A Trip to France's Post Industrial Heartland to Work Out Who's Going to Win the Election
In Amiens, a dishwasher plant is closing, taking jobs with it – and the far-left and right are filling the vacuum.
As you leave the station in Amiens, the first thing that greets you is Gotham City: a slate grey skyscraper a hundred metres high. This is the Tour Perret. Dreamed up in 1944 by its architect as a symbol of rebirth after a huge bombing raid, it was finished in 1954 and, for nearly a decade, stood as Europe's tallest building, thrusting Amiens out into a bright, brash new world.
The French have a name for the period until 1975 – Les Trente Glorieuses. The Thirty Glorious Years. That golden moment of Orangina and sleek modernism, of nouvelle vague films and full employment, Charles de Gaulle and Serge Gainsbourg, and knowing basically what you were doing anything for.
Well that's fucked now.
At the base of the Tour Perret, beside a dusty disused atrium, there's construction tape telling you this entrance is closed. Behind it, there's the lurid homemade signage of a particularly ratchet bodybuilding gym: "BoDy FoRm".
That better-days air reproduces itself often around town. Once the industrial heartlands, it's increasingly the post-industrial gravelands, and in lock-step with its decline, the far-right and far-left have moved in on Amiens.
Travel 45 minutes from the Tour Perret, and at the end of a grim road, a grim terminus by an unkempt railway line deposits you at a big white cube, like an iceberg from outer space, franked with the company logo – Whirlpool – and guarded by a steel turnstile of the pre-Hillsborough type.
Leading candidate Emmanuel Macron was meant to finish his campaign in Amiens. Partly because this is the town where he was born. Partly because he has invested some of his political capital into trying to find a solution to what's been happening at Whirlpool, where 300 jobs are to be lost next year as the entire factory is moved to Lodz, Poland.
Whirlpool has become a pawn in the national game. All 11 presidential candidates – including a pair of Trotskyists, three fringe nationalists and a man who wants to colonise Mars – have been forced to pronounce upon it.
While I'm there, the union organiser spends about half an hour huddled with two producers from the TV channel France 2, who are looking for a worker who can come on and talk about the election on Sunday. It takes ages to rustle someone up – these workers aren't barricade-manning firebrands, they're just regular folk who want to turn up and go home. "It's damned hard work," the man, Frederique Chantrelle, tells me. "It's an assembly line. You always have to keep up. Me, I'm 50 years old, I've got problems with my back, with my legs, I don't know what I'm going to do when it closes." The average age of the workers at the Whirlpool plant is 48.
In 2000, people were reading think-pieces about globalisation and imagining that we were already near its apex. A full 17 years on, factories continue to close in Amiens. In Poland, a worker on minimum wage earns less than €500 a month. In France, a minimum wage worker costs about €1,500.
It's seldom remarked upon, but in surveys the French often come out as more Eurosceptic than the Brits. This election, they have both a far-left and a far right candidate who propose to liberate them from EU shackles. These are the two – Le Pen and Melenchon – who've made double-digit gains. "It's a European country that's taking our work," Chantrelle's ranting now, intently chewing on his gum and standing uncomfortably close, tall but slightly stooped because of his gammy back. "It's not right! It's completely incredible to think that a Europe like that is what we wanted. It's a grosse merde."
Just in Amiens, you can add another half-dozen factories to the list that have closed in the past five years. Unemployment is at two percent above the national average. In 2014, the Goodyear plant in the town became the site of another national debate when it was closed by a US HQ sick of uppity French workers demanding better conditions. They shipped the whole thing off to Indonesia and a thousand jobs were lost, despite or maybe because unionists had "boss-napped" two of the factory managers.
This election, the Front National has run a campaign grim in tone but highly effective in its objectives. They have a "split strategy". In the heavily-migrated south – the bit of France that allows the country to claim the "biggest Muslim population in Europe" – they play off fears about terrorism and Sharia. In the North, in places like Amiens, they drop the racial stuff and just talk about industrial decline. It's slick, brainy, worthy of New Labour.
Inside Whirlpool, Chantrelle says, you'll find a lot on the hard-left – the sort of people who ten years ago would have been naturally Parti Socialiste, who are now probably for Jean-Luc Melenchon's far-left Les Insoumis. But yes, the Front National have also been on the march.
"There's no one who believes any of the politicians any more. They're fed up. The Front National are growing because no one has done anything. Why not try Marine? Why not? The town's been murdered," Chantrelle spits. "It's a rubbish bin. And the Polish – at least they kept their money, the Zloty. But we're in the Euro – so we have even more problems…"
After a lot of fussing, charming and calling, the France 2 producers get their mark and leave happy. Out of the steel turnstile another two workers arrive – also middle aged. They banter a bit with Chantrelle, then mount a pair of heavy touring bikes, ready for the weekend. The tumble dryers will have to wait till after they get their country back.
At the Front National's offices, the only soul left hanging around is a nervy boy of maybe 21, who wears blue camo trousers, an undercut with more than a dash of the fash to it, and who doesn't permit me to take any photos. Which is a pity, because walls are dotted with grim kitsch. In terms of campaign posters representing FN supporters, the most striking in terms of the ethno-nationalist "France for the French" legacy of the Front would obviously be "the black woman" and "the disabled guy". But very little of the branding is Front National. Everything is just MARINE – not even a last name – or the elegant blue rose she's chosen as her personal logo.
The detoxification of the FN brand is a decade-long project, and this campaign is its masterpiece: closely sculpted for years. Since 2009, Le Pen has been working under the influence of her own Peter Mandelson: Florian Philippot, a then-27 year old policy wonk who helped her whitewash the Front's bovver boy image. He told her to focus on "sovereignty" instead of "nationalism"; "national identity" instead of "race".
Marine threw her own father – Jean-Marie – out of the party in 2015 after he failed to sign up to her detox regime. She has actively reached out to french Jews – to make an unholy alliance against Islamists, and to show that she isn't Jean-Marie, whose anti-semitic manner climaxed when he described the Holocaust as a mere "detail" of history. Though he now runs his own tiny party, he did lend €6 million to Marine's 2017 campaign through a back channel. Now, the talk is all of boosting secularism – the very handy proxy that beats down Islam.
"The National Front are growing here. Especially among the youth vote."
When the boy dials out to connect me to his boss, it's on an ancient rotary-dial phone, mud-brown. This, then, is the era Marine wants us all to retreat to – about 1985 at a guess.
On the other end of the line is a Patricia Chagnon, one of the new breed of dulcet, well-mannered FN mannikins. She speaks in top-notch English and keeps asking me to pass the phone back to the boy, who keeps passing it back to me. Later in the day, she texts to say no one from the party will be available to speak to me.
"Traditionally, this is a centrist town," says Rosalie Lafarge, reporter at France Bleue Picardie, who have an office just across the road from the FN. "We've got a centrist mayor. But the National Front are growing here. Especially among the youth vote. Because the young are unemployed, you see. They're not a part of anyone's society right now. Le Pen speaks about their problems and she at least claims to have solutions, whereas many of the others don't seem to have any idea."
Five years ago, another group were buoyed up after claiming to have a clue. Now? Not so much. Down at the Parti Socialiste headquarters, the atmosphere is listless, barely-there.
From behind a pallet of maybe 10,000 unused flyers, a secretary leads me through to a beige back room, where two beige people sit. A man and a woman – the woman festooned with politics pin-badges, like Rik Mayall in The Young Ones, the man corpulent in that invincibly Gallic way. The man is on his phone. The woman answers my questions in a detached, minimally-invasive manner.
Five years ago, young people flocked to Bastille to sit on its outsized roundabout till dawn, singing songs and toasting a future of red, red socialism. Today, you've got a party that seems to be as keen on its own suicide as anyone else.
The man they put in the Elysée back then was meant to be an outsider. Seems weird now, but funny uncle Francois Hollande was the hopey-changey guy meant to rescue a country drowning in the Great Recession. And he was going to put France back to work in a traditionally socialist way: by making up jobs and burning paper to pay for those jobs.
Next month, Hollande will be scurrying out of office with the lowest poll ratings since ratings began – he registered four percent approval last year.
It wasn't just the cringey affair he had in 2012 – where he was photographed by Paris Match arriving at the home of a pretty young actress disguised in motorbike leathers and helmet. Not just the wildly unpopular "El Khomri law" – a piece of legislation designed to make the labour market more flexible that was deeply unpopular with unions. There was something far deeper: a gloominess in the French psyche which seemed to transcend whoever would have been in the Presidency 2012 – 2017.
"If we weren't disappointed, [Hollande] would be running," says the man, Phillipe Casier, who's now off the phone. "You see, what happened was, after the crisis, he managed to get €40 billion stimulus. But then the question is: what do you do with that? Do we give the money directly to the people who are suffering the most and they go out and spend it? Or do we give the money to the business and they create jobs? So he made a choice. He gave €40 billion to the businesses. And he demanded nothing in return. He trusted them to create the jobs. So what happened next? They didn't create any jobs. But in France, in the past five years, our businesses have distributed higher dividends to shareholders even than in England. You can see what happened there… he just increased inequality."
In yet another sign of how distorted Europe's political maps have become, the Parti Socialiste didn't elect the charismatic safe-pair-of-hands Manuel Valls to be their candidate. They went instead for Benoit Hamon, a minor minister in Hollande's government who became a star of the hard-left when he resigned over the president's tack rightwards. On Sunday, he comes fifth – crashing out of the race with a dismal six percent of the national vote.
Hamon wants a national basic income grant – paying everyone in the country a fixed sum of €750 a month regardless of whether they work or not. He also wants to tax robots.
"No, we're not depressed," Casier says. "Because the campaign of Hamon, it's not the same old solutions – for the first time he's talked about the future. Nowadays, in France, if you are young, you don't have a job for life any more. You do three years here, two there, then you're unemployed. So how do we deal with this? He is thinking about solutions for tomorrow's problems."
"While Marine's campaign has been dark and negative, Macron is Mr Pro."
The upcoming generation are locked out of the old economy – the youth unemployment rate in France is 23.6 percent. France has a long tradition now of the mobile and unemployed fleeing for London – enough to make it "France's fifth-largest city", a regular stop on the campaign trail for candidates soaking up the expat vote.
That vote is overwhelmingly Macron. In March, the new rockstar of French politics pit-stopped in Methodist Central Hall in Westminster to play to a crowd of 3,000 young voters enraptured by his centrist party-free campaign.
While Marine's campaign has been dark and negative, Macron is Mr Pro. Pro-EU. Pro free trade. He's even pro-immigration – not just anti-xenophobic, not even "well obviously there should also be a graded visa system that takes account of…", but actively pro-, more-is-good.
As befits the ex-Rothschild candidate, he's like a walking economics textbook, telling you that GDP increases per labour unit added. He is Neo-Liberalism's don't-call-it-a-comeback. And unlike any number of candidates who've been in that box in recent years, he's not half hearted in his apologism for globalisation.
He's the one who will look you in the eye and say: "Sorry bub, but the old certainties are dead. You may never have a proper employment contract again. But on the bright side, you'll have much cheaper washing machines. Or, at least, the shareholders of Whirlpool will have larger profits, which they can then invest back into productive assets within the economy to grow GDP further, which will then create conditions for further labour units to be drawn into production if price (P) rises above supply (S) … sorry, what was I saying again?"
Downtown, just behind the Tour Perret, the Republicains' office is staffed by two women of about 60. Francois Fillon has suspended his campaign today after a terror incident on the Champs Elysée, which will linger in the mind very little in the long roll call of terror incidents, probably less memorable than the Normandy priest killing of July, 2016, which you've already forgotten.
The women fuss about pointing to touristic spots any visitor must try in Amiens, advising on the best macarons. No one could ask for a better introduction to the centre-right. If the Socialists are all pin badges and brooding melancholy, these are all clucky middle class politesse – though their candidate, Francois Fillon, is a busted flush now, having been caught allegedly paying his wife nearly half a million Euros to do a job she never turned up for.
"I was a little shocked at the scandal, yes," the older woman with the dyed red hair says. "Because he was supposed to be so… strong."
Fillon had also threatened to "do to France what Thatcher did to Britain". As proof of his radicalism, he offered to sack 500,000 civil servants. It's not hard to see why that might be the right medicine in a nation where the state consumes 57 percent of GDP. Compare that with 42 percent of GDP in Britain, or 34 percent in America, and you start to see the scale of the oil tanker France needs to turn around. At those spending levels, France should feel like Norway. It doesn't.
Fillon was yet another accidental candidate. Everyone expected Les Republicains to choose Nicolas Sarkozy. "Yes, I was a Sarkoziste," the younger of the two says. "It was him who rebuilt the party in the past few years."
But didn't he leave office horribly unpopular?
"No! No! He was very, very popular. He lost because people wanted a change." She shakes her head, with sadness. "The French are never content. Like Le Brexit, there are the people who are for, the people who are against…."
Our conversation is interrupted as, just outside, another elderly woman shunts my new friend's car while parking. She then totters off, claiming she "hasn't got time right now" to donate her insurance details.
My new friend wanders back inside, shaking her head. "You see! C'est la France!"
In the end, Macron cancels his planned finishing rally in Amiens, town of his birth, crucible of the new war over protectionism v liberalism. Sucks to be Amiens.
Three days later he's dining with his family at the building that superseded the Perret as France's highest – Paris' pricey Tour Montparnasse – having scooped the top share of the vote. With 23 percent to Marine's 21, they're both through to the head-to-head clincher in two weeks time.
But for all Macron's air of gilded effortlessness, he must still have a few black threads of doubt to pick on. The French know full well what's at stake. From the left to the right, try to pin them down on the geyser of rage in their politics and they reverse it to say, "Yes, but what about Le Brexit?" The French, who love to put their politics at the centre of Western history, are very aware of their place as the next domino in The Domino Theory Of Wrecking Ball Populism.
They understand that the momentous election of 2017 is a manifestation of a deep evolution in the brains of voters. Left and right – these convenient little tags – have faded away, much to the despair of those who had monopolised them since the dawn of the Fifth Republic. No one who isn't part of the big two right-left parties has ever won a French election. Now? It's nailed-on.