The election results taped to the glass door of the village hall in Lisbourg (Pas-de-Calais) tell a story of radical change. Exactly 37.5% of the 509 registered voters cast their ballots for Marine Le Pen: an increase of 20 points over the result of previous regional elections in 2004. Support for Valérie Létard and the UMP (Union pour un mouvement populaire, which currently holds power in France), declined by 13 points to 32.87%. Until now, locals in the rolling green Ternois dairy country have always voted in favour of the UMP. Deputy mayor Willy Gallet is still in a state of shock. "What a score! 133 votes!" As the proprietor at Chez Mimi, the village café, points out, the Front National (FN) benefitted by running a "local boy" on its list. He was elected to the post of regional councillor on the night of 21 March. "Olivier Delbé used to be UMP," explains Willy Gallet with a sigh. "Then a month ago, the newspapers announced he was joining the FN."
They should put on their wellies
The FN also made spectacular gains in the nearby villages of Beaumetz-lès-Aire (39%) and Fléchin (32%). For Willy Gallet it was not an issue of "support for candidates, but more of a protest vote." Nor did Olivier Delbé campaign on a traditional FN platform of law and order and immigration. "There’s no immigration or crime here. I always leave my front door unlocked," explains Bruno, a burly farmer with a mischievous look in his eye who welcomed us into his home where we sat at an oilcloth covered kitchen table. The real issue is the question of milk production: the Ternois is dairy country, and the steep decline in milk prices has undermined the livelihoods of local producers.
Bruno, who works his 50-hectares with help from his family, has decided to quit the milk industry: upgrading his farm to European standards would force him to take on too much debt. From now on he is planning to focus on beef and poultry production. "Le Pen is right to tell us we should be French first and European second. We voted against the European Constitution, but they pushed it through anyway. No wonder we’re not happy." And he is particularly critical of Sarkozy’s policies : "They told us there would be grants, but in the end we were only offered interest free loans. Those politicians should put on their wellies to see what life is like on a real farm. It’s not something you see on TV." This is the anger that Marine Le Pen cleverly harnessed when she came to Lisbourg to hold a press conference with the local candidate. A few days later, she returned to offer more support between the two rounds of the election. "The Front National ran a good campaign," acknowledges Willy Gallet.
Sarkozy doesn’t care about us
For political science researcher Djamel Mermat who infiltrated the FN in Hénin-Beaumont in 2008, the party’s northern campaign was typical of the well-oiled initiatives organized by Le Pen’s daughter. "She won 70,000 votes in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region between the two rounds. And her method, which combines presence in the field – and not just in big towns – with euphemistic speeches, has not only been successful in Hénin-Beaumont." The Le Pen machine won over the region by offering a helping hand to FN candidates in small villages, where teams were sent to hand out pamphlets. The goal is also to establish a win-win ethos within the party. "Jean-Marie Le Pen’s promotion of his daughter is all well and good, but she won’t get anywhere without support from grassroots activists. So she offers professional help in exchange for a payback in internal party votes," explains Djamel Mermat.
At Bruno’s farm, his mother, Jeanne-Marie, also believes that the Le Pen score was perfectly reasonable, though at the same time she shows us a pile of FN brochures still sealed in their unopened envelopes. "You can see that we’re not interested." She is eager to deplore the fact that nowadays "farmers wives have to find jobs. Twenty years ago, we had 15 hectares and we were able to buy land." Bruno agrees: "I know men with 200 hectares whose wives have to go out to work. One of them took out a 105% loan on everything he owns over 12 years. He’ll have to work for another two years before he starts making any money. His wife paid for everything for 10 years." And, in an undertone, he adds: "Sarkozy doesn’t care about us. He needed to be taught a lesson."
Keeping extremism in the family
Founded in 1972 and to this day still spearheaded by Jean-Marie Le Pen (81), the Front National is a French nationalist, populist, souverainist – even Fascist, according to certain political scientists – right-wing party. Initially a marginal movement, the FN first gathered electoral momentum in the mid-1980s, garnering between 11 and 18% of the national vote and as much as 30% in certain towns, especially in the South of France and in Alsace, thanks to its staunch anti-immigrant stance and its refrain “tous pourris” [taking up a popular Fascist slogan from the 1930s] – i.e. “all rotten to the core”. It underwent a brief decline from 2007, but the debate over French national identity which the government started up in 2009 catapulted its views back into the limelight. Making the most of the party’s success at the regional polls on 22 March, Marine Le Pen, Jean-Marie’s daughter and second in command, is likely to be the natural successor to its founding father. The Front National has three members of the European Parliament: Bruno Gollnisch and the Le Pens (father and daughter).