the party to conquer bastions of left-wing support in the North East.

The rise of the populist right in a number of Western democracies has captured the world’s attention. Debate has focused on whether its appeal to the working classes comes from cultural anxiety – about themes such as immigration and national decline – or economic anxiety – themes such as closing factories and rising job insecurity.

Andrew Hussey, historian of France and professor at the University of London’s School of Advanced Study, thinks that the cultural and the economic anxieties go together in this part of France. He recently spent some time in Roubaix, about 40km from Lens next to the Belgian border. It is officially the poorest town in France.

“You can see the relics of this 19th century, early 20th century industrialism,” Hussey tells me. “But you just look over the border, and it’s the globalised economy of Amazon and Google and all these big warehouses.”

Hugues Sion became interested in the FN after noticing “that there was a serious crisis.” He met Briois armed with some proposals on business and unemployment: “I didn’t necessarily want to get involved with politics but I wanted to serve in some way.” However, he was duly asked to get involved, and did.

In 2014 he was elected as a councillor in Lens representing the FN. He is now running to be a member of parliament for the Lens constituency. After a local split he is not running under the party’s banner, but does claim to be supported by Marine Le Pen.

Sion does not come across as one of globalisation’s losers. He owns what he tells me is the oldest bar in the large nearby city of Lille. The bar is “a place where businessmen from the new economy – lawyers or architects – meet”.

I ask him if frustrations as a small business owner affected his politics, but he seems rather to have been drawn into far-right politics from a general worldview: “I’ve got no frustrations; that’s not the point. I’m just afraid because I feel that we’re not going in the right direction.”

Sion has travelled around Europe and asserts that “every country is being destroyed.” He tells me: “Even locally, I see that we don’t decide things anymore.” He mentions the branch of the Louvre museum, part-funded by the European Union: he believes one is forced either to accept where the EU wants to spend money, or to lose out. Politics at a European level “prevents us from acting by ourselves for ourselves”.

He tells me people in the region are attracted to the party because of “the conviction that France’s social structure is in decline”. For people in Pas-de-Calais, “the defence of borders, of the nation as a political framework, it’s essential.”

Immigration is one of the biggest issues associated with the FN, but it barely came up in our conversation until I asked Sion if it was a big concern in Lens. He said it was: immigrants “are coming while many of the people from Lens have no jobs, have got no decent homes”.

Hugues Sion

campaign literature for Hugues Sion

Caterina Froio is a Research Fellow at Oxford University who specialises in right-wing extremism and radicalism. She says how well the far-right do relates to the intersection between immigration and the economy. There are countries with high levels of migration but where the radical right is not strong, such as Spain and Portugal, and there are poor regions without a successful radical right, such as Sardinia.

Froio’s theory is that: “It is not the number of migrants that matter but it’s the perception that people have of immigration.” In the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region, “immigration is mainly perceived as an economic threat” in an area where there are high levels of unemployment among the native population.

Although Pas-de-Calais has a large population, there is no big city (Lille is in a neighbouring department). Sion believes this is one reason why the FN does well here: “We understand now that there is a divide between big cities and the countryside.” He says “Lille is getting everything, it’s attracting every business… the big cities are gaining everything.”

This is similar to the thesis of a prominent geographer who has found himself at the heart of political debate. Christophe Guilluy wrote a book about the two Frances: big cities which have prospered from open trade and borders, and the rest of France, which is left behind. As Perdrigeat tells me: “The mining basin, it’s not Europe, it’s not Erasmus, it’s not travel, people who leave to discover the world and who therefore feel they have a stake in globalisation.”

Sion thinks what is happening in Pas-de-Calais will spread to the rest of France. He tells me: “France is a country becoming under developed… we are at the avant-garde in Pas-de-Calais.”

Sion tells me FN voters “come from everywhere”: from all classes, and from the Communist party, the Socialist party and even the centre-right party, now called Les Républicains.

I ask Sion if some people who agree with the FN’s policies are put off by its reputation. “Yeah, it’s a long process.” When he was first elected, some people from other parties refused to shake his hand. Now some still refuse, but fewer. “We just like a dialogue so that they see that we are not the devil,” he says.

Has the party really has been detoxified? It was formed in 1972, uniting fundamentalist Catholics, neo-fascists and anti-immigrant populists. In between the two rounds of the presidential election, Marine Le Pen stepped down from the presidency of the FN. Jean-François Jalkh, the man selected to replace her as acting leader, pulled out after accusations he questioned the existence of Nazi gas chambers. Sion tells me that there is “no proof” of the allegations and that these arguments are used to put down the FN rather than attacking the substance of what they stand for.

Hussey thinks that focusing on racism, anti-Semitism and immigration misses what the party is at heart. He tells me: “Those things are all symptoms.” What the National Front is really all about is “a variant of national socialism, they’re fascist. And it doesn’t matter what clothes they wear.”

Froio sees it differently. She says that Marine Le Pen is part of the generation which was born well after the war and is further removed from the Holocaust. This means the anti-Semitism of her father is just not as relevant to her.

Froio believes that the party is now democratic and does not use a discourse of fascism or Nazism. It is, however, nativist, and essentially racist. She says Le Pen is an authoritarian “not in terms of ‘I want Adolph Hitler back,’ but ‘I want a society that is ordered, where there is no criminality, where there are no migrants, where privileges are reserved only for the natives.’”

A different vision for France, but one still far outside the mainstream, attracted the support of many others in Lens and elsewhere. The charismatic, Communist-backed Jean-Luc Mélenchon stood on a platform of a 100 percent wealth tax and, like Le Pen, wanted France to quit NATO.

Back in 2012, Mélenchon ran for president for the hard-left Front de Gauche coalition and got 11 percent in the first round nationally and 12 percent in Lens. This year he stood under his own movement, La France Insoumise (LFI). He received 20 percent in the first round nationally and 23 percent in Lens.

The word insoumise (unbowed) was well-chosen, as the opposite of being insoumise is being in a state of soumission (submission). This is at the heart of the paranoia gripping the country: France is being forced into submission, whether by radical Islam (the fear on the far-right) or extreme capitalism (the fear on the far-left). It was even the title of the best-selling book by Michel Houellebeqc released in 2015. Soumission tells the story of France exhausted by hyperactive consumerism voting in an Islamist president in 2022.

Froio says Mélenchon supporters tend to have a medium to high level of education, to be able to speak several languages, and not to be among the losers of globalisation. He also attracts ethnic minorities and young people in the public sector. She says his supporters tend to participate more in politics than supporters of the far-right.

One of those Mélenchon has inspired is Mickael Khammar, who coordinated a local group of activists during the campaign. I had an espresso with him in a slightly dingy café opposite the Lens train station on the day of the first round of the election.

Khammar is a bus driver who grew up in Lens with a sick mother. His older sister did everything for him. His mother got by on a pension of 800 euros, but still always helped others. “This forged me a lot”, he told me. He was imbued with the idea of “the collective before everything”.

Khammar said in LFI “everyone [is] on the same level”. In the movement “you have to learn, and that is what I like.” From talking to him I could tell one of his passions was foreign policy, a subject on which Mélenchon received a lot of scrutiny during the campaign.

The candidate opposed sanctions on Russia for its annexation of Crimea, and wanted to take France into a Latin American union – Alba – set up by Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez. Khammar described Mélenchon’s position as being that “France needs to be independent. That means that it must not just fall into line with anyone.”

Photo 23-04-2017, 10 39 00

Mickael Khammar

Khammar thinks people have turned to the FN “because they are disgusted”. He told me “our goal with La France Insoumise is to bring them back.” He persuaded colleagues who used to vote for the FN to vote for Mélenchon, through discussions, showing them videos of the candidate and taking them to rallies.

Even those who do not support Mélenchon acknowledge his charisma and appeal. He addresses his supporters in long, fluent monologues on YouTube, allowing him to bypass a supposedly biased media.

The previously dominant Socialist Party “is a sinking ship”, Khammar said. Its place on the left was taken by what looks to some like an egalitarian, democratic movement, but to others like a personality cult.

Hussey believes Mélenchon’s LFI movement is dangerous: “It’s not based on an idea, it’s not based on anything as concrete as policies, it’s based on emotions, ‘How do you feel about this leader?’”

I asked Khammar what he would do in the event of a second-round run-off between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, which turned out to be the result. He said he thought he would submit a ‘vote blanc’ (where you fail to select a candidate) or just abstain. He did not agree with either candidate, and told me “I promised myself that I would vote for, rather than against.”

Khammar said after people voted tactically for the mainstream left-wing candidate François Hollande over right-wing Nicolas Sarkozy in 2012, “there was a form of politics which was disastrous, and we suffered.”

It is a sense of suffering not just over the past five years, but over decades, which has led the mining basin, along with similar areas all over France, to vote for the radical alternatives. With Macron winning comfortably against Le Pen in the second round of the election (64 percent to 34 percent) it is clear that the mining basin is not representative of most of France. However, if the new president cannot address the sense of despair in areas like this, the threat of populism will not go away.

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