In her flagship town, France's Le Pen is already a winner

  • World
  • Wednesday, 12 Apr 2017

FILE PHOTO: Marine Le Pen, French National Front (FN) political party leader and candidate for French 2017 presidential election, attends a political rally in Arcis-sur-Aube, near Troyes, France April 11, 2017. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

HENIN-BEAUMONT, France (Reuters) - In Henin-Beaumont, where French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen's National Front won power three years ago, her backers are sure she will win a thumping victory later this month - locally, at least.

This former coalmining community in northern France, a town where unemployment approaches 20 percent, is one of only about a dozen municipalities - out of 36,000 nationwide - that are controlled by her far-right party and its affiliates.

The anti-immigrant, anti-European Union Le Pen, who grew up near Paris, has since made a home here and will cast her own ballot in the first voting round at its town hall on April 23.

"I believe Marine Le Pen will easily score 60 to 65 percent here," Jean-Robert Havet, a technician for carmaker Renault, said of the first round.

Opinion polls say she is tied for first place nationally in that round with centrist Emmanuel Macron, both around 24 per cent. But Macron is widely seen winning the runoff on May 7.

Residents of Henin-Beaumont told Reuters they were mostly satisfied with the way the party runs the town under Mayor Steeve Briois, 44, and forecast a strong turnout to back his boss at the first round of voting.

The FN's 2014 municipal election victory in this community of 27,000 brought an end to seven decades of left-wing rule.

Its rise to power epitomises the way voters have dumped the left for its failure to address joblessness, and backed the far-right's anti-immigrant and anti-globalisation stand.

On top of that, voters were fed up with the former Socialist mayor after he was convicted of misusing public funds.

Unusually, Briois did not even need to campaign until the normal runoff vote since he won an absolute majority - precisely 50.25 percent - in the first round.

"Steeve renovates schools, roads, buildings ... You couldn't see any of this before. It was a corrupted, dead town here," said Havet, 59.

Although Le Pen's programme resonates strongly in Henin-Beaumont and towns like it, she does less well nationally because many voters see her position on immigration as extreme.

Her anti-globalisation line also faces competition from the unexpectedly strong Jean-Luc Melenchon, a veteran far-left candidate who is just as spirited a debater as she is.

In this town, though, there was little hesitation and even less uncertainty. "She is close to the people. She has compassion for blue collar workers unlike those 'champagne socialists' you see on television," Havet said.

Many others at the town's busy weekly market echoed that. "I will vote 'FN' in the next election. We have a good mayor," said Celine Brulin, 46, who is unemployed.

Even critics of the Front like Alain Alpern, 70, who once sat on the town council himself, predict a high Le Pen score.

"She will easily get to 50 percent and I even fear she will secure much higher figures. Le Pen has an address here so local residents are proud," he said. "The mayor is everywhere and the National Front has a very good communication strategy."

Not all residents were pleased with the local administration and Le Pen's ideas.

"If Marine Le Pen won, I wonder if I should leave France for good despite the fact I grew up here and I'm French," said Fatima Amara, a social worker of Algerian descent. "I won't be arrested for what I'm telling you, will I?"

(Additional reporting by Noemie Olive; Editing by Andrew Callus and Tom Heneghan)

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