- The Left Restored is Mightier than Le Pen
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Retired railroad worker Maurice Poulet has had enough. Like many of his former colleagues in the northern French town of Tergnier, the 59-year-old spent his career supporting his union, walking picket lines, and voting for the Communist Party. But in the upcoming presidential election, he said he plans to vote for Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front (FN). [End Page 18]
“She seems better than the others,” Poulet said over a drink at the cozy Café de la Poste, filled with other railroaders, past and present. “It’s not the people that govern anymore. It’s the rich. It’s the CAC 40 [stock market].”
Poulet bemoaned the Communists for “sleeping with the Socialists”—the current ruling party that he said has “betrayed” France to the European Union and now panders exclusively to the upper classes. The mainstream right is no better in his view. Why not give the National Front a chance, Poulet figured.
He’s far from alone in thinking so. Just an hour and a half north of Paris by train, Tergnier is a major town with a population close to 15,000, situated in the sleepy département of Aisne. If it weren’t for the language or architecture, Tergnier could fit right in the U.S. Rust Belt.
Like America’s industrial heartland, Tergnier has been ravaged by job loss. The railroad sector, dominated by the publicly owned National Society of French Railways (SNCF) used to employ 1,600 people here as late as the 1980s; today, the count is down to 700. During the same stretch, a foundry, sugar refinery, and women’s clothing factory all closed their doors. Unemployment lingers around 15 percent, five points above the national average.
The troubles have upset the political balance in this historic bastion of the left, a town largely governed by Socialists and Communists since World War II. Even as recently as the last presidential election, in 2012, voters backed Socialist candidate François Hollande over then-incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy by a two-to-one margin. But since then, a stunning transformation has taken place—one that is being echoed across France.
In the 2014 European elections, the anti-EU National Front steamrolled its opponents in Tergnier, garnering more than double the tally of the Communist-backed Left Front and three times that of both the Socialist and mainstream right-wing tickets. In the following year’s regional elections, Le Pen easily won the first-round vote here with 43 percent; she eventually lost the runoff to the mainstream right, but by just 5 percent.
Collectively, the votes amounted to a middle finger directed at the French political establishment. They were coupled with extremely high abstention. Two-thirds of registered voters didn’t bother showing up in 2014; just over half didn’t turn out in 2015.
“It’s sort of like teenagers who do stupid stuff to piss off adults, to show them that they exist too and that they don’t have to obey them all the time,” said Marc Delfolie, a former journalist at the local newspaper, L’Aisne Nouvelle, and owner of the Café de la Poste. “It’s like that. We have a bunch of aged teenagers.”
A RIGHT TURN
Tergnier is an extreme case: Few towns have seen such a drastic shift toward the National Front in such a short period of time. But it’s part of an undeniable trend. Across the country, more and more working-class people are turning toward the FN. The party’s growing support is the single biggest reason why Le Pen stands a chance of winning the country’s two-round presidential election that kicks off in April. She launched her campaign in early February with a rallying cry to confront the “two totalitarianisms” threatening France: Islamism and globalization.
Polls ahead of the contest regularly show Le Pen leading among the groups classified as ouvriers and employés by French statisticians—categories that describe low- to middle-income wage earners. A February poll had her winning 43...