Letter from France — From the May 2016 issue

Front Runner

Marine Le Pen’s campaign to make France great again

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In late November, Le Pen traveled to Hayange, a former mining town situated at the point where Belgium, Germany, and Luxembourg come together with France. She visited Hayange to campaign for members of her party who were running in the regional elections. The F.N.’s traditional base is in the south of France, where anti-immigrant sentiment and imperial nostalgia are especially pungent, thanks to a large population of repatriated colonial settlers. In recent years, however, Le Pen and her party have been using Hayange as a staging ground from which to expand into the northeastern part of the country.

In the 1950s, the government brought foreign workers to Hayange to meet the labor needs of the mining industry, and these days many residents have Italian, Spanish, Polish, Portuguese, or North African last names. Mineral extraction in the area ceased by the end of the 1980s, and most of the factories have since shut down as well. The labor unions that historically held sway in Hayange made it a stronghold for Hollande’s left-leaning Socialists, but the party’s decades-long failure to revive the economy in the area has recently opened up the region to dalliances with other political suitors.

In 2014, Fabien Engelmann, a thirty-four-year-old who ran on the National Front ticket, became the town’s mayor. He lowered local taxes and introduced free transportation for the elderly, but he also denied practice space to a teacher of North African dance and launched an annual Pig Festival, supposedly to honor “friendship and tradition.” (Pork consumption, of course, is prohibited in Islam, and it did not go unnoticed that launching a fête du cochon was one of the least friendly gestures that could be made toward the region’s Muslim residents.)

When I arrived in Hayange, the buildings, the terrain, and the leafless trees were all the same shade of beige. A small crowd of protesters had gathered at the town hall, near the auditorium where the F.N. rally was being held. Some wore red Parti communiste jackets, while others had red triangles pinned to their chests, in emulation of those worn by political prisoners under the Vichy regime. In the wake of the Paris attacks, Engelmann had hung a banner at the town hall that read homage to the victims of islamist terrorism. He had also arranged for the statue of the Virgin Mary that looks out over the town from a nearby hill to be illuminated in blue, white, and red. The protesters complained that the contrasting connotations of the two gestures were divisive by design.

F.N. staffers, who expected an audience of about 700, had laid a French flag on each chair inside the auditorium, along with a little packet of gummy candies. As the evening’s program began, children stood on chairs and waved flags vigorously in the crowded room. Music that might have been borrowed from an action movie clashed over the sound system, and a chant of “Ma-rine! Ma-rine!” filled the auditorium.

Le Pen stepped up to the lectern, looking utterly at ease. “This drama is not a natural disaster,” she said. “Its authors are men.” She hailed the F.N.’s clairvoyance in warning about the dangers of a borderless Europe. “For decades we’ve been watching the collective moral abdication of our elites — worse than abdication, treason.” The word was repeated throughout the evening.

Le Pen has presented herself as the guardian of the legacy of Joan of Arc — she named one of her daughters Jehanne — and her public-speaking style manages to be at once virile and maternal. She takes obvious pleasure in mocking her adversaries, and carries a natural conviction in her voice that her voters interpret as honesty. It is a cocktail of traits for which Hillary Clinton would likely pay more than the combined salaries of her campaign staff.

“Do they intend to stop welcoming immigrants?” Le Pen asked her audience in Hayange. “Surely not. And yet we know with certainty that several of the terrorists entered Europe with the migrants.” She told her supporters that the country had fundamentally changed in the two weeks since the attacks, and she railed against the “hateful speech, maintained sometimes at the highest levels of power, against those who carry the blue, white, and red.” After urging her supporters to “be proud of yourselves, of your values,” she stood onstage with the other F.N. officials while the tricolor spotlights drilled down from above. In the two years I lived in France, I never once heard the “Marseillaise” sung live; now the audience members rose to their feet and sang the anthem in a spontaneous husky chant.

After the rally, I spoke with a twenty-four-year-old nurse who told me that he was voting F.N. for the first time. He was frustrated with the mainstream parties, which he felt had abandoned the region. Le Pen, however, has made economic protectionism a pillar of her domestic policy, a stance that won her much support in and around Hayange. After the negligence of the Socialists and the Republicans, the nurse suggested, the F.N. was “the only thing left for us to try.”

When I told two men in their mid-fifties, who described themselves as longtime members of the party, that I lived in New York, one suggested that Le Pen was “sort of our Giuliani.” In fact, Le Pen had recently been collecting comparisons to another New York Republican, Donald Trump. Like Trump, Le Pen has a talent for playing to the fantasies of her followers, and both have attracted support from popular milieus in which the political and media elites are seen as being locked in contemptuous collusion. But while Le Pen’s positions have overlapped with Trump’s on issues such as immigration and Russia, she is a lifelong politician, and is less transparently ludicrous in her self-presentation. She has worked hard to shape the political apparatus that surrounds her, and has been careful to denounce any explicitly racist behavior by members of the F.N. In January of last year, after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, she censured a close adviser who had posted a video online that proclaimed France was at war with Muslims. She also rejected Trump’s proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the United States, even though her own immigration policies are scarcely more liberal.

The morning after the rally, I walked among tables of eggs and seafood at the town market in Hayange. I stopped by a booth where a man of Algerian descent was selling men’s briefs in neon colors that read private property and who’s the boss? I asked him how business had been. Pointing to a blue-white-and-red streamer that was draped around one of the tent poles, he said, “I’m required to put that up now.” He laughed. “The thing is, this ‘France for the French,’ it doesn’t exist,” he said. “I’m third generation; my family came here from Algeria in the 1950s.” He noted that Hayange was an immigrant town, and suggested that the F.N.’s plan to end immigration was as absurd as its promise to revive the defunct factories. “There’s nothing to fix,” he said. “If you dip a glass into an empty well, it still won’t come up with water. There’s no money here. The industry is gone.”

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lives in Brooklyn. Her most recent article for Harper’s Magazine, “The Counterparty,” was published in December 2015.

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