Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Economic Woes in Northern French City Help Lift the Far Right

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Economic Woes in Northern French City Help Lift the Far Right

Article excerpt

The National Front is gaining support even in areas were immigration and Islam -- two of the party's main issues -- are not at the forefront. Instead, economic ills seem to be pushing voters toward the right.

This small city in northern France has few immigrants and little crime. But in the last local elections here, the candidate of the far-right National Front eliminated the standard-bearer of President Nicolas Sarkozy's party in the first round of voting and then won 30.2 percent of the vote in the runoff, losing to a Socialist.

With the presidential election less than three months away, Mr. Sarkozy's party fears the same results on a national scale. The president is facing strong competition on the right from the National Front and its leader, Marine Le Pen, 43, and his party is worried that she may eliminate the sitting president in the first round of voting on April 22.

What is most striking is how well she and the party are doing not only in the south of France, where immigration and radical Islam are traditional issues, but here in the post-industrial north, where the issues are more economic: unemployment, factory closings, competition from inside the enlarged European Union, from Poland and Slovakia, and from outside, particularly China.

In Abbeville, a city of 25,000 on the River Somme, numerous jobless workers who feel betrayed by the European Union, globalization and deindustrialization are turning not to the Socialist Party, but to the National Front, which promises a kind of patriotic focus on French jobs, French pride and French money. Some who once voted Communist now join others who are traditionally on the right -- like the hunting and fishing lovers who abound here -- to support Ms. Le Pen.

There are, of course, those who insist that France is being polluted by immigration and undermined by Islam. Anti-Semitism, however, an underlying theme of the party's founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, has been disavowed by his daughter. She concentrates more on Islam and those who, she says, refuse to assimilate to French habits, laws and culture, including secularism and gender equality.

"The motivations for a vote for the National Front are very diverse," said Nicolas Dumont, 35, the mayor of Abbeville and a Socialist. "It can be a way to say 'stop'; it can be a way to" express fury, he said, using a vulgar term.

"It's a way to make things move," he added. "It's the cry of victims, of people who think they can find easy solutions to difficulties."

Mr. Dumont, elected in 2008, is a local Socialist star. He thinks that Mr. Sarkozy's efforts to co-opt the voters of the National Front, which worked in the 2007 election, have since served to normalize the party and its discourse.

"There is a porosity of themes and ways of speaking on these topics that has removed inhibitions," he said.

"My real fear is that Ms. Le Pen won't come in second in the first round, but that she will come in first," Mr. Dumont said. His expectation, of course, is that the Socialist Party's candidate, Francois Hollande, will then have an easier path to the presidency in the May 6 runoff.

Ms. Le Pen, because she is a woman and a fresh face with less baggage than her father, has been easier for voters to support, Mr. Dumont said.

The northern province of Picardy remains important for French industry, but Abbeville does not. There are few immigrants because there are few large factories, and one of the last, the Beghin-Say sugar works, closed in 2009. The reason, Mr. Dumont acknowledges, as the National Front asserts, is "Europe" -- beet-sugar quotas were shared with new members of the European Union, reducing the French quota, and the sugar factory, its chimney still prominent on the horizon, is empty. …

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