Impoverished and 'abandoned' Calais turns to far-right National Front
The crisis-hit northern French city of Calais is at the epicentre of far-right National Front (FN) leader Marine Le Pen's seemingly unstoppable drive to become an indelible part of the mainstream French political landscape.
Blighted by chronic unemployment and widespread poverty, the port city is also home to the notorious “Jungle” camp on the outskirts of town, home to some 6,000 migrants who dream of making it across the channel to England. On the streets of the old city of Calais, the migrants are few and far between. They tend to stay in the “Jungle” and when they do venture into town, most try to keep a low profile.
Just a few days before Sunday’s critical regional elections, there is little sign of the National Front across the city. Campaign posters of the far-right party, as well as its charismatic leader, Marine Le Pen, are almost non-existent and there are no party members or volunteers campaigning in the streets.
The party doesn't even have a permanent office in a town that was a Communist bastion for four decades until 2008.
And yet, in the December 6 first round of regional elections, 49% of voters in Calais cast their ballot for anti-Europe and anti-immigrant Le Pen, who is standing for presidency of the large Nord-Pas-De-Calais-Picardie region. She won a record 40% across the region.
Her success rattled the French political establishment. The ruling Socialists have withdrawn their candidate in a desperate bid to improve the chances of Xavier Bertrand, the mainstream conservative candidate for the region, knocking out Le Pen in Sunday's run-off. The Socialist withdrawal is a drastic measure as it means the ruling party will not have any seats in the new regional assembly.
Amid palpable anger at the government for failing to resolve the twin issues of poverty and a migrant situation that many blame for destroying an already moribund local economy, the outcome of this gamble is far from certain.
‘The media, especially in Britain, has killed us’
The townsfolk of Calais are conspicuous by their openness and readiness to talk. Most of those who spoke to FRANCE 24 said they felt sympathy for the obvious FN target: the residents of the “Jungle” who hail overwhelmingly from Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.
They have had plenty of time to get used to migrants, who have been using Calais and the region around it as a staging post to enter the UK illegally since the Balkan wars of the mid 1990s.
But the locals' patience has been stretched since July, when hundreds of these desperate young people (mostly men) repeatedly tried to storm the entrance to the Channel Tunnel.
The chaotic and sometimes violent scenes made front pages worldwide, and Calais became one of the dominant news stories of the summer, particularly in the migrant-wary UK.
Local businesses told FRANCE 24 the negative image of the city portrayed in lurid (and, they insist, untrue) news reports of dangerous gangs of roaming migrants, has emptied the city of mostly British tourists and lorry drivers who now prefer to eat, drink and stock up on cheap booze in more convenient and “safer” locations.
“Calais has always been very dependent on a British clientele,” Gilbert Poinsenet, the 70-year-old owner of the Mirador restaurant in central Calais, told FRANCE 24.
Indeed, thousands of cars and lorries use Calais' Eurotunnel and the ferry services every day to cross between northern France and Kent on the English side of the Channel.
But in two days, FRANCE 24 did not see a single British license plate in central Calais. Boarded-up shops and empty bars and restaurants are abundant, however.
“The media, especially in Britain, has killed us,” said Poinsenet. “Since the summer, I've lost 49 percent of my turnover. It is a disaster.”
'We are on our knees'
Things were already bad for Poinsenet before the migrant situation in Calais exploded this summer.
Since the start of the economic crisis in 2008, he says he has laid off five of his six employees, and now runs his restaurant with his wife and a cook. The latest crisis is the straw that has – almost – broken the camel's back.
“I don't blame the migrants, they aren't aggressive and I do feel sorry for them,” he said. “But I want to retire. My restaurant has been on the market for two years, but not one person has expressed any interest. I am 70 years old and penniless. Here in Calais, we are all on our knees.”
Poinsenet holds the regional and national authorities responsible for failing to help struggling businesses and to promote a city which is bypassed, and ignored, by thousands of passing travellers every day.
“They have no new ideas, they do nothing and people are totally fed up,” he said, adding that he would not vote on Sunday because “these politicians aren't interested in us, they just want to exploit our fears and get elected”.
Poinsenet's chef, Sebastien, 28, said he was not a natural FN supporter – but was nevertheless “delighted” the FN had made such spectacular gains in the December 6 first round.
“I'm not at all surprised Le Pen did so well,” he said. “In fact I'm delighted. It was a powerful protest vote against [President François] Hollande and the political establishment. If they don't listen to us, if they do nothing to help us, they will be punished at the ballot box.”
“There is nothing left here and nothing is being done to make Calais a more attractive place for tourists and travellers,” he added. “It's no wonder there is some racism here. The migrants are looked after and plenty of money is spent on them. What about us?”
'Le Pen was the only politician who contacted us'
It is this sense of abandonment that pushed Gérard Régnier to turn away from the conservative Les Républicains (formerly UMP) party he has supported all his life, and throw his weight behind Le Pen.
Régnier runs a demolition business from his mother-in-law's property on the Chemin des Dunes, right next to the “Jungle”. Getting in and out of the property means running the gauntlet of omnipresent riot police (good-natured and smiling, but dressed for action at all times) who surround the camp day and night.
“When the camp was established [in March 2015 to consolidate other camps dotted around Calais] we applied for financial help to improve security,” he said. “Absolutely nothing was done for us. So we had to install fences, an electric gate and security cameras at our own expense,” he said.
“Marine Le Pen was the only politician who actually contacted us,” he added. “No one else did. We were left to our own devices.”
Régnier says he is not an “old school” FN supporter, and would never have voted for the overtly racist and anti-Semitic party founded by Le Pen's father Jean-Marie Le Pen, who was expelled from the party in August 2015 for repeatedly expressing anti-Semitic views.
“I'm not like that,” he said, looking gloomily out of his mother-in-law's kitchen window as bulldozers levelled off a huge new area of the camp where 125 converted shipping containers are due to be installed as semi-permanent homes for the migrants.
“But I want France's borders to be closed and controlled, and I want to see the number of immigrants go down,” he said. “Which other parties have the balls to do that, apart from the FN? In the last 30 years, nothing in France has changed. I believe it is the moment to give Marine Le Pen a chance, to see if her party can do any better. We have nothing to lose.”
Running on empty
In central Calais, a large group of locals wait their turn at the Epicerie Sociale, a community food bank scheme where residents earning less than six euros a day after rent and utility bills are paid can buy essentials at a fraction of their retail price.
Some 1,200 people rely on the scheme to make ends meet. The number is growing in a region where, according to France's INSEE National Statistics Institute, 18 percent of under-25s are out of work, while 18.1 percent of the population lives beneath the poverty line.
Unemployed mother-of-three Laurence Léfèbre, 42, whose husband was laid off six months ago, is waiting to spend her 25-euro allowance on meat and vegetables to feed her family.
She told FRANCE 24 that despite “always running on empty at the end of the month”, she would often give a little something to migrants she sees.
Calais social worker Sandrine Servantes commented: “For people who are very poor, seeing migrants in an even worse situation can actually be unbearable. It makes you either want to help, or it makes you reject them completely.”
The chronic levels of poverty in Calais mean that, according to Servantes' assessment, there is a deep well of rejection that is wide open to Le Pen's anti-migrant rhetoric.
'I love … how it has opened my eyes'
But the number of locals who want to help is also significant. And at the “Jungle”, they are everywhere, as are countless NGOs and a steady stream of of volunteers (many from the UK), delivering donated food and clothing.
Regional association La Vie Active has 100 volunteers working full time at the “Jungle”. They provide 2,000 free meals a day, showers and towels, and charging stations for the ubiquitous smartphones carried by nearly everyone in the camp.
La Vie Active has also built a secure closed-off area for women and children, who are a minority in a camp dominated by men under the age of 35.
“I can't possibly imagine what this place would be like if local associations weren't here to help,” volunteer Guillaume Sénéchal said, smiling at a group of young men playing football in front of his offices (nearly all the migrants greet visitors with a friendly grin and a “bonjour”).
Sénéchal would not be drawn into politics, but insisted: “I love the job, the people I've met, and how it has opened my eyes.”