The northern French village of Le Hamel sits amid farmland in the rolling hills of Picardy, its brick-and-timber houses clustered around a duck pond and a 16th-century church, far from France’s so-called urban ghettos.
About half the village’s 119 votes cast in the 10-candidate first round of France’s presidential election on April 22 went to Marine Le Pen of the National Front, the anti-immigrant party that tapped into the Europe-fatigue of parts of rural France.
“The farmers are sick of the European Union telling them what they can and can’t do, the hunters want to be left alone by the ecologists, everyone is angered by rural post offices and bus routes closing,” said Le Hamel Mayor Jean-Jacques Adoux, a truck driver who says he can’t compete with Eastern Europeans who work for a quarter of his wages.
Voters like Adoux, lured by Le Pen’s anti-Europe rhetoric, catapulted her to the third place nationally in the first round with a record 17.9 percent of the vote. Now, her supporters’ votes will determine whether President Nicolas Sarkozy is re-elected when he squares off on May 6 with Francois Hollande.
Socialist lawmaker Hollande, who got the top score in the first round, has consistently led in the polls for the decisive second round. He would get 55 percent of the vote to 45 percent for Sarkozy, according to a Harris Interactive poll.
“Sarkozy needs at least 70 percent of Le Pen’s votes but without alienating the center,” said Esteban Pratviel, head of studies at the opinion department of polling company Ifop. “It’s not likely he’ll manage.”
Le Pen, who got more votes than her father Jean-Marie in 2002 when he made it to the second round, has refused to endorse Sarkozy or Hollande, saying they’re “Siamese twins.” She accuses them of being part of the same establishment and blames them for pushing the European Union constitution through parliament after the French rejected it in a referendum.
She has indicated that she will call on her supporters to abstain when she holds a meeting tomorrow.
Not all her supporters will follow her advice. Sarkozy might get about 48 percent of her first-round voters, Hollande 21 percent, while the remaining 31 percent have yet to decide or will abstain, according to a Harris Interactive poll April 27. By contrast, Hollande can count on 92 percent of the supporters of communist-backed Jean-Luc Melenchon, who took 11.1 percent in the first round.
In the last presidential election, Sarkozy got between 60 and 65 percent of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s voters in the second round, according to a June 2007 study by Cevipof, a political studies institute.
Even before the first-round vote, Sarkozy flirted with National Front themes in his campaign. He threatened to withdraw France from Europe’s Schengen treaty, which eliminates passport controls at borders, if sterner steps aren’t taken to prevent illegal immigration.
He stepped up the effort after the first round, saying “we have to listen to this cry and provide concrete responses.” He promised a new right of a presumption of self-defense for police involved in the killing of suspects after a case last week in Paris, a Le Pen campaign pledge, and criticized the EU for not enshrining the continent’s Christian roots in its constitution.
Not everyone is buying it, if the four National Front volunteers sitting around a table in Compiegne, a Picard city of 45,000 about 85 kilometers (50 miles) north of Paris, are any indication.
“He made so many promises to us in 2007 that he hasn’t delivered on, about security, immigration, jobs,” said Emmanuel Fauvergue, a 48-year-old dental implant maker. “He spat on us for five years, and now suddenly it’s Operation Seduction. It’s not honest.”
Some National Front voters may even opt for Hollande, said his friend Bruno Zelisko, a 28-year-old accountant.
“Front voters have many values that are considered to be on the right, but they also share many values with the left: a strong welfare system and a belief in keeping public services such as the post office and transport,” he said.
Le Pen, who tapped into this feeling of abandonment, inherited the National Front founded by her father Jean-Marie, now 83, whose main issue was restricting Muslim immigration to France. He was convicted at least six times for anti-Arab or anti-Jewish statements.
Marine, 43, kept her father’s opposition to immigration, dropping the racist comments. She added economic proposals including quitting the euro, protecting French industry, freezing some utility prices and replacing taxes on gas at the pump with levies on oil companies.
“She’s a different generation and has added positions that are coherent with the French Republic: pensions, public service, secularism, Europe,” said Laurent Dubois, a professor at Paris-based Institute of Political Studies. “Some of what she says is pure fantasy, but much is anchored in genuine issues.”
Picardy, which voted 25 percent for Le Pen, the highest score of France’s 20 regions, was ripe for her message because Europe’s economic crisis left its cities with shuttered factories and its rural areas suffer from reduced public service and the high cost of gasoline, Dubois said.
Its unemployment rate is 11.3 percent compared with 9.4 percent for mainland France.
“The price of gas is a major issue for everyone in the country,” Le Hamel’s mayor Adoux said. “At least Marine has concrete proposals on what to do about it.”
Abbeville, a Picard town of 25,000, which voted 23 percent for Le Pen, lived through the closing of a 136-year-old sugar factory in 2009, with the loss of 74 jobs.
“This area has been ravaged by factory closings,” says Christian Mandosse, a 52-year-old antiques dealer who runs the Front’s website in town. “People here feel scorned by both Sarkozy and the Socialists. They are part of the same elite.”
In his latest appeal to National Front’s voters, Sarkozy said in a speech on April 27 that abstentions will result in the election of Hollande and encourage immigration.
France accepts about 200,000 immigrants a year, about 0.3 percent of its population. Le Pen wants to cut that to 10,000, Sarkozy to 100,000. Hollande won’t give a target.
“To those French who stay home, don’t complain when Francois Hollande is elected and regularizes all illegal immigrants and lets foreigners vote,” Sarkozy said.
It’s a tactic that’s helped him win over Front votes in the past. Le Pen’s animosity toward Sarkozy is in part because of his 2007 claim he would “crush” the Front.
Sarkozy pinched much of her father’s vote that year. Jean-Marie Le Pen lost half his votes between 2002 and 2007. Sarkozy got half the defections.
The Front’s hostility also stems from Sarkozy encroaching on territory it considers its own, effectively challenging its raison d’etre. National Front voters say they are carriers of France’s traditions, rejecting they are driven by xenophobia.
“It’s about defending our values,” said Carole Renoult, a 45-year-old of Vietnamese origin, who sat at the table in Compiegne with her friend Fauvergue, who is of Madagascan descent. “It’s about respect for authority, about the incivilities we see increasingly on our streets.”