Amid French pension reform anger, far-right appeal silently grows
By Layli Foroudi
PONT-AUDEMER, France (Reuters) - Marching against Emmanuel Macron's proposed pension changes this week, Nathalie Hue said she couldn't imagine a worse president and felt a chance should be given to far-right politician Marine Le Pen.
"We haven't tried [her], he doesn't listen to us -- I don't see myself waking up at 5am until I'm 64," the 54-year-old pharmaceutical industry worker told Reuters as she walked with other protesters through the picturesque Normandy town of Pont-Audemer.
Around 1.28 million people took to the streets across France on Tuesday to protest against the government's plan to raise the pension age. It was the sixth day of nationwide demonstrations since January and drew the highest turnout so far.
There is growing concern in the corridors of power that anger and resentment over the deeply-unpopular proposal are playing into the hands of Le Pen, who is eyeing re-running in 2027, when Macron will have reached his second-term limit.
So concerned was Pont-Audemer's mayor, Alexis Darmois, that he told Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne, in a letter seen by Reuters, that going ahead with the plan would push people "into the arms of populist opportunists that the far-right is overflowing with".
"We cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that the Rassemblement National could benefit from this chaotic situation," Darmois, who supports the pro-Macron party Horizons, told Reuters.
Described by locals as the biggest protest in recent history, around 2,000 people from Pont-Audemer and its surrounding villages marched through the town, passing the now-closed foundry and traditional half-timbered houses.
The town sits in one of 83 mostly rural constituencies that voted through a far-right Rassemblement National (RN) candidate for the first time in the 2022 parliamentary elections, that saw Le Pen's party expand beyond the post-industrial north and its historical stronghold in the south-east.
The Eure area, where Pont-Audemer sits, saw four out of five parliamentary seats going to Le Pen's party for the first time in 2022.
The local MP who rode that wave, Kevin Mauvieux, has himself shifted right, having been active with the Les Republicains party until 2020 when he left due to disagreements with the party's support for Macron.
"People feel the government doesn't care about them - that they are good for paying taxes and nothing else," said the 31-year-old, adding that the pension reform is the "the last straw" for people struggling with rising prices.
Anger over the pension changes has boosted support for Le Pen among the traditional right in the countryside, even if she hasn't been very vocal on the subject, said Guillaume Tricard, analyst for polling institute Cluster17.
"They are against the reform, like everyone else, (and) think Marine Le Pen is not that bad, not like her father," he said.
The RN, which proposes to keep the retirement age at 62 after 42-43 years of work, and cut it to 60 for those who started working early (before 20), is the most positively-viewed party when it comes to pension policy, according to a Cluster17 poll.
According to the same poll, left-wing La France Insoumise (LFI), which proposes retirement at 60 after 40 years of work, is second most positively viewed.
The hostility of unions leading the anti-reform protests towards Le Pen's party means her officials do not easily take part in the demonstrations.
Unlike Le Pen, who has steered clear of the protests, Mauvieux placed himself front and centre of one of the previous Pont-Audemer protests. Before long, he was told by local CGT activists to leave.
"We told him he wasn't welcome, that we don't represent the same ideas," said Jean-Baptiste Simonin, a local CGT representative, adding that there is always the risk of the far-right taking advantage of the rising discontent.
But on Tuesday, Mauvieux managed to make an appearance again, even if he stayed at the back of the procession and didn't wear his tricolore sash.
On the side of the march, there is a sense that the party's strategy of "de-demonisation", which has seen Le Pen drop some of the most toxic elements the party is known for, such as anti-Semitism, is starting to work with voters.
Cheese seller Delphine Delaune says she didn't vote last year, but she might back Mauvieux next time.
"I know him, not well, but he's from round here," she said.
(Reporting by Layli Foroudi; editing by Michel Rose and Christina Fincher)