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In France's version of America's Rust Belt, the steel mills have shut and voters are flocking to the far right


Forty kilometers south of the cosmopolitan metropolis of Lille lies the French city of Hénin-Beaumont. Surrounded by waste heaps from old mines it is home to more than 26,000 people.

Hénin-Beaumont forms part of a wider region where the closure of mines and steel plants has transformed life and drawn comparisons with America's Rust Belt. Once a prosperous region in the northeast of France, it has been hit by deindustrialization and unemployment – the jobless rate has reached about 17 percent when the national average is closer to 10 percent.

Historically, steelworkers and miners have tended to vote left, but in the past few years, the far-right Front National (FN) has managed to establish itself locally. Since 2014, the party holds two cities in this region, Hénin-Beaumont and another city called Hayange.

Hénin-Beaumont itself is taken as an example of the Front National's management skills. The mayor, Steeve Briois, is widely praised by inhabitants and it didn't take long walking around the town for CNBC to find his supporters.

"When he (Briois) arrived in 2014, it was the Socialist Party at the helm, and Hénin-Beaumont had a lot of difficulties, now Mr. Briois put things right … I say that the Front National is today able to do the same thing on a national level", said Daniel Vaissier, who moved to Hénin-Beaumont a few months ago, but already supports the mayor strongly.

An ArcelorMittal factory in Hayange, France.
Marion Lory | CNBC
The town hall in Henin-Beaumont, France.
Marion Lory | CNBC

Vaissier grew up voting for the left, like his parents, but started leaning to the far right in 2005 when he realized the left and right were making what he perceived as the same mistakes over and over again.

Vaissier is indicative of the unanimous support for the mayor, but some inhabitants have however underlined that Briois's popularity was mainly due to his personality rather than his label and some are still reluctant to vote Front National at a national election.

This view is supported by Valérie Igounet, an historian who specializes in the far right.

"Today in France, there is one out of two voters that are not ready to vote for her (FN leader Marine Le Pen) to be president of the Republic … It is still a party that scares people", she explained.

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With photographer Vincent Jarousseau, she spent two years in different Front National cities, writing about people they had met. L'Illusion Nationale, the book which resulted from this trip, tells the story of these citizens, torn between disappointment and hopelessness.

A few hours away, close to the Luxembourg border, stands Hayange. This heartland of steel mining is regularly in the limelight due to its controversial Front National mayor, Fabien Engelmann. In 2014, he was elected in a quadrangular election with 2,000 votes out of 12,000 voters. Since then, he has tried to clean the city, installing cameras, reinforcing the local police and forbidding ball games. And any differing opinions are muzzled. Like Patrice Hainy, a former deputy sport councilor working at the town hall, who joined the Front National ahead of the 2014 elections but quickly realized that Marine Le Pen's party was strictly controlling its members.‎

"During the elections, they give the impression to listen, that our opinion matters but once they have the power, we have to follow … We have to follow and obey. It is even worse than the right or left," he told CNBC.

Patrice Hainy, former deputy sport councilor, who joined the Front National ahead of the 2014 elections.
Marion Lory | CNBC

Hainy was leaning to the left for years until he got tired of the politicians not listening to the people. And he is not the only one.

"Some are traditional (and vote along family lines), but others voting for the first or second time feel betrayed by politicians that didn't keep their promise and are disappointed by the left and the right," Igounet said in a telephone interview. ‎

Others voting for the first or second time feel betrayed by politicians that didn't keep their promise
Valérie Igounet
Historian who specializes in the far right

Such a statement is shared by Hervé Hoff, a local Front National politician based near Hayange, who stated that the closure of plants in the region didn't make people vote for the Front National but rather the tiredness of the left-right scenario. "It is this disappointment that triggers the vote for the FN. It is a deep vote that dates back several years, it is not recent" he said in an interview with CNBC.

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Whatever the reasons, the Front National vote seems to be more and more important in small towns. In the last presidential election of 2012, 20 percent of the voters who gave their ballot to Marine Le Pen in the first round came from rural areas, according to an Ipsos-Logica Business Consulting survey.

This year, some people like Hoff think she could even win in the first round. A very unlikely scenario given the 11 candidates for the presidential election. In the latest Ipsos poll, centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron is leading narrowly ahead of far-right leader Marine Le Pen with 26 percent against 25.5 percent. However, the French election is shaping up to be an unpredictable race and the final weeks might bring some surprises.

The first round of the 2017 French presidential election is set to be held on April 23, with the run-off election between the top two candidates due to be held on May 7.

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