Can Europe Make It?

“Our programme is called reality”: rain on the Rue Nationale

Beyond the French elections, how much ‘business as usual’ can French and German voters take?

Kate Laycock
9 May 2017

Forbach train station. Flickr/forzaq8. Some rights reserved.All weekend, my mother-in-law kept glancing anxiously out of the window: "They said it was going to be sunny, but just look at it pouring down,” she’d sigh. We’d exchange glances, and then busy ourselves with whatever toddler-induced chaos needed mopping up or – in one particularly embarrassing incident – scrubbing from the walls.

Somehow, we’d reached an unspoken understanding: we weren’t going to talk about the election. That in itself was odd, because my husband’s family is French, we were in France and the whole of the country was talking about nothing else.

My mother-in-law had a solution for that too: the TV stayed resolutely tuned to German children’s channels from the moment we arrived to the moment we left. Like many of the older generation in Moselle, north-east France, my mother-in-law grew up between languages: French, and a dialect which, to all intensive purposes, is the same as the one their German neighbours know as “Saarländisch”. She was born in Morsbach, on one side of the “Rue Nationale”, a peculiarly ill-named road given the fact that the houses on the other side actually belong to Germany. Here, you buy your baguettes in France but, for anything else, you nip across the road to the German supermarket, where everything is noticeably cheaper. “I had trouble with the boeuf bourguignon,” my mother-in-law says fretfully, “the butcher doesn’t do beef during the week any more, and the other one’s closed down.” Another anxious glance at the window. Marine Le Pen won 42.5 percent of the vote in Forbach, and 53.95 in Morsbach.
Give or take a few industrial estates, Morsbach effectively is the “Rue Nationale” – a seemly never-ending line of nondescript and strangely dusty-looking houses set back a good seven to ten metres from the road. The reason for this spatial largesse? This is coal-mining country, and the front-yards were where your monthly supply of coal used to be dumped and then shovelled, bit by bit, into your cellar. Ten minutes down the road is Forbach, where my husband’s paternal grandfather was a miner. Right up until the 1970s, this area produced 45 per cent of the nation’s coal. Thousands of people were employed in the mines or, as locals put it, “they were with the Wendels”. The Wendels were the big mine-owning family and, if you were “with them”, you could count on a regular wage, decent pension and subsidised housing.

When “Pépé Zep” finally had to go into hospice care at the age of 94, the money-side of things was all taken care of because he’d “been with the Wendels”. In the meantime, however, hiring in the mines had been in steady decline since the 1980s, with the last mine closing in 2004. Unemployment here is currently at 12.7 percent – that’s three points higher than the national average. In the adjacent banlieue, which has a predominantly immigrant population, one in three inhabitants are unemployed. On the one occasion I’ve had to visit the local A and E, the waiting-room was full. “They come to the hospital because it’s free, and the GP would charge them”, someone muttered, eyeing up the people inside, most of whom looked Arab in origin. 

On Sunday, Marine Le Pen won 42.5 percent of the vote in Forbach, and 53.95 in Morsbach. Tellingly, almost ten percent of votes were recorded as blank or spoilt. Equally telling is the fact that, in the first round, the radical left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon came in second, comfortably ahead of Emmanuel Macron, who was the clear leader nationally. Of all the candidates, Mélenchon was the only one to claw back votes from Le Pen’s core demographic.

After an internal consultation, sixty-five per cent of supporters of Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise movement indicated their intention to spoil their ballot. Mélenchon, for his part, refused to endorse Macron – a move which broke with the “front républicain”, the pact established in 2002 by which electors rally behind whichever candidate is standing against the Front National in the final round. However risky Mélenchon’s calculation in the short-term, come 2022, France may have reason to be grateful for his restraint. Of all the candidates, Mélenchon was the only one to claw back votes from Le Pen’s core demographic: the young, the financially precarious and the unemployed. These voters’ message is clear: they need change, and they need it fast. Should Emmanuel Macron prove to be the “business as usual” president that his manifesto suggests, then Marine Le Pen’s blue wave will surge down the Rue Nationale, sweeping everything in its wake. In 2022, it won’t be a “front républicain” that will provide the last defence against the Front National, rebranded and plausible as it will by then have become. The resistance will have to come from the left – a left untainted by the cowardice of having asked people to vote for the very conditions which it knows to be the ground-soil of fascism. Should Emmanuel Macron prove to be the “business as usual” president that his manifesto suggests, then Marine Le Pen’s blue wave will surge down the Rue Nationale, sweeping everything in its wake.

The weather picked up slightly as Sunday afternoon wore on. There’d been several “Marine Le Pen” voting slips poking provocatively out of the bins in the booth where my mother-in-law went to vote. The boeuf bourguignon was delicious – she’d managed to find beef in the end, although not in Morsbach. Eventually, we peeled the toddlers away from the children’s channel and said our goodbyes. Did she know what the weather was going to be like for the rest of the week? “Oh you know, I never believe a thing they say anymore,” she replied.

We headed home – to Germany, as it happens. As we neared Düsseldorf, the posters began. North-Rhine-Westphalia holds regional elections this coming Sunday. Prominent amongst the roadside messages was one from the AFD, Germany’s far-right populist party: “Our programme is called reality”, they claim. Another poster – from Chancellor Merkel’s Christian Democrats, who are hoping to depose the local leftwing coalition – read: “I don’t feel safe here anymore. That’s why I’m voting CDU”. 

For the moment, the meteorological outlook for the weekend is grey with showers. One thought about the weather though: in an age of man-made global warming, it’s not so much individual weather events that are important, as the overall pattern. That, and our will to do something about it.

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