As municipal and European elections approach, France’s far-right party the National Front is poised for another strong showing. Rural areas are key to the party’s strategy: economic decline and feelings of neglect in the countryside have been fuelling the National Front’s renaissance.
Our assignment was to understand why the far-right is making strides in rural areas. So we headed out for the “Meuse”, a department in the east of France where the party traditionally does well.
To our initial surprise, villagers readily expressed their support for the National Front, even on camera. “We’re 100 percent for Marine Le Pen around here”, smiled one supporter as we approached. “I’m not afraid to say so, and I always will!”
“I hope the National Front gets elected and changes things”, explained another, “because left and right haven’t done anything. They’ve made things worse!”
Not so long ago, voting for the far-right was taboo. Pollsters even had to adjust their forecasts and factor in a nationwide tendency to hide one’s sympathies for the National Front.
But that was before.
Before Marine Le Pen took over from her father Jean-Marie Le Pen and set out to overhaul the party’s image. Once chastised for promoting xenophobic ideas, the National Front has polished its message. “People get it all wrong”, says Michel, a local businessman and long-time supporter, who insists that times have changed and the party is no longer racist.
So why do people turn to the far-right?
The list of reasons given by voters is endless: joblessness, taxes, increasing isolation in the villages, crime, fear of immigration, disappointment in the mainstream parties, feelings of neglect by the government, or simply a desire for change.
The National Front is successfully casting itself as an answer to the country’s many frustrations, a standard-bearer for those who are frustrated by the current state of politics. And in times of economic crisis, with unemployment at near-record levels, there is no shortage of frustration and disappointment.
Consider the employees of Sodetal, a steel-making factory which has been churning out high-quality cables in its Tronville-en-Barrois headquarters for almost half a century. New owners are mulling a possible shutdown of the factory. More than 300 employees may soon be without a job and their chances of finding new employment in the region are low.
“Unemployment breeds despair”, says Ralph Blindauer, a lawyer for the CGT trade union. “When people are desperate they look for someone to blame, and they tar all political leaders with the same brush. Obviously those who benefit are those who’ve never been in power”.
At a Sodetal gathering, many of the workers we met were considering voting for the National Front. Over the years, Jerome Leroy has thrown his support toward both ends of the French political spectrum and places in between – socialists, conservatives, the far-right – and he plans to vote for the National Front once again. His reason: he feels the government is wasting too much money on handouts for the poor, and not doing enough to save companies like his.
As businesses close down, the feeling of isolation in the villages grows. David Kobilansky used to be a member of the conservative UMP party but he recently switched to the National Front. Mostly, he says, because he feels the countryside has been abandoned by the government. “There used to be barber shops nearby, grocery shops… all the little things that made up the social life around here. Now there’s nothing! The village shops are disappearing, the barbers are closing. We’re losing everything, and we’re forced to travel further to get services”.
A final example sheds further light on the party’s widening appeal: that of Daniel Klaus, a well-spoken farmer in the Meuse who has had a successful career and still owns ten acres of land. Klaus is hardly the picture of a downtrodden, disenfranchised voter. Yet at age 77 he is about to vote for the National Front for the very first time. Why? Because burglaries are on the rise. He feels his tranquil way of life is under threat. And with mainstream parties failing to provide a solution, he wants to sound the alarm bell. A protest vote, known in France as a “vote de contestation”.
One ballot at a time, the protest vote is swelling. The National Front is ready to reap the rewards: according to a recent IPSOS poll, Marine Le Pen’s party may come out on top in May’s European elections.