How Leftists Learned to Love Le Pen
The far-right National Front’s path to victory runs through France’s former northern Communist strongholds.
HAYANGE, France — The towers of the ArcelorMittal steel mill loom over the little town of Hayange, silent and shuttered. Few people stopped to chat on a recent winter day — the streets were shrouded in an icy fog — but those who paused summarized life here succinctly: There has been little work since the blast furnaces at the mill were shut down in 2013, and little hope either.
“Everyone is sick of it,” said Pascal, who declined to give his last name, leaning on the door of his tattoo parlor. “100 percent I am going to vote for Marine Le Pen.”
Like much of France’s industrial north and east, Hayange, a town of 15,000 near the border with Luxembourg, has a solid left-wing tradition. It has been sending Socialist lawmakers to Parliament for 20 years, while Communists and other far-left parties have played an active role in local politics for decades.
But in 2014, the town booted out its Socialist mayor in favor of a candidate from Le Pen’s National Front (FN). Mayor Fabien Engelmann, a slick 37-year-old, embodies changing local tastes in politics. A former hard-left trade unionist, he switched to the FN in 2010 due to his growing concerns about immigration and Islam. The town backed Socialist François Hollande by a whisker ahead of Le Pen in the last election, but if conversation on the streets is anything to go by, she has a good chance of coming out on top here when Hayange votes along with the rest of the country in April.
Hayange, in other words, is the French equivalent of Donald Trump country, that swath of voters in the deindustrializing rust belt who helped give Obama the presidency in 2008 and 2012, and whose votes delivered formerly Democratic states to Trump in 2016.
Like Trump, Le Pen has a voter base beyond angry whites in the economically depressed regions that account for most of the 900,000 industrial jobs France has lost over the past 15 years. The FN counts the sun-soaked south as its historic stronghold, where social conservatives and staunch nationalists returning from colonial-era Algeria have long backed the movement. But if Le Pen manages to ride the global populist tide to a shocking win after Brexit and Trump, decaying northern industrial towns like Hayange will have helped her get there.
“The counties that voted for Trump have the same sociological profiles as districts voting for Marine Le Pen — deindustrialized, rather lost, very socially vulnerable,” said Stéphane Wahnich, a political analyst who has written two books about the FN leader. “Paris and Lyon vote for the left, because they’re wealthy. Guys from Hayange vote for the far right, because they feel forgotten. The only one who’s taking up their cause is Marine Le Pen.”
Hayange is nestled in the Moselle Valley along the borders of Luxembourg and Germany, and has passed in and out of French hands over the course of its history. However, it has been a consistent symbol of France’s changing industrial fortunes. The de Wendel family, one of the country’s oldest and most powerful industrial dynasties, bought its first forges here in 1704, making it a birthplace of French heavy industry. From their base in Hayange, the de Wendels spread out across a region rich in iron ore, growing into one of Europe’s biggest steelmakers by 1900.
Fast-forward another century and the town had become a byword for President Nicolas Sarkozy’s failure to halt industrial collapse. By 2012, ArcelorMittal, now the owner of Hayange’s blast furnaces, was seeking to shutter them as the European steel sector grappled with massive overcapacity and a flood of cheap metal from China and elsewhere. The fate of the plant became a focus of that year’s presidential election. Then-candidate Hollande descended on the steelworks — briefly casting a spotlight on a corner of the country that had long felt forgotten — and mopped up blue-collar votes with a promise to do better.
He eventually sealed a deal with ArcelorMittal to avoid 600 layoffs, sending some workers home on early retirement or pushing them into other jobs at the huge site, which stretches into the neighboring town of Florange. But he could not save the blast furnaces. The giant towers remain shut. They dominate the skyline in Hayange, a painful reminder of busier times. Officially, the blast furnaces are being kept mothballed for potential use in a future project — but no one in Hayange believes that will happen, not even the FN mayor.
“It’s finished; they’re out for eternity,” said Engelmann, who believes the site should have been nationalized and resold when the market was doing better.
A steelworker’s grandson, Engelmann started his career as an official for France’s biggest and most hard-line trade union, the General Confederation of Labour. Back then he was a Communist. His political conversion, which he detailed in his 2014 book From Leftism to Patriotism, came gradually. He always believed in a strong role for the state, and still does. But increasingly he believed the left wasn’t addressing his concerns about immigration and the role of Islam in France. The National Front had the answers he was looking for.
“The politics of Marine Le Pen is the politics of common sense allied with protectionism and a state that protects, but also a politics that is clearer and tougher on security and massive immigration,” he said in an interview at the Town Hall, a forbidding-looking building in the main square.
“At the beginning I was worried there’d be skinheads and anti-Semites like the media said,” he said of his early ventures to party meetings. “But I saw middle-class French people who were saying, ‘We’ve got big problems in France; we’re struggling to pay the bills.’ Shopkeepers struggling to make ends meet.”
Outside Engelmann’s Town Hall, a few Trotskyist activists could be seen handing out leaflets. Hayange’s first postwar mayor was a Communist, but the town’s far-left influence has waned in keeping with the decline of a party that up until the 1980s was a major national player, with its members even serving as ministers. François Mitterand’s election in 1981 as France’s first Socialist president, and the country’s longest postwar leader, made the mainstream left an electable force — but it sapped much support from the once-popular Communists in the process.
The de Wendel family, like other paternalist tycoons of the 19th century, shaped Hayange’s culture such that the mines and steelworks dominated all aspects of life. The city’s patrons didn’t just provide their workers with employment, but extensive welfare services, from health care to housing.
“You were born in their hospitals; the schools were provided by the Wendels and the church too,” said Marc Olénine, a local business consultant who has written a book about Hayange. He believes these generous benefits — provided to some extent until the 1980s by employers who wanted their workers healthy but compliant — were largely responsible for the hard-left culture that still lingers today.
But Wahnich believes the region’s past helps explain why so many locals have found it easy to switch support to the National Front.
“It’s important to know that the Moselle was annexed by the Germans” during World War II, Wahnich said. Its citizens became German citizens, its young men were conscripted into the German army. That wasn’t the case in parts of France that were occupied rather than annexed. “Fascism is something that’s slightly normalized there,” he said.
France’s experience with authoritarianism under Nazi occupation is part of what makes the prospect of a National Front government so abhorrent to mainstream voters. But for the annexed Moselle, the psychological experience of the war was different, Wahnich said. It helped lend an authoritarian bent to the leftism later found in steel families like Engelmann’s. From authoritarian left to authoritarian right, “it doesn’t take much to tip them over,” he said.
Others have asked if it’s really so surprising that rust belt voters might flip from the hard left to the National Front, given that both carry an anti-elitist message and claim to have the working man’s interests at heart.
The difference, it seems, is Le Pen’s timely messaging on immigration and Islam. Like elsewhere in the West, a fading economy has been accompanied by a backlash against newcomers. Many locals are of immigrant stock — descended from generations of Italians and others who came to work in the valley’s mines and steelworks since the end of the 19th century. But there’s a growing sentiment that more recent arrivals are different.
“The Italians and the Portuguese came, and they integrated,” said Georges Dibling, an aging rocker selling punk knickknacks at a market stall. “Now we’ve seen immigration from beyond Europe, and that is causing problems.” Though there are two halal butchers in town, Hayange remains largely white. But residents like tattoo shop owner Pascal talk of feeling “invaded.”
“We have to stop the foreigners coming here. Already there’s not much work and what little there is, they come and take,” says Véronique, a 57-year-old market trader who is backing Le Pen after a lifetime of voting for the left. “Something has to give.”
Marc Guillaume, an economist, says this resentment against foreigners has been building since the 1970s, when soaring oil prices dealt a body blow to the French economy in general and the industrial belt in particular. The longer-term forces of globalization were also at work by then: Iron ore previously mined around Hayange was now imported at lower prices from Mauritania or Canada. And then there were advances in technology, which wiped out human jobs. An industry that employed 155,000 people in 1975 had shrunk by two-thirds by 2009 as thousands took early retirement. In Hayange, a plant that employed 13,000 in 1973 has no more than 2,200 workers today, according to union figures.
Like other rust belt towns, Hayange has suffered from its reliance on a single sector. “It’s an area marked by its mono-industry,” Olénine says. Centuries ago, when the de Wendels were building their steel empire, cash had poured out of workers’ pockets into shops and bustling cafes that drew people from miles around. Today the absence of that cash means the cafes are mostly empty.
“Before there were businesses in Hayange; there was work right in front of us,” says one unemployed steelworker who declined to give his name, sipping a beer over a newspaper in a bar. He waved in the direction of the blast furnaces. “Now it’s dead. It’s terrible.”
Today, about a third of Hayange’s residents commute to Luxembourg, most of them skilled workers in service industries like IT and banking who believe the cheaper rents here are worth the two-hour round trip. Despite the decline of industry, unemployment rates in this stretch of northeastern France are not particularly higher than the national average of 10 percent, but this is largely because so many work across the borders — 90,000 in Luxembourg and tens of thousands of others in Germany, Belgium, or Switzerland. Even FN voters in Hayange admit their uncomfortable reliance on their European neighbors. But their mayor insists the party could come up with a workaround if Le Pen quit the European Union as threatened.
Other than commuting to a foreign country or subsisting on government handouts, there is relatively little to do for work in Hayange. In the wider region, Wahnich says the famously strong French safety net has had the perverse effect of feeding populist anger, because it has served as a constant reminder of how little improvement there has been in people’s prospects.
“The archetypal miner is now 60 and has been laid off for 15 years, paid to do nothing. He’s richer than his son,” he said. “Meanwhile, there has been no revival of the economy. The children either leave, or they stay and are less well paid than their parents.”
France’s once-vaunted job security — a legacy of past left-wing victories — has become a liability, making companies reluctant to take on new permanent employees while the economic outlook remains bleak, and encouraging them to shift production abroad. In 2015, nearly 90 percent of new job contracts were temporary — most for less than a month. Hayange is no exception: Many of those left at the steel plant are on short-term contracts and live in constant fear of losing their jobs.
“We’re like tissues — they take us, they use us, and then they throw us away,” said the unemployed steelworker. The 45-year-old is at a loose end after finishing up an 18-month stint at the plant. He feels too old to retrain, and family commitments leave him unable to leave the region. All he can do is hope there’ll be more need for him next year.
Opinion polls forecast that Le Pen will win a place as one of the top two candidates in the first round of the presidential election, going through to the runoff in May (though, for the moment at least, they don’t expect her to win). Few expect Socialist party candidate Benoît Hamon to make much headway. Most expect Le Pen’s opponent to be either centrist former economy minister Emmanuel Macron, who has been surging in the polls of late, or right-wing candidate François Fillon, even though his fortunes have been falling as a result of an ongoing corruption scandal.
Neither of her opponents have much appeal to voters in places like Hayange. Fillon, a proud Thatcherite, has made clear he wants to slash corporate taxes and ax a half million public sector jobs. Meanwhile, Macron has cast himself as pro-EU and business-friendly, and has suggested tax cuts for the wealthy.
In the United States, the quirks of the Electoral College gave outsized influence to Trump voters in rural and rustbelt states. In France, by contrast, the anger of people in places like Hayange will propel Le Pen to the presidency only if they represent more than 50 percent of the voting public. Wahnich and most others believe they are unlikely to see a Le Pen victory, not least because France’s last experience with authoritarian leadership was within living memory, in the form of a Nazi puppet regime. “When faced with a right-wing populist candidate, it doesn’t have the same resonance for an American as it does for a French person, historically speaking,” he said. In rust belt towns like Hayange, the authoritarianism of the past might lend itself to a political culture comfortable with the National Front, but this is not, he believes, the story of France at large.
That said, the anger on the streets of Hayange — against useless politicians, the EU, the ravages of borderless trade — can be felt far beyond this town. Le Pen billed herself as the “candidate of the forgotten” as long ago as the last election in 2012. This time, it feels like the time of the forgotten might finally have come around.
Photo credit: CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP/Getty Images