Inside Le Pen’s Growing Army of Discontent

Truckers expose the European fault lines being exploited by nationalist leaders.

At the Relais des Hayons in northern France, 180 truck drivers are enjoying the calf heads, blood sausage and other delicacies in their four-course meal deal with wine before retiring to the ranks of rigs parked outside.

With their own red Michelin-style guide, the Relais Routiers stops are an unmistakably French institution. Yet behind the nostalgia and the gruff bonhomie of the drivers — all male, all white and mostly middle-aged — lies a festering reality: France’s estimated 350,000 hauliers are a mobile army of discontent, a sign that Europe’s struggles with populism will continue no matter what happens in the French elections starting this month.

Truckers in northern France.
Photographer: Philippe Huguen/AFP via Getty Images

Laurent Radier, a 54-year-old driver and former parachutist in an elite unit of the French army, had a word for politicians in Paris and Brussels. “They’re all liars,” he said, standing up to leave rather than watch the presidential debate about to begin on the TV screens. Nobody turned up the volume to listen.

Haulage companies rely on the open borders and seamless trade that the European Union created. But in France and other wealthier EU states, the drivers they employ are also at the mercy of the low-cost competition from the former communist east that comes with it. Polish trucks alone now account for a quarter of all international road transportation business in the EU. That’s driving down delivery prices for consumers, and also the salaries of an unhappy workforce with few other career options.

Barring a major shock, National Front leader Marine Le Pen looks likely to lose to the pro-European centrist and former banker Emmanuel Macron in the second round on May 7. But the anger that opinion polls suggest will give her about 40 percent of the vote, doubling her father’s score in 2002, is here to stay.

“Beating the populist vote is not enough to tackle the very real problems we have,” said Guntram Wolff, director of Bruegel, a Brussels-based economic think tank. “There is too much complacency, a sense of business as usual.”

There’s evidence that the knock-on effect from Britain’s vote to leave the EU and Donald Trump’s victory to take the U.S. presidency has been exaggerated. Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party saw a poll lead vanish to place second in Dutch elections on March 15. More recently, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union won big in state elections in Saarland, a region next to France built on coal and steel.

But there’s little sign yet that EU officials and national governments have suddenly found the answers to income inequality, the combined social impact of rapid technological change and a globalized economy, the structural weakness of the euro, or of increased immigration. Driverless truck technology is already on the horizon and, while a growing robotics industry may create high-end jobs, drivers will not be among the winners.

Truck drivers eat in a Relais Routiers restaurant stop in France.
Photographer: Gilles Bassignac/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

“Who thinks France should leave the EU?” Franck Bosval, 50, asked a group of about a dozen French truckers just off the cross channel ferry from Normandy to deliver goods across the U.K., which last week triggered two years of Brexit talks. All but one agreed. “For us,” said Bosval, “the EU does nothing anymore.”

Interviews with dozens of French truck drivers at Relais Routiers over three days showed the overwhelming concern is pay. Salaries are, at roughly 2,700 to 3,000 euros ($2,900 to $3,230) per month, worth less today than they were in the 1990s when adjusted for the cost of living. That was before the euro and EU enlargement to absorb the former eastern bloc, bringing in drivers for sometimes less than a third of the money.

According to the Comite National Routier, a transport think-tank funded by the French state, the total cost of a driver to employers ranges from 16,000 euros per year for a Bulgarian to 56,000 euros for a Belgian.

Under EU rules, a driver making an international delivery can also make a limited number within France before loading up to return home, what’s known as “cabotage.” The European Commission says that accounts for as little as 3 percent of the transport market. However, abuse of the restrictions is difficult to monitor in a borderless Europe. The true scale of the practice is much higher, at about 22 percent of the market, according to an Austrian study.

France last year passed a law developed by Macron when he was economy minister requiring any EU truck company to pay its drivers the French minimum wage while delivering in the country. Germany, Italy, Belgium and Austria have passed or proposed similar laws. The EU objects and says that eventually all restrictions to free movement should be lifted.

Dozens of trucks with east European plates were pulled up in the parking lots outside the Relais du Pole 45 near Orleans, 80 miles south of Paris. Only western European drivers were eating inside, paying between 9 and 14 euros for a meal.

“They’re modern slaves,” said Dominique Morel, a former National Front adviser on road transportation who stopped in Orleans on his way back from a delivery to Belgium. He didn’t blame drivers from the east for trying to improve their earnings, but rather the French carriers chasing lower costs to boost profit as well as the “globalists” in Brussels. Together, they are “vampirizing” the French transport market, he said.

Ideally, salary, fuel, taxes and welfare costs should be equalized upwards across the EU, according to the truckers. Indeed, their first choice would be for a fully harmonized Europe, rather than its break up. But they’ve given up on that happening.

The profession meanwhile has become unattractive to the next generation with the average age of a driver now at about 50 and shortages across the continent. Relais Routiers have been closing.

“We used to be respected and now people look at us like dogs,” said Jean-Phillippe Cavarho, 59, as he nursed a beer at the Relais de Bourges, further south on the highway from Paris to the Mediterranean coast.

Most of the drivers said they either wouldn’t vote or would cast blank ballots to express their disgust. Of those who did select a candidate, virtually all picked Le Pen, citing her pledges to leave the euro and the EU, as well as her opposition to “globalism.”

They are in the minority. Opinion polls suggest that about 70 percent of French voters want to keep the euro. However, there is no shortage of potential crises that could turn the populist tide again.

Despite a pick-up in the euro area’s economy, the French unemployment rate remains almost 10 percent. Islamist terror attacks continue. Bailout negotiations with Greece are news again, Italy is triggering renewed concern as a potential source of instability for the euro area and a deal with Turkey to control refugee flows from the Middle East looks increasingly fragile.

Morel, a former marine, said the backlash is yet to come. He was kicked out of the National Front in 2014, after taking evidence of party funding corruption to the courts and has since joined an even more nationalist political party.

Truck driver Dominique Morel poses for a photograph outside the restaurant near Orleans.
Photographer: Marc Champion/Bloomberg

A tattoo of black feet on his neck shows his support for the “pieds noirs,” the non-Muslims, including his parents, who left Algeria during its fight for independence from France. Macron will become the next French President, but the legislative elections that follow will leave him without a majority in parliament, Morel predicted.

That doesn’t bode well for the kind of radical reform needed to recharge the French economy and create new jobs for 50-year-old drivers. Yet if the established parties club together to support Macron, it will prove he was simply the candidate of an establishment conspiracy, according to Morel.

And that, he said, would “create a boulevard to power for us nationalists.”

This is the third in a series of stories on French populism. Read Gregory Viscusi’s profile of Saint-Nazaire and John Follain’s report from Perpignan.

Graphics by Samuel Dodge