Hundreds of people sing the national anthem in the northern French city of Hénin-Beaumont.
On stage is Steeve Briois, the mayor since 2014, and the vice-president of the National Rally, France’s main far-right party, formerly called National Front.
Municipal elections are a week away, and this close ally of Marine Le Pen is running for re-election.
Six years ago, half of the voters in this city of 26,000 people voted for Steeve Briois in the first round of the local elections.
Unreported Europe went to Hénin-Beaumont to find out why the city illustrates the party’s vision for France, and why the people in this part of the country embrace the National Rally.
Man of the people
“He (Steeve Briois) does lots of good things,” one voter said. “He even comes to our houses. If we call him about problems in the neighborhood or whatever else, he comes. He visits everyone, does great things. Honestly, we’re really happy with him.”
It’s not just National Rally supporters who are happy with their mayor. Even citizens like Arnaud Contrainne, a 40-year-old nurse, who dislikes the party’s nationalism, says the city is run efficiently.
“I think they do good stuff, socially, for the community, things for children and for housing, even though it is not a party I agree with at all,” said Arnaud.
Despite the coronavirus lockdown the government decided to maintain the municipal elections.
The main challenger is Marine Tondelier, a Green member of the city council, who leads a broad-based coalition to topple the National Rally.
“It’s hard to predict what is going to happen,” explained Marine, “especially with the coronavirus and all that, the campaign is quite shaken up.”
Tondelier faces an uphill battle. Steeve Briois, is seen as an approachable mayor, close to the people. And at 47, he has already accumulated more than 30 years of grass-roots activism in Hénin-Beaumont.
“We are always on the ground, all the time. We don’t just listen to voters two months before the election. That kind of work pays off one day or another.”
Unemployment fuels anger
Another factor explains the National Rally’s appeal. Hénin-Beaumont lies at the heart of the French coal region.
For centuries, the mines shaped the local identity, providing jobs but also a sense of community. It was the bastion of the left.
Then, one by one, the mines closed. The other industries, like steel or textiles, also came crashing down a couple of decades later.
David, a communist councilman and history teacher, witnessed the transformation of Hénin-Beaumont.
“First of all there was the closure of lots of big factories in 2008-2009, so lots of workers found themselves unemployed, and they found refuge in abstention and a protest vote, a vote in anger.”
The anger in this town is still fueled by a 20% unemployment rate and one resident out of four living below the poverty line.
Adding to this is a massive political scandal in 2009 involving the former socialist mayor, who was arrested for corruption and embezzlement.
Revolted, voters eventually turned towards what seemed like the best alternative. Jean-Robert Havet, a retired factory worker and National Rally militant is an embodiment of this radical transition.
His grandfather fought in the Resistance and his father was a miner.
“I signed up for the National Front because I was repeatedly betrayed by people on the left, supposedly pro-worker.” explained Jean-Robert. And then you see them on TV being put on trial for money here, money there. You quickly get the idea that they are not in it for the workers, they are in it for themselves, that’s it. The city was dead. There was nothing left in Hénin. Now it’s alive again.”
Management by fear
Not everybody is pleased with the National Rally. Some condemn the policies that were enacted against migrants, Roma communities and human rights organizations.
But the most frequent criticism relates to the climate of fear, intimidation and bullying that looms over anyone who doesn’t fall in line with the far-right party.
Journalists, political opponents, activists, regular citizens and even public workers.
One of them agreed to be interviewed, on the condition that we keep his identity secret.
“The National Rally set up a management of fear, ” he told us. “It’s really a management-style based on fear. Every day there are threats, intimidation, bullying, orders, counter-orders. From the moment they decide that you are not with them, you are finished. That’s it.”
Several media reports seem to confirm these allegations and indicate high levels of sick-leave among the city’s staff. The mayor denies any wrongdoing.
“Listen, this is crazy. It doesn’t work like that in Hénin-Beaumont,” countered Mr Briois. “That’s the militant, Bolshevik, version from the Libération newsroom, helping out my political opponents. But the reality is that 90% of the staff at the municipality are happy with us.
“How do you know?”
“Because we see them every day.”
As the elections draw closer, the opposition ramps up its campaign, going door to door and hanging the last posters.
For their front-runner, Marine Tondelier, the objective is not just to win the election: it’s to counter the narrative of the National Rally.
“This is their showcase. They want to show that this is the un-demonized National Front, that they are kind, that everything is going well. The reality is that their natural tendencies come back quickly. If you are with them, there is no problem. But if you are not with them, then they think you are against them and you pay a heavy price. And that’s not OK. A mayor has to work for all the population.”
Election day arrives. Across France, the coronavirus triggered even more abstention than usual. In Hénin-Beaumont, only 44% of the voters went to the polls. But the results are undeniable.
With 74,2% of the votes, Steeve Briois wins by a landslide.
The National Rally’s success in Hénin-Beaumont is a subject of intense scrutiny in France.
As the country grapples with economic inequalities and anger against mainstream politicians, the party of Marine Le Pen continues to portray this town as a model of governance that must be extended nationwide.
For the other parties, here and in the rest of France, the challenge remains how to expose the far-right’s weaknesses, while offering a credible alternative likely to strike a chord with disenfranchised voters.