In part 1 of a special Europe investigation, Dateline looks at why French voters are shifting to the right and what hope the National Front party gives them of a new France.
Denain is the poorest town in France, it’s struggling voters in towns like this that could decide the next president. As the French go to the polls, Denain's 21,000 residents are being seen as a barometer of a changing France, and this election a referendum on a vision for Europe's future.
SOUFIANE IQUIOUSSEN (Translation): I’m Soufiane Iquioussen, Denaisean by birth and going back several generations. In fact, my grandfather arrived in the 30s, in northern France, being one of the first Moroccans to arrive in France. We’re very lucky to have a beautiful mosque where my brother officiates. It is a French mosque, 100%.
Up to 15% of the population in this area is Muslim, compared to 10% in France as a whole. A legacy of the Moroccan families who came to work in the local coal mines and stayed.
OTHMAN IQUIOUSSEN, IMAM (Translation): Today we are going through a crisis, an economic crisis, which is very complicated.
With the election drawing closer Soufiane's brother, Othman is working hard managing the hurt and anger felt by his community, as their faith becomes a scapegoat.
OTHMAN IQUIOUSSEN (Translation): Accusing foreigners or immigration of being the cause of the economic problem will create a new problem. It’s the 'Muslim problem', which is invented to hide the real problems of France, and we hear that from the mouths of certain politicians.
This was once a thriving town thanks to its coal mines and steelworks. The last steelworks shut its doors in the late 80's.
CHILDREN (Translation): Welcome to the poorest town in France!
Anti-Muslim sentiment was never a big problem here, but in a dying town where one in three adults is unemployed and life expectancy is 58 years, residents are looking for someone to blame.
SOUFIANE IQUIOUSSEN (Translation): Othman! Come on, we are going to eat. Have you eaten?
Four generations of Soufiane's family live in and around this house. He's the oldest of five sons.
SOUFIANE IQUIOUSSEN (Translation): You haven’t? Show me your hands. Wash your hands.
In northern France in the last regional elections, the far-right party, the National Front, won almost half of the vote. But its rhetoric about Islam being incompatible with French values is hurtful to families like Soufiane's, who embrace both their French and Moroccan heritage.
SOUFIANE IQUIOUSSEN (Translation): You know, in Denain, there are Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, atheists, agnostics, etc. There are people of all backgrounds, diverse and various. But above all this, what unites us as our common point is that we are all Denaisean and French.
MAN (Translation): Hello, hello.
Zeph's Bar is where the old Denaiseans gather and with the presidential election approaching, everyone is discussing politics.
YVES DANSET (Translation): No! We are fed up! We can’t stand it anymore. Frankly, I have arrived at the stage where I will go to the extreme. I’ll vote for the extremists. Yes. It’s only Marine, it’s only the National Front that we haven't seen in power. Because we have Marine Le Pen, who knows to listen to the people. We are not racist, it's not that. But we simply want a city that’s alive. We want to live the way we used to.
I wanted to find out more about why this man is voting for the extremists.
YVES DANSET (Translation): Let’s go Sultan. Time for work, yes?
So I join him as he started work. Yves Danset used to have a manufacturing job in Denain, but was laid off almost 10 years ago. He's proud of having built up his own business as a handyman.
REPORTER: Do you think there is a problem with people in France getting things without doing the work for it?
YVES DANSET (Translation): Exactly. A problem with the policies of extravagant socialism is, too much is given to the poor, and the middle class is forgotten.
Yves is attracted to the National Front, partly because of it immigration policies and its opposition to the European Union.
YVES DANSET (Translation): You can find a Polish plumber who will be paid less than a Frenchman on the same building site. It’s revolting. They’re allowed to do more working hours than us, so they can finish a job faster than us.
Yves feels threatened by foreign cultures, as well as foreign workers.
YVES DANSET (Translation): Look on the right – the first mosque. On the other side is the new mosque, built maybe 2 or 3 years ago.
REPORTER: There are Muslims in Denain who are fourth generation French. Do you have a problem with them being here and practising their religion?
YVES DANSET (Translation): Do you find it normal for a European country with a Christian tradition to be forced to build mosques? Personally, I find that tragic.
REPORTER: I just want to understand what you think is wrong with having a couple of mosques in Denain.
YVES DANSET (Translation): The problem is that much more is done for the Muslims than for the old-stock French. We’ve seen that our churches are now being left to rot, while permits are being given to build new mosques in Denain. We feel like we are having the life blood sucked out of us, absorbed by the Muslim religion with their customs, while our own customs disappear. Unfortunately the typical Frenchman can’t accept this any longer.
Soufiane might not be what Yves thinks of as a typical Frenchman, but he is a proud citizen and he's found his own way of addressing the social and economic problems in his town. Soufiane runs this garage with support from the government. It offers low-cost repairs to people who are struggling, along with training and work for the unemployed. But even Soufiane's employees are turning to the extremists for solutions.
SOUFIANE IQUIOUSSEN (Translation): Some of my colleagues in the garage vote for the National Front and tell me “You know, Soufiane, I’m voting National Front” and my first reaction is, “You’re voting for the National Front? Does this mean you don’t like Arabs, immigration…?”
“No, no, no issue there. In fact, thanks for everything you do, you’re a great guy, etc. I have no problem with Arabs or immigrants. But they’re all crooks so I’m voting National Front to show them that what they’re doing isn’t right, that we’re going against them and anyway Marine Le Pen is the only one that is anti-system”. And this is what I hear all the time.
More than a third of French voters still haven't decided how they will vote in the presidential election this weekend. There are four serious contenders for the presidency. The two front-runners both come from outside the system. The favourite is Emmanuel Macron.
EMMANUEL MACRON (Translation): We are this centrist movement, which has the values of progress, reconciled with the new century.
He's running a liberal pro-Europe agenda and has very few supporters in towns like Denain. Marine Le Pen leads the far-right National Front, a party formed by her anti-Semitic father, Jean Marie Le Pen. After cutting ties with him, she's luring millions of new supporters.
MARINE LE PEN (Translation): The European Union will die because the people don’t want it anymore. We’ve realised yet again that arrogant and hegemonic empires are destined to perish.
She's riding the same wave of populism that swept across the UK and the United States, railing against free trade, the EU and Islam. This is the newly set up office for the National Front in Denain where Marine Le Pen's local foot soldiers are busy settling in.
REGINE ANDRIS, NATIONAL FRONT CANDIDATE (Translation): Hello
MARIE PAUL BANTIGNE (Translation): Hi, Regine! How are you?
REGINE ANDRIS (Translation): Fine.
MARI-PAULE BANTIGNE (Translation): I brought these for the opening of the office... and to wish you good luck for the legislative and presidential elections.
Over the years, Regine Andris has been called an extremist, a racist and a fascist.
REGINE ANDRIS (Translation): Thank you, my love.
But there is no containing her excitement today.
REGINE ANDRIS (Translation): Excited, yes, because “Victory... is at the end of the tunnel.” Serve the food but don’t eat it’.
She hopes she will soon be elected to the French parliament. After all, her party has never been in a stronger position.
REGINE ANDRIS (Translation): Don’t forget the glasses.
MAN (Translation): I won't, Regine!
REGINE ANDRIS (Translation): Or I’ll chop... I’ll chop your head off.
Tomorrow night is her official campaign launch.
REGINE ANDRIS (Translation): Amos, they are killing me!
This exuberant former hairdresser joined the National Front when she retired 13 years ago and has already fought and lost several local elections. But Regine is convinced the National Front is finally about to shake up this traditionally left-wing town.
REGINE ANDRIS (Translation): This is the first time we have an office, a party office, in Denain. Socialism is dying, end of the story! People are disappointed with the socialist party, with the way they manage this town. It’s our opportunity to get into this town.
REPORTER: Ooh la la!
The National Front is seizing the opportunity to attract disillusioned voters in working-class towns like Denain. It is a key reason Marine Le Pen is set to do well in the first round of the presidential elections on 23rd April.
SEBASTIEN CHENU, REGINAL COUNCILLOR (Translation): How are you?
REGINE ANDRIS (Translation): What time did you get here?
Master minding the National Front campaign in the north of France is Regional Councillor Sebastien Chenu.
SEBASTIEN CHENU (Translation): Voila!
He's one of Marine Le Pen's closest advisers and hopes to become a Cabinet minister if she becomes president. Tonight, there is a council meeting at the Denain Town Hall, Sebastien and Regine think the socialist mayor's days are numbered, so they want to make their presence felt.
ANNE-LOSE DUFOUR-TONINI, MAYOR (Translation): We don’t need new hairdressing salons, for example…
REGINE ANDRIS (Translation): We want to show her that she’s no longer capable of running her town. That’s all. Simply. Many people are against her. It's now time to show we are capable of running this town and of putting life back into this town.
REPORTER: You have terrible problems in Denain - poverty, unemployment, housing, crime - how would President Marine Le Pen solve these problems? How will Denain get better in the future?
REGINE ANDRIS (Translation): Go ask her.
REPORTER: You are telling people to vote for her?
REGINE ANDRIS (Translation): We still have not discussed it. Let’s wait till she is president, let’s wait for the legislative elections, then we will have to get to work.
She may not have any solutions for the problems in her town, but Regine is good at identifying what she doesn't like, particularly, when it comes to the so-called Muslim problem.
REGINE ANDRIS (Translation): They pray every hour, the mats in the streets. The way they are dressed…and we have no control. No, no, no, no, no, no, no. The stealing, stealing, stealing in the department stores. All those people who wear long robes, underneath, it is for stealing.
Once a year, the town council throws a banquet for Denain's senior citizens, their host - Regine and Sebastien's nemesis, Denain's mayor Anne-Lise Dufour-Tonini. The mayor is not thrilled to learn she has gate crashers from the National Front here. She doesn't want election politics hijacking a local event.
REGINE ANDRIS (Translation): How are you?
ANNE-LOSE DUFOUR-TONINI (Translation): The Regional Council has not spent a single Euro to fund this event.
SEBASTIEN CHENU (Translation): How are you?
ANNE-LOSE DUFOUR-TONINI (Translation): Very well.
SEBASTIEN CHENU (Translation): I don’t intend to give a speech.
ANNE-LOSE DUFOUR-TONINI (Translation): This event has not been subsidised by the Region so it has to remain private.
SEBASTIEN CHENU (Translation): Why not just tell me you don't want me here? Just tell me simply. No need to hide…
ANNE-LOSE DUFOUR-TONINI: I’m not hiding, I’m telling you now. Good day.
SEBASTIEN CHENU (Translation): Good to let me know
ANNE-LOSE DUFOUR-TONINI: The Regional Council hasn't contributed a single Euro to fund this event. You have nothing to do here.
SEBASTIEN CHENU (Translation): Very well. Well, I will not go in.
REGINE ANDRIS (Translation): What was that?
SEBASTIEN CHENU (Translation): The Mayor won’t let us in.
REGINE ANDRIS (Translation): Fine. It doesn’t matter.
SEBASTIEN CHENU (Translation): It’s staggering.
REGINE ANDRIS (Translation): That’s the way it is.
SEBASTIEN CHENU (Translation): I have never seen anything like it. Mrs Socialist Mayor of Denain doesn’t want other elected representatives to show up during this event.
REPORTER: How do you feel about this?
SEBASTIEN CHENU (Translation): Only scared politicians act that way. It’s a good sign. They show fear, try to silence their opponents. It doesn’t bode well for them.
ANNE-LOSE DUFOUR-TONINI (Translation): Did you get the impression I was scared of him? He doesn’t frighten me, quite the opposite. That man doesn’t scare me, no.
SEBASTIEN CHENU (Translation): Hey, they’re playing it tough.
REGINE ANDRIS (Translation): Hi, can you believe it?
COP (Translation): I know.
REGINE ANDRIS (Translation): Have a good day. Bye.
ANNE-LOSE DUFOUR-TONINI (Translation): They cannot behave like they're at home everywhere. That's how they behave, they push the door and get in. They wouldn't get in my home, or in your home uninvited. They're not invited, they're not getting in. The National Front has a simple narrative and tells the people, “I’ll solve everything, we’ll get out of Europe, you’ll see, it will be better, we’ll bring the franc back and things will be better, we’ll remove the migrants and it will be better.” The National Front is surfing on this issue and feeds itself, getting bigger and bigger. The more people are unhappy, the bigger they get.
For the first time since World War II there has been a shift to the far right in Europe. Some of these people remember when the Nazis occupied this part of France, so I wanted to know how they felt about the rise of a party often associated with facism.
HUGUETTE (Translation): No, no NF. I will never vote for the NF, sir. I knew the war in the 40s. I am 82 years old. No. No. I’m staying Left.
REPORTER: You saw what happened in the United States. Are you afraid of the same thing happening here?
ANNE-LOSE DUFOUR-TONINI (Translation): I am very worried because it is possible that someone like Marine Le Pen, who has the same ideas as Trump, could rise to be the head of our country. It would be a catastrophe for France and a catastrophe for Europe. This should not happen.
Back at the National Front headquarters in Denain, Regine is getting the office ready for tonight's opening party. Giving her a hand is a recent convert to the far right... Marie-Paule Bantigne.
MARIE PAULE BANTIGNE (Translation): I stood the Socialist Party for a very, very long time but now I’ve decided to stand for Marine, out of conviction. Even if people won’t admit it, because the National Front was denigrated for a long time, and people were wary to admit that stood for the National Front, many people are now joining the National Front.
Marie-Paule is a nurse's aide. She's working over 30 hours a week for just $370.
MARIE PAULE BANTIGNE (Translation): If tomorrow I find myself without a husband and I am not married, if I find myself retired with a 700 euro pension, I would have to retire on the street. I wouldn’t be able to afford rent and pay my bills. That happens a lot in France, people end up in the street.
REGINE ANDRIS (Translation): Vive la France. Vive la France.
MARIE PAULE BANTIGNE (Translation): Now I’d like to… I’d like to… Can I?
There is a good turnout for the official opening for the National Front in Denain.
SEBASTIEN CHENU (Translation): Hello.
MAN (Translation): Our son. Our grandson.
Sebastien Chenu and Regine are doing their best to charm the party's local supporters.
SEBASTIEN CHENU (Translation): How are you?
SUPPORTER (Translation): Very well.
SEBASTIEN CHENU (Translation): Good, thanks for coming.
They will be relying on them to get Marine Le Pen elected.
SEBASTIEN CHENU (Translation): The office of Regine Andris and myself, now officially launched is open. You all know her, Regine will make you work from morning till evening 24 hours a day. Rewarding you with a sugar cube or slap you in the face to thank you. She’s incredible, she’s able to move mountains. She can create offices in a few hours. Mind you, if Regine was Mayor of Denain the main street would not be the way it is. Thanks for your trust and onwards to victory.
The French national anthem La Marseillaise was written as a call to arms during the revolution. It has now become a war cry for the National Front.
SONG (Translation): Let us march! Let us march! May impure blood. Water our fields!
I wasn't the first to see Denain as a window onto the political changes affecting France. While I was there, I met photographer and author Vincent Jarousseau who has recently published a book about life in French towns controlled by the National Front. Now, he's turned his attention to Denain to capture the country's shifting mood.
VINCENT JAROUSSEAU, AUTHOR (Translation): These are the voters whom Marine Le Pen called 'the invisible' and I would like somehow to make these invisible people visible.
The tentacles of the National Front have slowly taken root in towns like Denain. Those who fear its rhetoric hope it is not too late to find less extreme solutions to France's problems. But for the invisible people that Regine Andris champions, politics is a matter of survival right now and they believe they are on the brink of a revolution.
MAN (Translation): Long live Sebastien! Long live Marine! And long live France!
reporter and camera
jiani sheng, corrine vernizeau
18th April 2017