The look of any newly arrived visitor to the French city of Hayange gets stuck in the same spot. An imposing industrial complex, with black and white pipes and visibly rusty warehouses, rises next to a railway line. Arcelor Mittal furnaces symbolize this town in the northeast of France, with 16,000 inhabitants and located just 40 kilometers from the border with Luxembourg. The history of this steel factory, closed since 2013, not only illustrates the deindustrialization of the northern fringe of Gallic territory, but also explains the great electoral support for the far-right Marine LePen.
“The inhabitants of this area were betrayed by both left-wing and right-wing politicians. The industrial furnaces ended up closing, despite the promise of François Hollande to achieve the opposite”, he declares to EL PERIÓDICO Fabien Engelman, 42 years old, mayor of Hayange, one of the almost twenty cities —all of them small or medium with the exception of Perpinyà— governed by the National Regrouping (extreme right). In fact, the election of this ultra mayor in 2014, then comfortably re-elected in March 2020 in municipal elections marked by covid-19 and a very high abstention, was marked by the closure of the Arcelor Mittal factory, the main steel producer in the world, whose headquarters are in Luxembourg.
The fateful end of the steel industries of Hayange and Florange was one of the feuilletons that weighed down Hollande’s mandate. In the midst of the 2012 presidential campaign, he had visited his striking workers and made them believe that he would do everything possible to prevent the closure. The episode marked consciences, to the point that it inspired the series Baron Noir. In the end, the socialist president, who then counted as the main economic advisor with such Emmanuel Macron, signed an agreement with the multinational at the end of that year. That allowed none of the workers to be fired, but certified that the factories stopped working. Some 1,000 jobs were lost in the historic steel belt of Lorraine, according to the CGT.
The deindustrialization, a favorable terrain for Le Pen
“The closure of the Arcelor Mittal furnaces in 2012 represented the latest chapter in an intense deindustrialization process started in the mid-1970s with the oil crisis”, explains Pascal Raggi, professor of Contemporary History at the University of Lorraine. According to this historian, “communists and socialists paid for the political repercussions of this phenomenon.”
Many of the inhabitants of the area “suffered a social downgrading. The percentage of population below the poverty line in Hayange is 20%. In the case of active young people, it exceeds 30%. All this represents a favorable breeding ground for the vote for Le Pen”, recalls the political scientist Etienne Criqui, a good connoisseur of this steel and mining belt.
The ultra-nationalist candidate exceeded 38% of the votes in this town in the first round on April 10. “In the last decade, she has gone from achieving 27% in 2012 to almost 39%”, highlights Criqui. If the debater’s votes are taken into account Eric Zemmour, the extreme right reached 45% in a city whose residents hide their sympathy for lepenista xenophobia less and less. Second in the country as a whole with 23%, Le Pen was the most voted in all the departments (provinces) of the north of France with the sole exception of Alsace, historically a moderate region. In a way, this northern belt, severely shaken by deindustrialization, represents the French equivalent of rust beltkey to Donald Trump’s victory in 2016.
“I am not racist, but I am opposed to giving so much help”
“I don’t want there to be foreigners in France, especially I don’t like Arabs – a derogatory word to refer to French people of North African origin – who don’t stop messing around by stealing and selling drugs,” admits Christian, 63, who works as a plumber. , after having a pint in a bar in the lethargic center of Hayange.
“I’m sick of politicians. We have tried them of all kinds, from the right, from the left… Why don’t we try it now with Le Pen?”, says Lydiane, 62, a retired flower seller. “I am not a racist, but I am opposed to giving so much help to all these people who do nothing and spends the day on the sofa”, this daughter of Italian immigrants defends herself. “Does it seem normal to you that after working 45 years she receives a pension of only 822 euros?” She adds resentfully, while she helps a friend prepare bouquets in a store.
It’s Good Friday – a day that is only a public holiday in this part of the northeast due to the Concordat – and the streets of Hayange are almost deserted. Once known for its frenetic industrial activity, it has now become a bedroom town without soul. “Before it was a very rich area, known as the Lorraine Texas. In Hayange we had a hospital, a police station and even a judicial court. All that disappeared”, laments Catherine, 77 years old, while having a coffee with a couple of friends on a terrace, located between a neo-Renaissance-style church and the Town Hall, whose building with an ocher façade stands out only for its tower with a clock, shaped like a factory.
“We have fewer and fewer health services and the Thionville hospital – a nearby town of 40,000 inhabitants – is saturated,” Engelmann denounces, reproducing Le Pen’s usual speech on the disappearance of public services in “peripheral France”, the Gallic equivalent of “empty Spain”. This mayor, who in the past had been a member of the CGT and the Trotskyist left, likes to boast that “the RN is the first workers’ party in France.”
Despite this, he has managed the city as if he were the typical conservative mayor, focusing on keeping the streets clean and safe. “He has taken care of the city as if he were his caretaker, but he lacks a social vision. He has abolished 70 municipal workers and has also resorted to private companies to delegate a part of public services, ”criticizes Gilles Wobedo, a militant of the rebellious left who appeared on an opposition list in the previous municipal ones. Some of the most antisocial measures of this ultra City Hall were a decree against people who beg on the street or having cut off electricity and water to the communist-inspired humanitarian association, Sécours Populaire. “To the volunteers of charitable associations I tell them not to get involved in politics,” admits Engelmann.
Opinions divided among Mélenchon voters
“After his election in 2014, I spent several years without setting foot in Hayange,” says Antonio Lorio, 59, about a mayor who is highly detested by some but also positively valued by many neighbors, including those who do not support the extreme right in national elections. After having voted in the first round for the rebellious Jean-Luc Mélenchon —the second most supported in the city with 20.9% ahead of Macron (20.16%)—, this militant of the communist party He has no doubt that in the second he will bet on the outgoing president.
In Hayange, however, not all the melenchonistas voters, whose bag of almost 22% of votes has become the most coveted treasure in the neighboring country, share the same opinion. “I don’t like Le Pen because she’s a racist, but I’m going to vote for her, since I’m fed up with Macron”, affirms Lola Klis, 19 years old, who does not hesitate to insult the centrist leader and reproaches him for “promising many things, but then not fulfilling them”.
This young supermarket cashier spent Friday afternoon drinking a can of Coca Cola and sitting in a fountain with her boyfriend of Turkish origin. In front of them was a large drawing on the front of a house that reproduced the prosperous streets of Hayange in the late nineteenth century. This type of murals was repeated in several buildings. A nostalgia for the past that favors listening to the song of the sirens of lepenismo.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.