Observations from our first day, stops in Hénin-Beaumont and Amiens.
The town hall of Hénin-Beaumont is under construction, a printed mesh on the scaffolding portraying the building in its finished state. The church is being refurbished. It's a sign of the tidying-up that's been going on in this former miners' town in the North of France, ever since the mayor Briois took office in 2014. A member of the Front National party, you could say that his project has been a miniature version of the plans that presidential candidate Marine Le Pen puts forward: "Remettre La France en ordre", putting France back in order.
In Hénin-Beamont the rate of unemployment is close to twenty percent - twice as much as the national average -, a number that has been going up since the mines closed. The town (26.000 inhabitats) sits in the Pas-de-Calais region, where the Front National has been gaining popularity since the noughties. In the last regional elections, the right-wing party came out on top.
Spending several hours in this town, the clean-up is commended by its inhabitants. But the people we spoke to didn't all reveal themselves as militant FN voters. Instead we were struck by what a mother told us: "I won't vote this Sunday. Why would I? It's won't change anything, the politicians are all the same. I have no faith in them." The sentiment was repeated several times during the afternoon, by the lady in the bakery who sold us our strawberry-tartins and a young woman we met in the street. She was willing to speak of the frustrations and ...policies that were taking away opportunities "from the population who were born here, whose families are from here. Even the Front National. Sure, they say they will work for the people, but the East-Europeans coming to our country, they get a job and a house at the first instance. [The mayor] hasn't changed anything about that." And so, no one deserves her vote.
If we met several convinced abstainers, many others in France are still undecided on which candidate to elect: the current polls point to thirty to forty percent. Nevertheless, Marine Le Pen appears confident of her results in Hénin-Beaumont. So much so, that she will spend Sunday evening there, awaiting the exit polls for the first round.
Front National youth campaigners at work in Cottency, near Amiens.
"I'll definitely go there to join the Front National gettogether", says Morgan, whom we meet in Amiens. The 23-year-old is an organizer for the party's youth movement. "I think it's great that she doesn't organise the results party in Paris; the political establishment parties all stay in Paris, but Marine will get a good result in this region." Morgan and his fellow FN-volunteers take us to the tiny village Cottenchy on Tuesday evening, to do house calls and distribute party programs. Says his colleague Nicolas of the region: "In some of these smaller cities around Amiens, we've been polling at forty percent."
They've been doing this most evenings during the official campaign. Morgan joined Le Pen's party four years ago: "What initially sparked my attention was the fact that the FN gained so many votes in the last elections, but they are still stigmatized." Some family members already stood favourably for the programs and he found that he, too, agreed with the plans. The number one issue: "We want France to be able to take its own decisions again. Marine Le Pen will make sure that our choices will be put into action, because she will stand up to the European Union. That way, what we think should happen in France, about our liberties or security, can actually happen." The EU-scepticism, a priority given to the French on the jobs market as well as in the cultural arena, are themes that we discuss during our walk through the rural setting.
To the three nationalists, Le Pen provides the perfect answer to the voters' indecision and the nonvoters' complete distrust of politicians. Morgan: "She will introduce more referendums, the opportunity to directly express ourselves for specific issues. And she is not like the establishment, I suppose that is very clear to everyone."