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Marine Le Pen heads to the rust belt to celebrate French election success

The Guardian logo The Guardian 23/04/2017 Kim Willsher in Hénin-Beaumont

Video provided by Reuters

Marine Le Pen told supporters the “survival of France” was at stake in the second round of the presidential election in a jubilant speech at her rally in Hénin-Beaumont in France’s northern rust belt.

The Front National president said the first step towards the Elysée had been taken and that it was time to “free the French people from the arrogant elites”.

“I am the candidate of the people,” she told the cheering crowd.

In a clear dig at her second-round rival Emmanuel Macron, Le Pen said: “Savage globalisations puts our civilization in danger … I am presenting a fundamental alternative”. She described her victory as historic and said she welcomed the result with “humility and gratitude” before standing with her key FN aides to sing La Marseillaise.

As the result came through, Front National supporters in its Hénin-Beaumont heartland, where Le Pen is a municipal councillor, reacted with a roar and cheers of “Marine President”.

Marine Le Pen delivers a speech after finishing second of the first round of the French presidential elections in Hénin-Beaumont. © EPA Marine Le Pen delivers a speech after finishing second of the first round of the French presidential elections in Hénin-Beaumont.

Mikael Sala, FN secretary for the Val d’Oise department, north west of Paris, said Le Pen was “conquering”, adding: “Since I started campaigning for the FN, there has been a rolling wave of support that has grown. We are now just 15 days until she takes the reins to save this country.

“France is on the point of disappearing; in two weeks we will be able to put this country in order. The mood is euphoric. France will have the taste of the happiness of having Marine Le Pen as the head of state.”

Many FN supporters, angry at a media they believe is against them, refused to speak to journalists responding to requests with a curt “non”.

One young woman waving a French tricolor was close to tears. “It’s the most wonderful day of my life,” she said. “All the polls said Marine Le Pen would be in the second round, but so many people in the elite and the press were against her, we hardly believed it could happen. Now it has.”

It was only natural for Le Pen to turn her back on the metropolitan Paris elite she professes to despise and drive north for two hours to vote in the former coal mining town of Hénin-Beaumont in France’s northern rust belt. One of her top generals, Steeve Briois, is the local mayor and she has a second home nearby.

She was the only one of the main five candidates to shun the French capital and its suburbs and her message to what she calls “Forgotten France” was loud and clear: “I have not abandoned you”.

As voting opened in the fiercely contested presidential election, the town’s streets were deserted apart from clusters of journalists interviewing each other. Le Pen voted early, arriving in a blue trouser suit, kissing the electoral officer on the cheek, smiling broadly, but saying nothing.

Outside, as Le Pen cast her vote, police clashed with a dozen bare-breasted Femen protesters, who had jumped out of an SUV wearing Donald Trump and Le Pen masks, with “Team Marine” written across their chests. The women were arrested and takento a nearby police station.

The far-right populist party has been in power in Hénin-Beaumont for three years after seven decades of leftwing rule. The unemployment rate among its 27,000 population runs at 20%, twice the national average. The FN promised solutions, but the jobless rate has not fallen under the far-right administration.

In the town centre, lots of bars are closed, shop windows are boarded up and many buildings, with their flaking and grimy facades, have seen better days. Only the large town hall and church, clad in scaffolding, are looking forward to better days.

Hénin-Beaumont is in a once prosperous region of Pas-de-Calais, home to waves of migrants from Belgium, Italy, Poland and north Africa, where miners and factory workers have historically voted left. In recent years, the FN has made increasing inroads into such rural and post-industrial areas where the unemployed and those struggling to make ends meet feel abandoned by the main political parties.

“There are a lot of problems here, that’s why people are voting for Marine Le Pen,” said Pascale, smoking a roll-up cigarette outside a local café. “I’m the daughter of a manual worker and, 30 years ago when I was 10, my father said voting for the Front National would spark the third world war. Today, the party is not the same and this isn’t the case.

“I didn’t vote for Marine, but I can understand why people do. Even two days ago, I didn’t know for whom I was going to vote. I woke up this morning and still wasn’t sure. But I voted and my conscience is clear, that’s the most important thing.”

Her friend said she was also from a working class family that had traditionally voted left. She did not want to say how she had voted, but admitted: “It was a hard decision this time. Very hard.”

In the Tunisian restaurant on the town centre’s square, the waiter laughed when asked what he thought of Le Pen. “She’s a bit radical,” he said.

Brios has tried to impose far-right solutions to local problems, but with little success.. A supposed “wall against crime” ended up being a traffic control measure, a “zero-immigrants charter” fell flat because very few of the recent waves of migrants actually want to go to Hénin-Beaumont. A ban on begging was overruled by a judge.

Dorothée Fizazi, the president of the charity Secours Populaire in the town, told French journalists that the reign of Brios had been catastrophic.

Others are less negative. One local said Brios was trying to clean up the town and “not doing such a bad job”.

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