It was an awkward moment for everyone. I was midway through my interview with Antonio Notarioni when the doorbell rang. His wife, Edith, crept out of the living room and peered through the narrow glass panel in the front door.
“It’s Regine!” she whispered.
For Antonio, Regine Andris spells trouble. The 73-year-old former hairdresser is a candidate in France’s upcoming parliamentary elections for the National Front, a far right political party with a similar outlook to One Nation – strident economic nationalism fuelled by xenophobia and Islamophobia.
Regine’s populism is anathema to Antonio, 63, a tax inspector who sits proudly at the centre of the political spectrum. He’s a passionate supporter of the European Union (EU) and embraces immigration.
But Antonio and Regine are good friends – or they’re supposed to be.
It’s a friendship that’s being increasingly tested, never more so than when Regine bustled – some would say barged – into Antonio’s living room during our interview.
He’d already confided in me about the strains in their relationship, and I was about to ask him more about this when the doorbell rang. Regine’s ears must have been burning. After affectionately greeting everyone, she removed her scarf and jacket and pulled up a chair. Antonio was fuming and told her she couldn’t stay because he was being interviewed.
“Oh, so I’m not welcome here?” Regine snapped, grabbing her scarf and coat and storming off.
Edith was mortified.
Small towns make for easy friendships, and for all its many problems, Denain in northern France is no exception – it’s why Regine and Antonio have been friends for so long, despite their ideological differences.
I’d come to Denain to investigate the National Front’s recent surge in popularity. Its leader, Marine Le Pen, is a frontrunner in the presidential election that starts next week.
Denain is said to be the poorest town in the country – one in three adults here is unemployed and the average life expectancy is a shocking 58 years. Until the 1980s jobs were plentiful in the local coalmines and steelworks, which lured workers from Morocco –Antonio’s father emigrated from Calabria, in Italy, with his wife and young son. But the town’s been dying ever since the steelworks closed (its population has shrunk by a third), and immigrants now find themselves scapegoated for the town’s malaise. Many of Denain’s redbrick terraced houses are abandoned and boarded up; others are crowded with large Roma families. Churches lie derelict, while newly built mosques thrive.
Antonio, a keen musician who plays guitar at his local church on Sunday mornings, wrote a melancholy song back in 1980 about Denain’s decline. ‘Une Ville Perdue’ (‘A Lost City’) captured the sense of loss and confusion the townsfolk felt, poised between the glory days of the past and an uncertain future.
This lost city
What will you do tomorrow?
Empty and immense
This lost city
It’s my adolescence
What will you do tomorrow
So that everything starts again?
37 years later, the question still resonates, but an increasingly common answer is; “Take a sharp right turn”. Denain has always been considered a “red bastion” – a stronghold of Communism and socialism. But the pendulum has recently swung to the far right, and ever since she retired in 2003, Regine Andris has been doing a lot of the swinging.
She says that when she was cutting hair, she didn’t feel free to express her political opinions. In fact that was how Regine first met Antonio more than 30 years ago – in her salon. She was cutting his wife Edith’s hair, and Antonio started seeing her husband, Gerard, for his regular trim. The two couples became friends after Gerard, the president of a local football club, asked Antonio to write a song for them.
Antonio was soon inviting them round to his house, and Regine still treasures his generous hospitality. “We felt we were part of the family”, she recalls, which explains the ease with which she made herself at home after arriving unannounced.
Paradoxically, some of the qualities they cherish in one another may have given rise to their clashing political opinions.
Regine appreciates Antonio’s intelligence, refinement and open mindedness – traits in keeping with his support for Emmanuel Macron, a dashing young upstart in this year’s presidential race. The 39-year-old former investment banker was a cabinet minister in the Socialist government until he resigned last year to launch his presidential bid as an independent. Macron aims to straddle the left-right divide, advocating for the so-called Third Way which would combine free market reforms with an emphasis on social justice. Of particular significance in this election, he backed the open-door policy toward asylum seekers pursued by Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel.
Apart from admiring Regine’s charm and femininity (“she was a very good-looking woman”), Antonio respects her strength, courage and frankness, which have undoubtedly helped her endure the long years when her extreme views were denigrated.
“She’s full of authority and when she has an idea, she doesn’t give it up,” he says. “If I’d been her husband, I don’t think it would have gone well!”
Temperamentally, as well as politically, they’re opposites. Regine is mercurial while Antonio is phlegmatic. Her politics are driven by impulse and feeling, his by prudence and logic. But their mutual affection, as in so many relationships, stems at least partly from these differences.
Regine first ran as a candidate for the National Front in local assembly elections in 2012.She wasn’t the only one with political ambitions back then – Antonio was also a candidate that year, for a centrist party. Five years ago, their friendship seemed strong enough to surmount their political differences; strong enough, in fact, that they went campaigning together, putting up posters and distributing flyers for their respective parties.
Regine is reluctant to acknowledge that anything has changed since then.
“There are small problems but no big problem,” she says. “He’s Macron and I’m Le Pen. Friendship and politics are different things – friendship first.”
But some important things have changed. For many Denaiseans (as the townsfolk are known) it’s finally become socially acceptable to support the National Front. Marine Le Pen is ahead in the polls and Regine believes that victory is finally within reach.
Meanwhile, among Antonio’s mostly liberal friends, the old stigma still holds, and he finds himself having to justify his friendship with Regine. When he’s seen greeting her on the street with a kiss, it prompts shock and questions. How can you be friends with that woman?
“It’s dangerous to be near Regine”, he told me. “Too dangerous. It’s better for me to keep a distance.”
He didn’t want to be filmed alone with her, so in the end I joined them at a party they were both attending. There was plenty of bonhomie, but also wariness – Antonio made sure someone was sitting between him and Regine. The evening ended with a rousing sing-a-long of Antonio’s song, “A Lost City”. Regine joined in with gusto.
Will such conviviality be repeated after the elections? What will happen if Regine is elected to the National Assembly? Does her friendship with Antonio depend on the outcome?
“It will be about dealing with our current differences, and whether we’re going to be able to live with those,” Antonio told me.
“I don’t know. We’ll need to put in lots of love in order to get over these problems. We must understand that indeed there’s a real danger of friendships of many years falling apart.”
And not just friendships – perhaps even family. Filming at the National Front office one day we met Antonio’s son-in-law and grandchild. When we told Antonio, he was shocked – he had no idea that his son-in-law was planning to vote for Marine Le Pen.
That was another awkward moment.