About a hundred expectant white people are packed into a drab, neon-lit hall in southwestern France. Big tricolour flags hang from the walls and above the stage, a blue poster carries the election slogan of the candidate who is promising to address their frustrations: “In the name of the people – Marine – President”.
Marine Le Pen’s potent mix of old-school left-wing economics and diatribes against immigrants resonates in this part of the country – and has brought the Front National closer than ever before to taking power in France. While the Parisian elite is detached from the day-to-day battle with nationalism, the ruling class in the regional capital of Perpignan has been battling to keep its voters away from extremists for decades.
“The Front is spreading,” Mayor Jean-Marc Pujol says. “There are districts in the north of Perpignan which used to be communist and now they are voting for the Front because they worry about immigration.”
Le Pen is likely to enter the presidential ballot on 7 May as the outsider to be France’s next leader, but the steady build-up of her support is testing the safeguards that have kept extremists from power in the Fifth Republic for almost 60 years.
Pujol predicts that French voters will unite around a mainstream candidate to prevent the Front from winning power, just as they did in 2002, in the 2015 regional elections and in his own battle for Perpignan city hall in 2014. But each time the establishment parties cooperate to keep the populists out, they feed the narrative of an elitist plot against the people, and more support shifts to Le Pen.
“Only Le Pen will close the borders so we don’t get foreigners coming in,” Rosy Lamiel, a 59-year-old laundress at a retirement home, says on the sidelines of the Front National rally in the small town of Thuir on the outskirts of the city. “The other parties have let the city go to the dogs.”
In 2014, Front National candidate Louis Aliot led the first round of voting in Perpignan with 34 per cent – making it the only large city in France where the Front came top. In the first round of the presidential vote on 23 April, Le Pen could get as much as 40 per cent, according to Pujol. He only won the race against Aliot, who is also Le Pen’s partner, after the Socialist candidate withdrew, maximising the chances of keeping the Front out.
With the worst unemployment rate in France and high levels of immigration, the region of farms and vineyards between the Spanish border and the Mediterranean Sea has proved to be fertile ground for the Front. Perpignan has been left on the sidelines as plane company Airbus boosted neighbouring Toulouse and most tourists head further east along the coast. Close to 30 per cent of locals live below the poverty level, according to French national statistics institute Insee.
Throughout its years as a marginal force in French politics, the party enjoyed support among the so-called pieds noirs – French people who left Algeria after independence in 1962 – and the region’s economic problems have broadened the appeal of Le Pen’s radical plans.
“I back Le Pen because she warned us about the European Union ages ago. I used to believe in the EU and the euro but they’ve ruined us,” 45-year-old winemaker Georges Puig says at the rally. “We’ve been hit by unfair competition.”
The Front’s national proposals to bar immigrants, protect French workers from foreign competition, and crack down on crime are winning over voters like Puig. On a local level it plans to give French people priority for housing or welfare benefits, while condemning the entire ruling class.
“Perpignan brings together all the problems for which the Front has a diagnosis and a cure,” Alexandre Bolo, 30, a Front National official on the city council and parliamentary attache to Aliot, says. “A migratory invasion, the impoverishment of shops closing and young people forced to leave to find jobs, and a complete lack of dynamism from the powers that be.”
To fend off the nationalists, Mayor Pujol is opening up branch offices of city hall and social centres in the city’s more deprived districts to engage with citizens while beefing up security with more police and CCTV cameras.
The next stage is an initiative to revive the medieval St Jacques area where a crane towers above the jumble of narrow alleys inhabited mainly by north Africans and Romani gypsies. Workmen there are fitting out Perpignan University’s new law faculty where 500 students will attend classes from this autumn, moving from the school’s base on the edge of the city.
“We’re bringing one of Europe’s oldest universities back to one of France’s poorest neighbourhoods,” says deputy mayor Olivier Amiel.
Amiel, who is in charge of urban redevelopment, insists that it’s concrete projects to change the lives of local communities that will stop the populists rather than hand-wringing at their sometimes unpalatable views.
“There’s no point in demonising the Front because so many people vote for it,” he says.
Amid the derelict buildings of St Jacques where some 80 per cent of people are thought to be out of work, local shopkeepers are looking forward to the university’s arrival.
“It’s a success for the city, and a defeat for the Front,” says Moroccan-born Aziz Sebaoui, 45, who runs a nearby cafe and heads the local shopkeepers’ association. “We’re working to welcome the students with open arms, we’ll do student prices in the shops near the faculty.”
Longer-term success is not so sure, though. Perpignan ultimately needs new jobs if the mayor’s efforts to knit together the city’s different communities are to succeed, and he’s betting on initiatives like the Tecnosud business park south of the city, which combines France’s only school for engineers in the renewable-energy industry alongside businesses working in new energy technology.
“Growth is the only card with which we can beat the Front,” says Andre Joffre, 62-year-old chief executive of solar energy firm Tecsol who is backing the independent Emmanuel Macron for president.
While this year’s election may come too soon for Le Pen and the Front, it may nevertheless mark another step in its emergence. Le Pen has eroded the stigma of racism and anti-Semitism that once placed a limit on the party’s support and polls show that almost half the electorate is now prepared to consider voting for her.
“The glass ceiling no longer exists,” Pujol says. “We don’t have the dad Jean-Marie scaring everyone. It’s telling that people call his daughter simply ‘Marine’. They feel close to her.”
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