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The Day Calais Said No to France’s Anti-Immigration Party

The leader of France’s far-right National Front party lost a pivotal election in the northern port city, where as many as 6,000 migrants currently live in a makeshift camp known as The Jungle.
Pierre Longeray
Paris, FR
December 14, 2015, 7:10pm
Imagen por Pierre Longeray/VICE News

It is a Sunday night at the Centaure, a bar and restaurant in downtown Calais, where patrons have gathered to watch live coverage of the French regional elections.

Cradling beers and with eyes glued to the TV set, they watch as results come in shortly after 8pm, confirming center-right candidate Xavier Bertrand as the victor, beating out his National Front (FN) rival Marine Le Pen for the leadership of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie region.

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Despite taking the lead in the first round of the vote, Le Pen — who is also the head of France's far-right FN party — ultimately lost to Bertrand by more than 10 points in Calais, taking home 44.87 percent of the vote, compared with Bertrand's 55.13 percent.

"Wow, what a slap in the face," one of the patrons tells his friend — both of them visibly relieved by the outcome of the election.

A woman shows up to vote at one of the polling stations in Calais. (Photo by Pierre Longeray/VICE News France)

Only last week, Le Pen's party was leading in the first round of the elections, beating all other parties in six of France's 13 regions. In Calais, Le Pen came out ahead with 49.1 percent of the vote, while Bertrand collected a mere 23.4 percent.

But in a city that has become synonymous with the plight of migrants and Europe's failed asylum policy, the FN was unable to parlay its lead into a full-on victory.

Related: France's Far-Right Kept Out of Power, But Leader Touts Party's 'Inexorable Rise'

In fact, Le Pen's anti-immigration party failed to win a single region in the election, despite record gains in the first round. Meanwhile, France's Socialist Party (PS) held on to five regions, but suffered a major defeat in the Paris region of Île-de-France. Boosted by socialist voters eager to keep out the FN, France's center-right conservative party, Les Républicains (The Republicans), won in seven regions.

Patrons watch the election results come in at the Centaure bar-restaurant, in Calais. (Photo by Pierre Longeray/VICE News).

"This was a quiet town before the migrants showed up," said Romain, 28, a few hours before the results were announced. There was a time, he recalled, when Calais was "even popular with tourists."

As many as 6,000 migrants currently live in the northern French port city, in a makeshift camp known as The Jungle — a vast, muddy field a few miles away from the city center. Many migrants risk their lives trying to storm UK-bound trucks or trains, and at least 15 people have died trying to reach Britain from Calais since the start of the summer.

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Related: Surveillance, Paranoia, and Life Under a State of Emergency in France

Romain — who has lived in Calais for 10 years — did not vote, preferring instead to go fishing for whiting in the icy northern drizzle. "I don't vote," he said. "It's not like it makes a difference anyway."

Romain is currently unemployed but sometimes works "under the table." To make ends meet, he sells his catch "to family and friends."

Conceding that the migrants don't cause trouble per se, Romain believes their presence is depriving the city of much-needed tourist-related revenue. British holidaymakers in particular, he explained, are put off by the large concentration of migrants in the area.

28-year-old Romain did not vote today, preferring instead to fish for whiting. "It wouldn't make a difference anyway," he told VICE News. (Photo by Pierre Longeray/VICE News)

"It is true that there are almost no English tourists left, although we did have a few in here today for lunch," said Nathalie, who waits tables at the London Bridge pizzeria, in the heart of Calais. "It's a shame, given our name."

Nathalie said that the migrants rarely cause any issues in the city center. "But they're always talking about them on TV, so people are less inclined to come," she explained.

Related: 'This Is the Jungle': Calais Migrant Camp Now Includes a Church, a School, and a Nightclub

Her colleague Sandrine has worked at the pizzeria for a decade, and has seen the restaurant go from seven wait staff to two in that time. She attributes the FN's lead in the first round to voters being "fed up."

Sandrine went to the polls on her way to work this morning. She was hopeful that Bertrand would win. "Few people went out and voted in the first round," she said. "But on Sunday, the residents of Calais went to the polls to redress the balance."

An abandoned building stands in a deserted street in Calais. (Photo by Pierre Longeray/VICE News)

"The ballot boxes were practically full at 11am," said 70-year-old Eugène, wearing a windbreaker emblazoned with the logo of Calais' amateur soccer league. Sitting in the Marinerie — a pleasant, oceanfront café — Eugène said he was confident the FN wouldn't win the region. "People came out this time and voted against Le Pen," said the Calais native, who typically votes Socialist. Like many others in the region, Eugène voted for Bertrand just to prevent an FN victory.

Related: Watchdog Slams France for Sending Migrants to Detention Centers to 'Unclog' Calais

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"The spotlight on migrants is such that we are sadly forgetting about all the other problems in the city," he noted. With 17 percent of its residents jobless, Calais has the highest unemployment rate in the region. The unemployment rate in the city is considerably higher than the national average, which currently stands at 10.5 percent.

A sign welcomes visitors to the Marinerie café, in Calais. (Photo by Pierre Longeray/VICE News)

"In the 80s, there were 150 lace factories [in Calais]," said Daniel, an Irish expat in his sixties. "Today, there are only two left. Factories are closing down and the ferry companies are getting rid of jobs at every turn."

"My house has been on the market for four years," said Claude, a friend of Daniel's, "but I still haven't found a buyer." It is hard to ignore the many "for sale" signs in the windows of buildings and houses around town.

"People are looking for scapegoats for the city's problems," said Christian Salomé, president of the Calais-based migrant support group Auberge des Migrants (Inn for Migrants). "Obviously, out of the thousands of migrants who live here, some of them may have committed minor offenses such as theft," said Salomé. "But none of them have any interest in being noticed by the police. Their aim is to remain invisible and to cross the Channel."

'The spotlight on migrants is such that we are sadly forgetting about all the other problems in the city.'

In the days preceding the second round of voting, Le Pen announced that she would cut subsidies to migrant support groups in the region if she were elected.

Salomé explained that a Le Pen's victory would have little "material" impact on his group's operations. "We only receive 6,000 euros ($6,607) from the region each year, but we spend 100,000 euros ($110,120) a month that we get from donations."

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The "psychological" impact of an FN victory would be a different matter, he said, noting that some of the volunteers working with migrant advocacy groups had been "intimidated" in recent months, receiving anonymous phone calls and getting their tires slashed. "Le Pen's election could give some people a sense of impunity," said Salomé.

UK-bound ferries wait for passengers in the port. (Photo by Pierre Longeray/VICE News)

As well as being home to the largest tent city in France, Calais is also home to several anti-refugee groups — some of whom openly support the FN. Groups such as Calais Libre (Free Calais) or Calaisiens en Colère (Angry Residents of Calais) claim to fight against the "insecurity caused by migrants," and rely on social media to circulate anti-migrant propaganda.

Despite 32,000 Likes on their Facebook page, only 100 or so Angry Residents of Calais gathered at a rally outside the Jungle on Sunday to protest against migration.

Meanwhile, migrants inside the camp are bracing for colder temperatures and struggling to stay dry in the winter conditions.

Mud & abandoned shoes in the Jungle, Calais, where 1000s of migrants/refugees still live. — Sally Hayden (@sallyhayd)December 13, 2015

Last week, British graffiti artist Banksy paid a visit to the Jungle, where he created a new mural depicting the late Apple founder Steve Jobs, whose biological father was a Syrian refugee.

"He came in the night. I didn't know who he was"- this man saw Banksy in the Jungle in Calais. @vicenews pic.twitter.com/xxnmT7zRhV

— Sally Hayden (@sallyhayd) December 13, 2015

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Outside one of the city's polling stations, Jörg, a 50-year-old professor who was born in Sweden, was unlocking his bike. "I was naturalized French 30 years ago," Jörg said.

"Like I did in 2002, I voted to keep Le Pen out, but this time it was to keep out the daughter," said Jörg, referring to the second round of the 2002 presidential elections, which opposed Jacques Chirac and FN founder Jean-Marie Le Pen. Chirac eventually won the presidency after socialists voted en masse to block Le Pen's election. "I did my civic duty but I still had to hold my nose," said Jörg.

Related: France and the UK Have Signed a New Pact to Tackle the Migrant Crisis in Calais

At nightfall, families with young children gathered in the city's main square to go ice skating, ride the carousel or snap pictures with Santa.

As the announcement of the results approached, bars and restaurants in the city center filled up. A group of tipsy British tourists, seemingly oblivious to the political gravitas of the moment, strolled down the Rue Royale, in the city's historic quarter.

In the region of Nord-Pas-de-Calais Picardie, Bertrand beat Le Pen with a 15-point lead, with Le Pen winning 42.23 percent while Bertrand secured 57.77 percent.

Follow Pierre Longeray on Twitter: @PLongeray