Disgruntled French steel workers turn to populist Le Pen

HAYANGE, France (AP) – 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, Labour 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.

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.

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?’.”

A poster showing a portrait of an independent candidate for the 2017 French Presidential election Nicolas Dupont Aignan is pasted next to others showing François Asselineau, candidate of the UPR party (Union populaire républicaine ie Popular Republican Union) on a wall of a former factory on the outskirts of Hayange. - PHOTOS: AP
A poster showing a portrait of an independent candidate for the 2017 French Presidential election Nicolas Dupont Aignan is pasted next to others showing François Asselineau, candidate of the UPR party (Union populaire républicaine ie Popular Republican Union) on a wall of a former factory on the outskirts of Hayange. – PHOTOS: AP
People play tennis at a private club as smoke rises from a chimney at a nearby factory in Hayange. In eastern France’s industrial rustbelt, workers are massing behind the virulently nationalistic politics of populist Marine Le Pen. A large chunk of them will come from once left-leaning industrial towns like Hayange, scarred by the closure of its blast furnaces
People play tennis at a private club as smoke rises from a chimney at a nearby factory in Hayange. In eastern France’s industrial rustbelt, workers are massing behind the virulently nationalistic politics of populist Marine Le Pen. A large chunk of them will come from once left-leaning industrial towns like Hayange, scarred by the closure of its blast furnaces
The main control panel of a former steel factory abandoned inside an industrial unit at Hayange, a commune in the Moselle department in Grand East in north-eastern France
The main control panel of a former steel factory abandoned inside an industrial unit at Hayange, a commune in the Moselle department in Grand East in north-eastern France

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.

Labour 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 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 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 labourers 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 said, “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.