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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Méricourt face au spectre du 21 avril

by Ludovic Tomas

Méricourt Is Faced with the Ghost of 21 April

Translated Monday 12 March 2007, by Emma Paulay

During the Presidential elections 5 years ago, 30% of the vote in this former mining town in Pas-de-Calais was extreme right-wing. The reason? Social insecurity. Will it happen again in a few weeks time?

Méricourt (Pas-de-Calais)

Special Report

Méricourt, with its 12,000 inhabitants, is at the heart of a mining basin. A town has been built up on blue-collar solidarity and successive arrivals of immigrant workers. Nevertheless, on 21 April 2002, one voter in three voted for the extreme right-wing party. In the second round, Jean-Marie Le Pen (National Front) obtained over 27%, increasing his votes even more. Seven years earlier, in the 1995 election, the National Front candidate came second with just over 19%, behind…Robert Hue (Communist Party candidate). Following the resignation of Léandre Létocard (Communist Party), Bernard Baude, also a Communist, was elected in March 2002. Between the two election rounds, he called a special council meeting to compose a speech to address to his citizens. The text was approved by the 36 local representatives and co-signed by 5 group presidents.

Everyone was surprised.

At the protest march on 1 May, people from all political stances marched side by side. So what happened in Méricourt, where, as in many small towns, the National Front doesn’t even have any representatives, and did no canvassing due to lack of militants?

“Everyone was surprised” remembers Ali, even though in his bar there is not much talk of politics, just to avoid disagreements. According to Ali, who thinks he has only one Le Pen voter among his clients, 21 April 2002 will not happen again. “They voted National Front to see what would happen, to get a reaction and to give the government a fright. They tried once, but it’s over. Sarkozy is the dangerous one,” states Ali, who arrived in France in the 1960s. “People had had enough. They wanted to try something else but they would never have guessed that so many voters would behave the same way,” reckons Ali’s wife. In contrast to 2002 where “opinions were voiced strongly”, this time she “hasn’t heard” people express the same feelings. Bernard Daube, for his part, has seen the context change over the years and remains worried about the result of the next election. “Before, out of 90% of requests to see the mayor, half of them concerned housing, and the other half were about employment. Today, a third of the inhabitants come to see me about problems with their neighbours. People have become very intolerant of others, and they come and say so. ’Others’ are not necessarily immigrants, but can be Parisians. The National Front has created this climate.” explains the mayor.

Every evening, the former miners, most of them of Italian origin, meet up at the “club Amici”. In between a glass of his country’s wine and a game of cards, Vittorio Mastroianni, the president, predicts the worse: “Le Pen is another Mussolini. He’s going to do even more damage than in 2002! People vote for him because they’re destitute. With the euro, prices have gone up but salaries haven’t. The region’s factories are closing down. They keep eating away at our rights”. With 70% of households with revenues below the income tax threshold, 23% of residents signed on at the Job Centre and over 500 people receiving the RMI (1) (an increase of 25% compared to 2002), Méricourt symbolises the helplessness which is contaminating the whole country. The 80% who said “no” to the European constitution treaty on 29 May 2005 are another example of this.

Sitting at the same table, Bernard Jolda, son of a Polish immigrant, tries to understand the breakthrough of the extreme right. “I was a dirty Polack too. Afterwards there were the Macaronis (2) and then the Bougnouls (3). Everyone had a rough time. But work was the federator. It’s not so today. Those who think that by sending all the immigrants back everything will be better, are being tricked,” he warns. Jean-Jacques is one such person. Openly racist, he has voted National Front for the past 30 years. He lines up all the populist clichés dealt out by Le Pen and company, alleging that immigrants occupy council houses, draw benefits and supervise drug dealing. “Le Pen is a little Hitler. But that’s what we need for 6 months to sort people out”.

Although Jean-Jacques is an extreme case, a large part of the population is nevertheless imbued by National Front campaign themes. Le Pen’s ideas remain influential and reach even those who refuse to put an extreme right voting slip in the urn. The idea according to which the country is in a difficult situation and is no longer in a position to distribute welfare, especially to people of foreign origin, is widespread. “It’s not the Black’s fault that they are born black. I’m not against financial aid for countries in difficulty, but we can’t have everyone here”, we overhear at the bar in the town. At the “Resourcefuls” club adjoined to Amici, Françoise is tired of “the youngsters’ incivility. Nobody says anything, but it hurts”, she admits. These youngsters “who want to work but whom nobody wants because they’re half-caste”, continues Stanislas, a grandfather who had a hard time during the war in Algeria.

Ideas which remain influential

At Simone’s it’s a bit like “the good Lord’s house”. From behind the bar she sees it all. Open-handed, she has recently taken in a young man who was on the streets. Her expectations for the future: “A little more security, a little less tax, some concrete measures, and that we stop hearing that it’s the right or the left wing’s fault when things go badly. Simone hasn’t made up her mind yet. It won’t be Jean-Marie Le Pen, even less Ségolène Royal, maybe Marie-Georges Buffet. Le Pen scored highest in her polling station at Kergomard school: 33% in the second round. It’s an area where the town council has undertaken the construction and renewal of housing. The same town council which, incidentally, a little more than a year before the last presidential election, was re-elected with over 71% of the votes, when the right-wing candidates only obtained 28%. The National Front score has decreased in each subsequent election (regional, district) since the shock of 21 April. Will the 2007 elections follow the trend?

(1) Revenue Minimum d’Insertion, allowance for those over 25 years of age who have no other revenue
(2) Derogatory term for Italians
(3) Derogatory term for Arabs

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