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The French Realignment

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The French Realignment

Understanding the political shift in France’s economically struggling regions May 10, 2022
Politics and law
Economy, finance, and budgets

Bruay-la-Buissière, France

Twenty years ago, in the first round of the 2002 presidential election, this commune in northern France, south of the city of Lille, gave 25 percent of its vote to socialist candidate Lionel Jospin. Far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen came in second, with 16 percent. That year, France was shocked when Le Pen made the second round against incumbent Jacques Chirac of the center-right Rally for the Republic (later rebranded to the Republicans, and now entirely irrelevant in French politics), and the Left rallied to Chirac’s cause to prevent Le Pen from coming to power. Nationwide, Chirac received 82 percent of the vote to Le Pen’s 18 percent, and Bruay-la-Buissière followed suit, giving Chirac 79 percent to Le Pen’s 21 percent. In 2012, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s daughter Marine lost Bruay-la-Buissière in the first round to socialist François Hollande, taking 27 percent to Hollande’s 35 percent. Hollande trounced center-right incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy in the second round in the commune, 66–34, far ahead of his nationwide total of 51.6 percent that allowed him to beat the incumbent.

Bruay-la-Buissière’s traditional attachment to the Left fit the normal pattern of French politics in the latter half of the twentieth century. Industrial areas sought labor protections when industry was strong, and government help as work dried up. But in the 20 years since Chirac’s commanding victory over Jean-Marie Le Pen, a remarkable shift has taken place—in Bruay-la-Buissière as in France as a whole. In the first round of this year’s presidential election, Marine Le Pen, her party’s candidate for the last three election cycles and now the standard-bearer of the French Right, received 52 percent of the vote against a field of 11 other candidates. Incumbent president Emmanuel Macron finished second with 18 percent, and far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon received 16 percent. Macron won reelection, defeating Le Pen 58–42 nationally in the second-round runoff. But here, Le Pen received 69 percent of the vote.

Bruay-la-Buissière sits in the heart of what is now Le Pen country. Formerly a coal-mining town, it now has a stagnant economy. Over 40 percent of the population under 30 lives below the poverty line. Nearly one in four people was unemployed as of 2018, as was nearly one in two from the 15–24 age category. Almost all the employed population now works in the administrative, transportation, or commercial sectors; industry employs just 4.5 percent. The economic drive toward populist politics is obvious, with parallels in much of the western world, where policymakers have not figured out how to provide new alternatives as industries that once sustained places like Bruay-la-Buissière disappear. Yet the economic situation alone can’t explain the political trend, for other parts of France facing similar economic troubles have continued to vote for left-wing candidates. What, then, explains the dramatic rightward shift in Bruay-la-Buissière and places like it?

Many analysts have attributed Le Pen’s inroads in such areas to the softening of her image and to her emphasis on issues such as inflation rather than immigration and leaving the EU. This may be partly true, but it overlooks the fact that her stance on immigration remains popular. A Le Figaro poll of viewers of Le Pen and Macron’s April 20 debate found that Macron was more convincing on France’s place on the international stage, governance and institutions, and economic growth and competitiveness. They found Le Pen more convincing, however, on immigration and security. In general, 56 percent of voters found Macron more convincing, compared with 72 percent when the two debated in 2017. So it can’t be true that Le Pen’s stance on immigration is limiting her appeal when 57 percent agree with her approach on the issue.

Macron has moved rightward on immigration and Islamism to prevent Le Pen from monopolizing popular support on these issues. But Le Pen has nevertheless rebranded herself as a more mainstream politician, seeking to exorcise the demon of anti-Semitism that defined her party when her father was in charge. She led a successful effort to expel him from the party in 2015 after he insisted the Holocaust was a “detail” of the Second World War and defended Nazi collaborator Philippe Petain. Perhaps this helps explain the dramatic shift in the former industrial areas of northern France, where once-staunchly socialist voters now support Le Pen’s National Rally (formerly the National Front).

In any case, the French government has not been able to provide a viable alternative to a now-defunct mining industry that once defined the economy in much of France’s north. The city is located just down the road from Béthune, a town of a similar size: as of 2019, Bruay-la-Buissière had a population of 22,000 and Bethune about 25,000 residents. Their downtowns couldn’t feel more different: Bruay-la-Buissière is quaint and pretty—its citizens are exceedingly friendly—but the sense that it used to be a more bustling place is palpable. Shuttered storefronts dot its few commercial streets, and few people are out after 8 p.m. Most commercial activity seems to have moved over to an American-style strip mall featuring a McDonald’s, a Burger King, and an American-style (but French-owned) steakhouse chain called Buffalo Grill. Neighboring Béthune, by contrast, feels more like a bustling French town. Its square, with a historic belfry in the middle, offers a more typical French scene: sidewalk cafes and boutique hotels, with a beautiful brick Catholic church nearby. Smartly dressed businessmen eat in pricy bistros.

Underneath this veneer, though, the indicators aren’t much better than those in Bruay-la-Buissière. Unemployment in Béthune stands at 22.1 percent. And away from the city center, one senses plenty of decline, with lots of shuttered storefronts. Residents I spoke with in Béthune complained of the same economic situation as in neighboring Bruay-la-Buissière.

Walking around Béthune’s town center, I stepped into the Catholic church to look inside, where a young woman named Julie, aged 27, was sitting inside praying. Outside, I asked her views on the election. She didn’t want to say whom she voted for in the first round, but she did say adamantly that she supported Macron in the second round to block Le Pen. That so many did the same explains how an incumbent president receiving 28 percent of the vote in the first round can improve by 30 percentage points in the runoff. An adage in French politics since the founding of the Fifth Republic stipulates that voters choose their preferred candidate in the first round and vote to eliminate a candidate in the second. In any case, many others made Julie’s choice: unlike Bruay-la-Buissière down the road, where Le Pen took 69 percent in the second round, in Béthune the two candidates split almost evenly, with Le Pen coming out just ahead with 50.6 percent.

Julie was far from unique among Catholics in her support for Macron. I asked her if Catholic values affected her vote, and she said that they did not, emphasizing that secularism was a French value, and that her faith is about personal belief. The Catholic daily newspaper La Croix expressed a similar sentiment in an editorial two days before the election: “Among the primary motives enunciated by Catholics who have decided not to vote for [Macron] include the extended time period allowed for abortion, the extension of medically-assisted procreation, and his perspective on euthanasia. La Croix shares these worries, and will continue to express its opposition incessantly. But it’s important to be lucid: the gap is immense between the preoccupations of French society and those expressed by the Church and its congregants. What the latter consider of utmost importance was not the subject of any of the questions during the debate on Wednesday night [between Macron and Le Pen].” A survey by La Croix after the election found that Catholics supported Macron with 55 percent of the vote: slightly less than the rest of the population, but a commanding margin, nonetheless.

One cannot simply attribute to Le Pen or Macron voters a series of positions that reflect those of their preferred candidate. For example, a March poll by IFOP found that only 34 percent of French voters wanted to leave the EU, significantly fewer than Le Pen’s vote total of 42 percent. For years, Le Pen had been calling for a “Frexit” to follow the United Kingdom’s lead out of the EU. Likely sensing that this wasn’t as popular as she had once imagined, Le Pen backed off her position that France should leave the EU. She now says the EU should be reformed, but also that she wouldn’t stand in the way of a popular referendum to decide whether France should stay or go. Nonetheless, I talked with Le Pen voters in Bruay-la-Buissière and Béthune who were opposed to leaving the EU, saying that it would be bad for France.

Bruay-la-Buissière’s “City of Electricians,” the oldest mining town in the Pas-de-Calais mining basin, is now a preserved historical site. (Photo by DENIS CHARLET/AFP via Getty Images)

Two days after the election, I walked into a small bar in Bruay-la-Buissière. I had just finished dinner at a pleasant, and somewhat expensive, Moroccan restaurant full of French families eating tagine, drinking French and Algerian wine, and listening to Arabic pop music. We all sat on expensive-looking carved wooden furniture, likely imported from Morocco. This bar was a different scene: bright fluorescent lights lit up the plastic chairs and tables, and a TV played a mix of contemporary French and 1980s American music videos. The bar bordered several shuttered businesses, on a now mostly empty plaza. Besides me were two tables of two. When I committed the universal faux pas of bringing up politics at the bar, a clear divide became apparent. One man said he was happy with Macron’s victory. Another concurred, saying that “she,” meaning Le Pen, was best compared with Hitler. (The same gentleman later bought me a drink “because the Americans helped us in 1940.”) Le Pen had a staunch supporter in the corner, however, who worried that Macron’s approach to Russia and Ukraine was going to lead to World War III.

At first, the average citizen in a place like Bruay-la-Buissière seemed befuddled by the change in the town’s politics from left to right. One woman I interviewed, who declined to give her name, was confounded by her neighbors’ choice. A 74-year-old retiree, she voted for Macron in both rounds. Asked why she thought the area had shifted to supporting Le Pen, she said, “I don’t understand it. This area used to vote for the Left—socialists, communists—and now they’ve shifted to the extreme right. I don’t get it.” Her reasons for voting Macron were fairly textbook: he’s an intelligent person, she said, and she is more comfortable with him dealing with foreign affairs. She feels Le Pen is too close to Russia. But she was at a loss trying to explain the shift of her neighbors in a different direction. Asked about employment for young people, she admitted that she hadn’t dealt with that issue personally. Despite the poverty in the area, her children are employed, and her grandchildren are still completing their studies.

But the data corroborate a tendency that ran through many of my interviews with voters in these two communities. The economic decline here began well before the turn of the century, but it has been felt most intensely in the last several decades. The center-Right in France took power from the socialists in 1995, when Jacques Chirac defeated Lionel Jospin to succeed socialist François Mitterrand. The center-Right remained in power until socialist François Hollande took over the presidency in 2012. At this time, places like Bruay-la-Buissière were still voting socialist. It was under Hollande that people began to feel that the socialists were no better than the center-Right, as his presidency did nothing to reserve the longstanding trend of economic decline.

Consider Jean, a 65-year-old retiree I met outside a supermarket in Bruay-la-Buissière while his wife shopped inside. He said that he used to vote for the Left, but in the past two years had begun to vote for Le Pen and the National Rally. Asked why he had shifted from voting socialist to voting for the National Rally, he emphasized that the promises made by past politicians had been broken and added that Marine Le Pen was different from her father. The rhetoric around foreigners in the time of Jean-Marie Le Pen was that they must leave, but Marine was different, he said. Recently, Macron has only given empty promises, particularly for him as a retiree (the president’s signature proposals include pension reform and raising the retirement age). Nonetheless, despite voting for Le Pen, Jean was glad that Macron had returned to power because of the situation in Ukraine.

When I asked about the economic situation, he blamed France’s high taxes for the lack of economic alternatives to replace the coal mines. Now that the mines are gone, where do young people work? “I’ll tell you honestly, young people here don’t work much . . . I have four sons here, and I can tell you, there’s a lot of [drug] trafficking. If young people don’t have work, they need money.”

A convergence seems to be occurring. As economically downscale France shifts to the right politically, it becomes disillusioned with both the traditional Left and Right of the political establishment. If Le Pen’s support comes largely because of the failure of Hollande’s socialist government to make any noticeable improvements in the situation here, then the same trap would exist for Marine Le Pen should she ever take power. For now, she’s a welcome alternative to a failed establishment in the places that have been left behind.

Le Pen has become a force to be reckoned with on the French political scene. That’s not true for all on the right side of the political spectrum. In contrast with Le Pen’s suddenly respectable image, Eric Zemmour, a journalist who tried to outflank Le Pen to the right, failed to gain any traction as a candidate, despite early polls that showed he might be able to challenge Le Pen. Though Le Pen’s popular niece, Marion Marechal, defected from the National Rally and endorsed Zemmour, he quickly faded, taking only 3.65 percent of the first-round vote in Bruay-la-Buissière.

Zemmour’s theories of the grand replacement of white Europeans did not find a natural home among disenfranchised French voters, at least not somewhere like Bruay-la-Buissière, which remains overwhelmingly white. Over three days in Bruay-la-Buissière and Bethune, the only complaint I heard about foreigners, apparently told in jest, was that there are too many Poles, and that if I moved here, I would be better off learning Polish than French, because I would learn improper French (patois) among these sons of coal miners anyway. Asked whether immigration policies had affected his vote, Jean-Yves, a longtime Le Pen voter in Béthune, said that “we have to live together today, and [immigrants] are not all bad, we can’t forget. For a long time, we’ve had Poles and Italians here, but we had the same religion. Now they have a new religion.” He said some of the customers at his tobacco shop fast during Ramadan, and that he discusses this and other issues with them.

Le Pen’s rise has been accompanied by much talk about threats to democracy in France. Some on the right are convinced that a grand conspiracy exists to keep her out of power, while others on the left fear right-wing populists, saying that they will seek to undermine democracy. In the end, however, many of those supporting Le Pen voted for a politician whom they feel is trying to address their concerns, while the French public had its final say. That is democracy in action.

That only 28 percent of the French voted for their incumbent president in the first round nonetheless suggests that a large majority wanted a change. And 42 percent of the French thinking Le Pen would be a better alternative represents a significant increase from her showing of 34 percent in 2017 and a drastic increase over her father’s second-round performance of 18 percent in 2002. On the other hand, her success is far from destined. In the first round of this year’s election, left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon finished just over 1 percentage point behind Le Pen.

Charles de Gaulle, the founder of France’s Fifth Republic, was from nearby Lille. Bruay-la-Buissière and Béthune were liberated from the Nazis in early September 1944, and numerous plaques and squares still carry the dates of liberation of each town. De Gaulle’s legacy of a free France remains strong, and the voters of France rightfully get to decide its future. But social, economic, and political problems loom. Macron visited some of the former mining towns of France’s north during his campaign. If he wants to be the president of all France, as he said in his victory speech, he would do well to continue to look for solutions to the continued decline of places like Bruay-la-Buissière and Béthune. Otherwise, one can expect that Marine Le Pen’s totals will continue to climb, here and elsewhere, getting closer to that elusive threshold.

Top Photo by Marc Piasecki/Getty Images

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