Updated: Tuesday, 13 May 2014 13:29 | By Agence France-Presse

Far-right flourishes in France's rusty steel belt

Marie da Silva makes an unlikely poster girl for France's far-right National Front (FN).


Far-right flourishes in France's rusty steel belt

French far-right Front National (FN) party member and newly elected mayor of Hayange Fabien Engelmann (L) congratulates his first assistant Marie Da Silva at the City Hall in Hayange, eastern France, on April 6, 2014 - by Jean-Christophe Verhaegen

The daughter of an Italian immigrant and the wife of a worker with Portuguese roots, the new deputy mayor of the town of Hayange was until recently an active member of the CGT trade union grouping.

But things are no longer as they once were in the country's northeastern steel belt, where the contraction of a once mighty industry has combined with an equally painful sense of betrayal by successive governments to help transform former bastions of the left into fertile ground for the anti-immigration, anti-EU FN.

The new mayor of Hayange, Fabien Engelmann, is also an FN member.

Polls suggest the party led by Marine Le Pen could emerge from the upcoming European elections as France's leading party.

One recent survey put backing for the FN in eastern France at 26 percent of the overall electorate and at 55 percent amongst industrial workers.

Da Silva's personal journey towards the FN's embrace is typical of many in a town of 15,000 people that recently became the first in the region to elect an FN mayor.

"My father would never have believed it," says local resident Yvette, 56. "Here, before, you were either communist or socialist. But the FN? Never," she adds with a shake of the head.

"All that ... that was before," responds da Silva. By that, she means before last year's closure by ArcelorMittal of the last surviving blast furnace in the area, one that President Francois Hollande had explicitly pledged to keep open during his 2012 election campaign.

Hollande's predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy had made a similar pledge about another nearby furnace in 2008, only two months before it was closed.

"That left a bitter taste but what Hollande did was worse," says Jean, one of the dwindling band of ArcelorMittal employees still in work. "Because he was on the left, we believed him."

- Defending France's values -

Hayange is the principal town in the Fensh valley, which was once home to no fewer than 35 furnaces and which, along with the region's iron mines, drew workers from all over Europe.

"We built Europe here before anywhere else," recalls Yvette. "There were Portuguese, Italians, Polish ..."

Philippe David, the former Socialist mayor of the town, adds: "In the 1970s, Hayange was flourishing. People would come from Luxembourg for shopping."

Today, there are no signs of visitors from the nearby Grand Duchy. With an unemployment rate above 15 percent, boarded-up shop fronts in the town centre testify to how Hayange struggles to support its surviving businesses. Nearly two in three residents do not earn enough to be liable for income tax.

Thierry Gourlot, a regional organiser for the FN, emphasises that the party has been establishing roots amongst the area's industrial working class for some time. "What is new is that voters on the left, particularly amongst those with connections to the steel industry, are coming over to us -- and they are coming over in droves," he told AFP.

Gourlot attributes much of the trend to the work Marine Le Pen has done in disassociating the party from the legacy of its founder, her father Jean-Marie Le Pen.

As well as being widely regarded as a racist, Le Pen senior also advocated a brand of free-market economic liberalism that someone like new Hayange Mayor Engelmann could never previously have endorsed.

A former Trotskyist, Engelmann, 35, says he made the switch to the FN to help defend "France's Judeo-Christian values in the face of a Muslim offensive," and out of anger at town hall resources being put at the disposal of "so-called political refugees."

"People round here say 'nobody does anything for us and they (asylum seekers) are housed for free, they get vouchers for their food ... it's like we have established a policy of foreigners first."

That kind of populist outburst does not seem to sit easily with his deputy da Silva, who emphasises: "In the FN, everyone does not necessarily have the same ideas about everything. 

"It is a broad church. But when you have a big cake it is easier to share it out. When all you are left with is a very small cake, then you can't share with everyone."

Not everyone in Hayange agrees with that logic however. "The FN has no programme," says Gilles Wobedo, a nurse who, like a third of the town's residents, works in wealthy Luxembourg. "They are like an opportunist virus -- infecting an area whose immunity has been depressed and weakened."

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