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Leftist Mélenchon’s team target France’s deprived and forgotten North

Romain Brunet, FRANCE 24 | Members of Jean-Luc Mélenchon's campaign team

Jean-Luc Mélenchon is enjoying a surge in support that may tip the leftist candidate into the second round of France’s presidential race. So his campaign team headed to the economically depressed North to fish for precious undecided voters.


special correspondent in Lille, France

On an overcast morning, only 12 days before the first round of this unprecedented French election, several minivans plastered with “Mélenchon” roll into the small town of Fives. They park near the main square, and eager campaigners hop out of the vehicles.

While they unfurl a French flag and start unboxing flyers, a local quickly approaches them. The young man is a heroin addict, his arm visibly mauled by syringe bites. He explains he needs help: he’s only six euros short for another hit. Thus, a day of leafleting and door-to-door campaigning begins in northern France.

Located on the eastern outskirts of the city of Lille, Fives has approximately 20,000 residents and one of the country’s highest unemployment rates. Five’s story is all too common in this part of France: once a flourishing industrial hub, the town saw factories close in the 1990s, hitting the local economy as well as the dignity of townspeople.

Who are the candidates in France's presidential race?
Who are the candidates in France's presidential race?

The neighbourhood around the town hall, where the Mélenchon team has set up camp for the day, retains some semblance of the town’s affluent past. There are shops and cafés and the post office is overflowing. But the businesses are not all the same. The chic bakeries and specialist butchers have largely been replaced by kebab shops and cabins where immigrants can make cheap telephone calls home.

"The people of Fives have seen their town deteriorate little by little, and they feel like the mayor’s office isn’t doing anything about it,” Jaques, a 62-year-old resident complains to one of the Mélenchon campaigners, bitterly adding: “And this election not going to change anything. Each candidate is as bad as the other.”

Newfound enthusiasm

The idea that “all politicians are rotten” is one the Mélenchon team says it faces regularly in northern France, in large cities and rural villages alike. The feeling that they have been forgotten by politicians is pervasive. But according to the campaigners, their candidate’s name is getting an increasingly positive reactions here.

Arnaud, 45, Mélenchon campaigner
Arnaud, 45, Mélenchon campaigner

“Compared to two or three months ago, we really feel a difference in the street,” says Arnaud. A resident of the nearby town of Villeneuve d'Ascq, the 45-year-old has taken two weeks of his own holidays to campaign for Mélenchon.

“Since the massive rally in Paris on March 18 and the two televised debates, there seems to be a complete change in attitude. People appear to have discovered Jean-Luc Mélenchon and are now listening to what we are saying,” he says.

Indeed, in the wake of huge outdoors campaign rallies in Paris and Marseille, and two strong presidential debate performances, Mélenchon has seen his numbers almost double in opinion polls. On March 17, French polling firm Ifop showed the far-left candidate claiming 10.5 percent of first-round votes. In its latest survey on April 14, Ifop gave him 19 percent support among constituents, on par with mainstream conservative nominee François Fillon.

Arnaud and his fellow Mélenchon campaigners say they are sometimes surprised by the warm welcome they receive. The team pack up their makeshift stand in Fives that evening, with Mélenchon starting his campaign speech in Lille.

Many residents have signalled they will vote for their candidate.

“It’s almost too easy. Maybe we should have picked a different town,” Arnaud jokes.

“It’s like we’re preaching to the choir.”

At the very least, the newfound enthusiasm on the ground appears to confirm that Mélenchon’s jump in the polls is genuine.

Record abstention

The fervour felt in Fives nevertheless hits a brick wall in the town of Roubaix the next day.

The Mélenchon campaign caravan has chosen to stop in the neighbourhood of Alma. According to official statistics, up to 30 percent of Roubaix’s 96,000 residents are jobless, while up to 40 percent live in poverty. The situation is even worse in Alma, infamous as the neighbourhood that spawned the so-called “Gang de Roubaix”: a terrorist cell with links to al Qaeda. The group made headlines in the mid-90s for funding jihadist militants through bank robberies.

Paul Zilmia, 25, Mélenchon campaigner and candidate in France’s legislative elections
Paul Zilmia, 25, Mélenchon campaigner and candidate in France’s legislative elections

“I really wanted to come to this neighbourhood, because politicians no longer dare step foot here,” says Paul Zilmia. The 25-year-old is not just a Mélenchon volunteer. He will run as a candidate in France’s legislative elections, which will be held one month after the presidential run-off. “I grew up next door. We have to show people here that a better future is possible, and that the policies we are championing is for them.”

Unlike Fives, there are no shops to speak of in this area of Roubaix. Few of Alma’s residents leave their homes, so Zilmia and the others must go door-to-door. This is a thankless task, and requires a thick skin and patience. In most cases the doors simply remain closed, and when they do open the campaigners often come face-to-face with misery. Abstention has hit record highs in Alma, with nearly 80 percent of registered voters choosing to stay home during regional elections in December 2015.

During the last presidential election five years ago, 31 percent of Robaix voters declined to participate, while the national average was 20.5 percent. Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, whose party has flourished in economically depressed areas of the north, finished slightly ahead of Mélenchon in Roubaix in 2012, earning 15.6 percent of votes to his 15 percent.

‘Things have changed’

To change the minds of voters who cannot be bothered to vote or could be tempted by the far-right, the Mélenchon campaigners say they rely on a mix of diplomacy, charm and sound arguments.

As Zilmia and fellow campaigner Yann Merlevede trudge from one dingy building to the next, they are stopped by a man. Sick of all leaders and the myriad of political scandals that have rocked the current campaign, he declares that he will abstain. After patiently listening to the man’s list of grievances, Merlevede says: “If you are tired of politicians who lie or go back on their promises, Jean-Luc Mélenchon wants to pass a law that ends the legal immunity of elected officials.”

The measure seems to pique the man’s interest, and he accepts to take a leaflet. Sensing an opening, Zilmia asks: “Have you seen many other campaigners around here, besides us?” The man acknowledges he hasn’t, then adds, “I saw Mélenchon during the debates, and I like what he says. You’ve won my vote.”

Other residents are not so easily convinced. In fact, few come to visit the campaign’s stand at the foot of their apartment complex. At least its presence in the neighbourhood hasn’t sparked a violent reaction or insults from passers-by, and the Mélenchon team feels they can notch the day as a small victory.

“Until recently, none of these people would even talk to us,” Zilmia says. “Ever since opinion polls showed he might have a chance of getting into the second round, things have changed. They are taking him seriously."

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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