French Elections France's Valley of Political Desolation

Visiting French voters in the German border region, Alsace-Lorraine, to find out why they are the country’s biggest fans of the far-right Front National.
For many of the people feeling left behind in France's Grand East, Marine Le Pen provides an outlet.

There was a time when things were going well for workers in the French region known as the Grand Est, nestled between Belgium, Luxemburg, Germany and Switzerland. Steel mills and coal mines were producing at full capacity after the end of World War II, providing thousands of families with a steady income. Workers there were steadfast voters for left-wing labor parties.

But drops in global prices and declining demand for French steel saw the industry suffer. The first blast furnaces started closing in the 1980s. From there on, the decline has been steady, with one of the last sites shutting down in 2013.

The Grand Est includes the historic area of Alsace-Lorraine, one of the most disputed parts in French-German history. Known today as Alsace-Moselle, the Imperial Territory of Alsace-Lorraine was a region created by the German Empire in 1871 after it annexed the districts following the Franco-Prussian war. With a variety of German dialects being spoken in the area, German nationalists in the 19th century believed the region to naturally belong to the greater German empire.

But attachment to France stayed strong and after various upheavals throughout World War I, the region was returned to French control, verified by the 1919 peace Treaty of Versaille, which concluded the rivalry.

For today's population of Alsace-Moselle, these historic implications bear little relation to their daily struggles. Nowadays, the people of the Grand East are not just tired, they are angry. They feel betrayed.

Five years ago, citizens here helped the socialist politician, François Hollande, into the presidential office. Not least because his fiery speeches to the workers held at the last two remaining smelting furnaces in Lorraine gave them the feeling the furnace fires would not be going out any time soon.

But Mr. Hollande was unable to prevent closures. Instead, only seven months after his election, he struck a deal with steel giant ArcelorMittal, which had been running the last factories. The deal included jobs elsewhere or retirementand the company pledged to invest some $190 million across the region - which was not even close to what the workers had hoped for.

As a result, some 700 workers lost their jobs at the mills and more than 1,800 employees at local suppliers were left without work.

At this stage, you could put a sheep into the race with an FN sign around its neck, and people would vote for it. Gérard Léonardi, Mayor of Uckange

Following the closures, it took no more than a year for the first Front National (FN)  mayor to enter one of the region's townhalls. In 2014, Fabien Engelmann became the mayor of Hayanges, a town of some 15,000 people about 50 kilometers from the German border. Mr. Engelmann knows how to relate to his disgruntled constituents; people that feel left behind by a political elite in far-away Paris.

As on every Thursday morning, the 37-year-old FN mayor of Hayange swaps his desk in the town hall for one in the party office a few streets away. Everyone can meet Mr.  Engelmann here, even without an appointment, and joining the party is an unbureaucratic affair taking just a few minutes. The walls are covered with posters of Marine Le Pen, promoting slogans such as: 100 percent FN, zero percent immigrants.

Ms. Le Pen received a total of 27.8 percent of the votes in the region of Grand Est - one of the highest support rates in France and significantly higher than the 21.3 percent she received throughout the country, data by the French interior ministry showed.

"At this stage, you could put a sheep into the race with an FN sign around its neck, and people would vote for it," said Gérard Léonardi, the Socialist mayor of Uckange, a small town of 6,000 people, some 10 kilometers away from Hayange.

The region where towns such as Hayange and Uckange stretch along the shores of the Moselle river is also known as the "Valley of Angels," due to the towns' district endings in "ange," the French word for angel. But the area is not necessarily associated with devine creatures.

The valley of angels has become a symbol in France, much like the rust belt in the United States, with its industrial ruins dating back to the time of the steel boom. It was frustrated workers there who helped Donald Trump to victory, and it was disheartened workers in France's east that turned to Ms. Le Pen's promises in their resentment.

 

I am convinced that ordinary people, at least partly, vote FN as a last resort to collectively defend their identity. Didier Eribon, sociologist

Socialist politician, Mr. Léonardi, will do anything to prevent Ms. Le Pen from reaching the country's top position. Supporting him in this fight is Lionel Burriello, a trade union worker from Hayange. "I know very many people who are going to vote for the FN,” he said on market day in Hayange. Between the fruit and vegetable stands and the stands selling cheap kitchen utensils, he tried to talk people out of doing just that.

But with frustration running deep over false promises by previous French administrations, Mr. Léonardi might have a hard time convincing people to put their cross on the left side of the political spectrum.

According to Sylvain Crépon, a Paris-based researcher into extremism, the Socialist party has been hijacked by politicians from the educated bourgeoisie who never had a reason to fear economic or societal upheavals. But it is precisely these forces that lead people from the lower income brackets to look into the future pessimistically. "And pessimism is one of the main reasons people vote for the FN,” Mr. Crépon said.

Someone who experienced this change in his own family is the sociologist Didier Eribon. He grew up in eastern France as the child of working-class parents, whose class consciousness is traditionally much stronger than, for example, in Germany. "I am convinced that ordinary people, at least partly, vote FN as a last resort to collectively defend their identity,” he notes. In any case, they did it to maintain their dignity, Mr. Eribon said, "which, in their opinion, had always been trampled on – and now also by those people who used to represent and defend them.”

Part of that frustration are the complaints over a perceived "invasion" of migrants, Mr. Eribon said; foreigners that are perceived to steal the jobs of the white working class, while benefiting from state-sponsored child support, leaving less for the long-term residents.

At his office in Hayange, mayor Engelmann is venting his frustration over the government in Paris, which had forced him to accommodate asylum seekers in an empty hotel at the church square.

"When I demanded that police numbers be increased, when I complained about the deterioration of public services, when I fought for the emergency ward of the hospital in Hayange to be re-opened, I was told the state had no money for that,” Mr. Engelmann said. "But what I see is that the Socialist government can make money available very quickly, but only for the requirements of foreigners.”

But Mr. Engelmann provides few ideas on how to revive the desolate region. Instead, he oversees the transport of his constituents to campaign events by the Front National. In a hall filled to the last seat with some 1,000 patrons, a fiery Ms. Le Pen talked to her supporters about security and patriotism at a campaign event in late April, ahead of the first round of the presidential elections.

Ms. Le Pen has since stepped down as leader of the Front National, instead deciding to run as an independent candidate; a move she described as allowing her to rise above partisan considerations.

The decision is not expected to have an impact on her positions, however. At the campaign event in April, Ms. Le Pen talked at length about the desolate state of France's infrastructure and the plight of the country's social security budget, systematically plundered by migrants. Each of her talking points is met with a hurricane of applause and supporters chanting "On est chez nous", or in english, "we are at home."

 

Karin Finkenzeller and Silke Wettach are authors at WirtschaftsWoche, a sister puplication of Handelsblatt Global. To contact the authors: [email protected]