Disgruntled French steel workers turn to populist Le Pen

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Two things now grow around the rusting carcasses of the last blast furnaces in this French steel town: weeds, and votes for populist Marine Le Pen.

For months, labor leader Walter Broccoli fought to keep the fires burning, fearing that failure could drive enraged workers into the arms of Le Pen and her virulently nationalistic politics. He never imagined his own son would become part of the stampede.

He says they’ve not spoken in the three years since he discovered to his horror from their local newspaper that David Broccoli was registered as a candidate in municipal elections for Le Pen’s anti-European Union, anti-immigration National Front.

“I said to myself, ‘Impossible! What’s happened to him?’ I called him up. We argued. He told me, ‘That’s the way it is’ and hung up on me,” Walter Broccoli says. “I’ve had nightmares where I saw him dressed in an SS uniform, all in black, with a cap. I took it very hard. It shocked me: my son, in the National Front? Impossible. Unbearable.”

Yet the National Front is now an inescapable part of the landscape in France’s industrial eastern rustbelt and its once left-leaning towns. Le Pen is projected to win millions of votes Sunday in the first round of France’s two-stage presidential election, likely catapulting her to within one step of an electoral earthquake that would shake France and the EU to its core.

Disgruntled working-class voters will cast ballots for the anti-establishment Le Pen not solely out of conviction but also in protest. She is their nuclear option, their way to flip the bird at the French political mainstream they feel has betrayed and abandoned them.

Steel worker Pascal Grimmer doesn’t share Le Pen’s politics; he doesn’t, like her, want a “Frexit” to take France out of the EU or to ditch its shared euro currency. But she will get his vote because he’s “angry with politicians, filled with rage,” and “she is the candidate who most scares the others,” Grimmer says.

He hopes that an electro-shock-high score for Le Pen — not quite enough to install her in the presidential Elysee Palace but an uncomfortably close shave — will jolt more mainstream politicians “to use their brains to ask themselves, ‘What do people want?'”

“You reap what you sow. And our politicians have treated the French people like idiots,” he says. “Politicians don’t fulfill their promises. They lie as easily as they breathe.”

Last time, Grimmer voted Francois Hollande, the Socialist whose presidency, now in its final weeks, lasted just one term, sunk by his unpopularity.

Grimmer was impressed when Hollande came stumping during the 2012 campaign for working-class votes at the ArcelorMittal steel plant where he works. Labor leaders were in the thick of their battle to save Hayange’s furnaces, the last in eastern France still serving the steel industry.

Incongruous in his suit and tie, Hollande clambered onto the roof of a van with union leaders, took a microphone and promised to push for a law to help save plants facing closure. The crowd, which included Grimmer, cheered. In a seemingly trivial detail, but one which workers subsequently wouldn’t let him forget, Hollande even shared a spicy barbecued ‘merguez’ sausage with them.

“I said to myself, ‘Oh, I like this guy.’ Naively, I believed him,” Grimmer recalls. “I was completely hoodwinked.”

Grimmer and others felt betrayed when the furnaces were extinguished in 2013, as part of a deal the Socialist government struck with steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal seven months after Hollande’s election. Hollande beat conservative Nicolas Sarkozy, another one-term president under whom ArcelorMittal also closed a plant in nearby Gandrange.

The deal included jobs elsewhere or retirement for furnace workers. ArcelorMittal also promised to invest 180 million euros ($190 million at today’s rates) in other sectors of the giant steel works, which still produce high-grade metals for automakers and other clients and sprawl across three towns, including Hayange, in the Fensch valley.

Workers had hoped for more. The mothballing of the furnaces that used to turn the skies incandescent red, dust soot over the valley’s towns and draw laborers from across Europe and North Africa hit hard. In a final show of defiance, Grimmer, Broccoli and other members of their Workers’ Force union unveiled a plaque of protest in Hayange when the scorching fires which had melted ores into metal went cold.

“SELLOUT,” the plaque read. “Here lie the promises of change that F. HOLLANDE made to workers and their families.”

Still bitter, Grimmer says: “Politicians are forcing me to vote Le Pen. That’s why I’m doing this. Not with a happy heart but because I’m forced to. And increasing numbers of French people are starting to think this way.”

And if Le Pen wins?

“So be it. They will have to live with that,” he says.

Broccoli says he warned Socialist officials that extinguishing the furnaces would be “electoral suicide.” Sure enough, the year after they were put out, Hayange voted in a National Front mayor in 2014 — one of just a handful of towns in France to do so.

“It really hurts me to see workers turning toward fascism, the extreme right,” Broccoli says. “They are so angry that they are prepared to vote National Front, to destroy everything. They have nothing left to lose.”

Broccoli’s son, a computer technician, doesn’t work in the steel industry. Still, the father assumes his son felt “abandoned by the government” after losing a job in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, leaving him unable to pay rent. He says the son moved in with his mother, also a National Front supporter. The parents are separated.

“I feel as though he’s been stolen from me,” Walter Broccoli says. “All these people — like his mother, his stepfather — they weren’t like this 15 or 20 years ago. It happened gradually.”

David Broccoli didn’t respond to calls and a text message from The Associated Press. Herve Hoff, who stood with him as a National Front candidate in 2014, says David Broccoli and his mother “adopted our ideas because they felt that the left had betrayed them. Simple as that.”

Hoff, a restaurateur, is now seeking election to parliament. He proudly showed the AP his letter from the National Front investing him as its candidate in the Fensch valley in June legislative elections. Saying Le Pen appeals to “forgotten people,” he drew parallels with Donald Trump’s election to the White House, won with strong support from disgruntled workers in coal country.

“We’ll have the same phenomenon. Deepest France, rural France, will lift up Marine Le Pen and you’ll see villages where she’ll get crazy scores,” he says.

Michel Liebgott, the valley’s current lawmaker, a Socialist, handily beat a National Front opponent last time. This time, he’s not so confident. If he decides against running again, he says the National Front could win the seat.

Liebgott, who was born in the valley and remembers Hayange as its jewel, a bustling steel town, says the region is dividing between haves and have-nots. Many of the better-off work across the nearby border with Luxembourg, braving gnarled traffic on the highway to Luxembourg City for higher wages in its services economy. An estimated 90,000 such jobs have helped fill voids left by decades of steel plant and mine closures in France.

“The poor are here. The others have gone elsewhere,” Liebgott says.

With the benefit of hindsight, the lawmaker says Hollande’s campaign stop in the valley in 2012 “was bloody stupid.” It gave steel workers false hope that the furnaces, which had long been earmarked for closure, could be saved.

Now firmly ensconced in Hayange, where the eyesore furnaces dominate the skyline, National Front Mayor Fabien Engelmann says he did not propose saving them because that would have been “impossible.”

“I didn’t lie to my voters. I offered them a coherent program: security, cleanliness, lower taxes, reduced debts, road building, work on schools — things a mayor can do,” he says smugly.

The unemployment rate in Hayange is 14 percent, the mayor says — above the already high national average of 10 percent.

Jean-Paul Holtz sees the decaying cathedrals of once-belching pipes and chimneys from his windows. The drum player in Hayange’s brass band spent all his working life in steel plants, starting as a 14-year-old apprentice. Now 66 and retired, he wishes the furnaces could be torn down because “it makes me sick to the stomach to see them like that.”

Holtz plans to vote for far-left presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, who is making a late surge in polls.

“People came to set up industries, money was made, people were provided with jobs. But it’s over, finished,” Holtz says. “We have to move on. Will we move on? When? I don’t know. It drags on and on and on, rusting away.”



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