After two decades of dogged campaigning in a desolate corner of northern France, the far-right candidate Steeve Briois (pictured) has become the mayor of his home town and sparked national headlines.
The far-right National Front (FN) claimed historic support in municipal elections on March 23, advancing to the second round in dozens of races across France. While it is unclear that the anti-euro, anti-immigration party can win any of those runoffs, one of its candidates has staged a major victory before the second round even began.
Steeve Briois, 41, won his race in the town of Hénin-Beaumont with 50.25% of votes, just over the margin needed to avoid a second round poll. If the FN comes up empty handed at the end of the local elections, it will at least count him as one city mayor among its ranks.
Raised in a working-class family, Briois had spent 20 years eyeing city hall in Henin-Beaumont. The city of 27,000 inhabitants was firmly in the grip of left-wing parties before he was born.
As the final results of the first round were given on election night he was visibly overcome with emotion. “I’m thinking about my grandfather, who was a coal miner and CGT union organiser, and who died 10 years ago,” he told supporters.
First foray into politics
While the election of an FN candidate to the head of a small city has shocked many across France, political allies of Briois say there is nothing surprising about the feat. “When he sets a goal, he reaches it, even if it takes him five, 10, or 15 years,” the candidate’s campaign director, Bruno Bilde told reporters ahead of the ballot.
Briois joined the FN at the age of 15, reportedly after he watched a televised speech by the party’s founder and long-time leader Jean-Marie Le Pen in 1988. Unlike the charismatic Le Pen, the young political activist was bashful and a clumsy speaker. Briois likes to remember that he started canvassing for Le Pen as one of only three FN members in Henin-Beaumont at the time.
His first, unsuccessful stab at the mayor’s office came in 1995, when Briois was just 23 years old. He won a seat in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais regional council in 1998, but the post fell far short of his political ambitions.
His relationship with the FN faced a difficult challenge in 1999, when Bruno Mégret, one of the leading figures within the party, split with Le Pen over the party’s political strategy. Having chosen Mégret’s camp, Briois was shunned from the FN, but eventually returned to the fold.
Storming City Hall
Briois’ luck finally began to change in 2007. His constant political campaigning – even outside election periods – and steady progression in Hénin-Beaumont city council caught the interest of party bosses in Paris.
In 2007, Marine Le Pen, the daughter and chosen successor of the FN’s Jean-Marie Le Pen, accepted Briois’ invitation to run as his voting district’s candidate in national legislative elections. That same year, even while the FN suffered huge election setbacks, Briois was nominated to the party’s top central committee.
In the 2008 municipal elections, with Marine Le Pen firmly among his list of city councillors, Briois finally advanced to the second round of the ballot for the first time ever, but was unable to unseat the incumbent Socialist mayor.
One year later, by-elections were called in Hénin-Beaumont after the recently elected mayor was caught in a major corruption scandal. Briois finished first in the ballot, earning 39.34% support. But the mainstream right- and left-wing candidates united forces to defeat the FN candidate in the second round.
Only extraordinary political maneuvering by rivals kept Briois from taking over the mayor’s office in 2009. Five years later, he has avoided the same trap by winning the municipal election outright in the first round.
New ‘laboratory’ for the FN
While dogged determination lifted Briois to the position of mayor, his victory also owes much to a political environment that proved favourable to most FN candidates.
Widespread unemployment hurt candidates from the ruling Socialist Party across France. It is a problem that is particularly acute in northern towns like Hénin-Beaumont, where the shutdown of mines and heavy industry has depressed local economies for decades.
Briois told television network France 2 on election night that his priorities for his home town included tackling crime and lowering taxes.
While he is not considered one of the party’s political ideologues, Briois has taken strong anti-immigration stances in public. In a 2011 interview with French weekly l’Express he raged against north-African immigrants who speak among themselves in their native language. He is also in favour of re-instating the death penalty in France.
His historic victory on behalf of the FN has earned Briois the prominence he has long sought. It will also open him to an unprecedented level of scrutiny from the public and press. As he settles into the mayor’s chair in Hénin-Beaumont he has little room to make mistakes in this new “laboratory” of France’s far-right.
Date created : 2014-03-26