Postcard from Hayange: fury in France's eastern rust belt drives workers to drop Left for Front National

Henry Samuel

The white statue of Notre Dame de Hayange gazes across the Valley of Angels towards the carcasses of two huge, dormant blast furnaces.

The failed fight to prevent their 2013 closure in the heart of eastern France's rust belt has come to symbolise rampant de-industralisation in a country that has lost 1.5 million jobs in industry in the past 25 years. 

The FN hopes to repeat electoral success in Hayange on a national level 

Once staunchly Left-wing, Hayange, population 16,000, is is now one of 11 towns in France run by the Front National, whose candidate Marine Le Pen is heading to sail into the final round of presidential elections on May 7. 

With its promise of protectionism, the FN clinched more than 50 per cent of the vote in 2015 regional elections here. Nothing suggests it won't fare as well, if not better, in May. Its popularity is such that the Communist mayor of a neighbouring town remarked: "Even a goat with an FN label would get elected right now."

Empty shops in Hayange Credit: Magali Delporte

In the shadow of the silent furnaces, a bustling Thursday market brings welcome - if fleeting- dynamism to a town where unemployment runs at 14 per cent, above the national average. Half of Hayange's shops are shuttered while a smattering of boulangeries, hairdressers and a fishmonger soldier on in the centre. 

Locals happy with mayor, voice despair at French presidential race

Yet few locals have a bone to pick with the 39-year old FN mayor, Fabien Engelmann. In office since 2014, he has - like far-Right counterparts around France - been at pains to prove the FN can do governing as well as demagoguery, making modest cuts to the town's debt and taxes, and launching a popular annual "fête du cochon" (pig festival).

"Personally, I have nothing bad to say about him. For now all is working well," said Fabrice Leglin, 29, a bus conductor from Hayange, shopping with his wife and small child.

"The town is clean, I live on a hill and when it snows they clear it. He is trying everything to make the town centre more attractive," he said.

Fabrice Leglin, 29, bus conductor from Hayange with his wife Credit: Magali Delporte

Like many in France, Mr Leglin is furious with mainstream politics and unsure how to cast his vote in upcoming presidential elections. "These people want to teach us lessons in morality and tell us poor workers we have to scrimp and save. We need to have someone who resembles us in power and then things would get done," he said.

Notre Dame de Hayange, a seven-metre-high white statue, overlooks the Valley of Angels in France's eastern rust belt Credit: Magali Delporte

Vincent Marcel, 61, a retired steel worker, said: "It's certainly no worse than under the Socialists. There are less homeless loitering in the town centre, we feel a little safer."

For the first time, he is considering not voting in the presidential election. "They're all a bunch of bandits. I would have voted for Fillon, but he's under investigation, his wife, MPs, everyone around him," he sniffed.

Hayange

Hayange blast furnace closure was François Hollande's Waterloo, say unions

Mr Marcel used to work for Arcelor-Mittal, whose decision to shut the Hayange furnaces sparked a standoff with Socialist president François Hollande, who came in person during his 2012 campaign pledging to change the law to save the plant. His industry minister briefly threatened to nationalise the furnaces and throw Arcelor out of the country, but in the end they were closed, leaving only the neighbouring  Florange site open. 

"Hollande betrayed us," said Lionel Burriello of the CGT union at the steel plant in Florange. A framed photo of Che Guevara hung behind him.

"He broke his promises here and during his presidency. He's an unprecedented turncoat and today he's paying for it," he said.

At Arcelo- Mittal, CGT unionist Lionel Burriello Credit: Magali Delporte

Little wonder, he added, that people had lost faith in the Left. It was, he said, no coincidence that the FN won power the year after the furnaces closed.

Another union member, Frédéric Weber of FO, said: "The slide from far-Left to far-Right has been going for the past decade, but we are witnessing an acceleration."

"Around me, workers are either going to abstain or cast a protest vote in the presidential election. A small number will vote (Jean-Luc) Mélenchon (the far-Left candidate), but I think that a big part will unfortunately vote FN."

Front National mayor of Hayange, Fabien Engelmann, an admirer of Brigitte Bardot Credit: Magali Delporte

'Only Marine Le Pen defends the working class,' claims Hayange's FN mayor

Sitting in his office, Hayange's mayor was surrounded by photos of Brigitte Bardot, a "heroine" for the vegetarian animal lover.

A curious political specimen, Mr Engelmann spent seven years as a far-Left activist for the Worker's Struggle party and was thrown out of the leftist CGT union when they found out he had jumped ship to the FN.

"I have a very coherent career path," insisted the mayor with his immaculately-cropped dark hair.  "Today, only Marine Le Pen defends the working class.

"Only she proposes a programme of common sense, protectionism, the return of a strong state that can regulate offshoring, and getting rid of the EU."

Front National mayor of Hayange, Fabien Engelmann Credit: Magali Delporte

'Brexit has emboldened the French to leave the EU'

In a presidential election where the traditional Left and Right have broken down, the FN is in many ways increasingly indistinguishable from the far-Left, with Mr Engelmann confessing that the main difference boils down to its trademark beef with immigration and "Islamisation".

As for the FN's championing of protectionism, the mayor shrugged off the irony that the local economy is heavily reliant on 70,000 French crossing the border to work everyday in booming Luxembourg - just 10 miles down the road.

Brexit had emboldened the French to leave the EU, he insisted.

British Steel's rail plant in Hayange, eastern France Credit: Magali Delporte

Seen as Hayange's saviour, British Steel plant 'could suffer from protectionism' if Marine Le Pen wins

Equally ironic is that fact that in Hayanges, the last remaining industry is dependent on free trade; the local British Steel factory exports 70 per cent  of its rail track to foreign countries and is concerned that a newly protectionist France will put it out of business.

That fact is not lost on the Gregory Zabot, CFDT union representative at the plant.

"Who will make up for the lost 70 per cent? The SNCF (France's rail operator) isn't going to triple its orders to save our factory," he said.

Back at the market, such incoherences were not the only concern among residents.

Even though Mr Marcel is clearly part of the disgruntled working class Ms Le Pen must attract to stand a chance of presidential victory in May, the ex-steel worker said he could not bring himself to vote FN.

"I"m not worried about Frexit. That doesn't scare me frankly. You did it in Britain. Are you scared?," he said.

"But I won't vote Le Pen. I am the grandchild of Italian immigrants - many came over here to work in the 1920s," he said.

"I'm scared of extremes for me and my children."

Alexandre Wierth from Hayange, 27 year-old musicology student mulling voting Front National to" force a Frexit" Credit: Magali Delporte

But others, like Alexandre Wierth, 27, a musicology student, were mulling taking the plunge if only to "blow up the system".

"People talk about how deplorable (the election of Donald Trump) was in America, but in France I don't think we'll  do any better."

"Mélenchon is interesting on ecology but Europe won't let him do what he wants.  Maybe we need the ideas of Marine Le Pen - a Frexit to get us out of there and to take back control." 

With around 40 per cent of the electorate still unsure about who deserves their vote, Ms Le Pen's chances of victory nationwide hinge on how this dilemma plays out.

How the French presidential election works

 

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