[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below]
The Financial Times website has a 15-minute video report, dated March 31st, on “the town that turned to Le Pen.” The town in question is Hénin-Beaumont, in the heart of France’s northern Rust Belt, which has become a Front National fief since Steeve Briois, a party heavyweight and Marine Le Pen ally, was comfortably elected mayor in 2014—and with Marine having lost the legislative constituency in 2012 by the narrowest of margins (0.22%; though she had the satisfaction of trouncing Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the 1st round). The FN is presenting Hénin-Beaumont as a model of FN good governance (contrasting with Vitrolles, the FN’s showcase municipality in the 1997-2001 period, where the FN experience ended in fiasco). If the 2015 regional election score in Hénin-Beaumont is any indication—Marine LP’s list taking 60% of the vote—the FN will be running the town for a while to come. So the FT’s Paris bureau chief Anne-Sylvaine Chassany went up there to find out what’s going on. Her report is worth the watch.
On the subject of Hénin-Beaumont and the FN, a feature-length film, directed by Lucas Belvaux, opened in February, Chez nous (in English: This is our land; FYI, “On-est-chez-nous!” is the chant most often heard at FN rallies). The FN flipped out when the film’s imminent release was announced in January, denouncing it as malevolent propaganda whose sole intention was to sully the party during the presidential campaign, and with the FN’s troll army going into action on social media to trash it—though, as one could have expected, not a single FN person had actually seen the film. Here’s a description of the plot, which I’ve cribbed from Atlantico and modified à ma guise
In Hénart, a fictitious town in the north, everyone knows and likes Pauline Duhez (Émilie Dequenne), a self-employed nurse who is out and about making house calls almost every day. It is thus normal that on the occasion of the municipal elections, Philippe Berthier (André Dussollier), a well-to-do medical doctor, former member of the European Parliament, and prominent local notable, proposes that she join the list of Agnès Dorgelle (Catherine Jacob), the national leader of the Rassemblement National Populaire (RNP). Berthier’s plan is the following: Pauline will be the n°2 on the list, behind the Parisian Dorgelle, and do the job for her as mayor while Dorgelle gives priority to her commitments on the national level.
Pauline, who is mostly apolitical, hesitates at first, saying she lacks the experience and is not sure she would be up to the job, but then succumbs to Dr. Berthier’s entreaties, adopts the RNP’s positions and eagerly plunges into the campaign, even though it means some changes in her work – which she loves – as a nurse. But things start to get complicated: with patients, who disapprove of her engagement with the RNP, and, above all, her retired former trade unionist, PCF-voting father, who stops speaking to her when he sees her on television as the RNP candidate. She then learns that Berthier has concealed from her shady parts of his political past. Adding to this is her new boyfriend, Stanko (Guillaume Gouix), with whom she had gone out in high school two decades earlier, who had been a member of the RNP’s security detachment of tough guys under Berthier’s supervision but been expelled for extremism and violent behavior – as this was tarnishing the public image of the RNP, which wants to appear respectable – and is now in a gang of neo-Nazi/skinhead goons that goes on migrant-bashing expeditions at night, but which he has concealed from Pauline.
So what was to have been a cakewalk to victory in the election becomes more complicated for Pauline. Skeletons come out of the closet and with Agnès Dorgelle, who wants people to forget about the past declarations of her father – from whom she had inherited the RNP leadership – on Jews, Arabs, and immigrants, is having a hard time burying the sulfurous past of her close collaborators. But she forges on…
It is rather obvious from the outset that Hénart is Hénin-Beaumont—the film was shot in the vicinity: in Bethune, Lens, and other localities in the Pas-de-Calais—the RNP is the FN’s big tent RBM (Rassemblement Bleu Marine), and the blond Agnès Dorgelle is, of course, Marine Le Pen. The FN’s ire toward the film, as Le Monde’s Raphaëlle Bacqué reported, was indeed focused on the casting of Catherine Jacob as the Marine lookalike, with, e.g., Steeve Briois calling her a “pot à tabac” (an uncomplimentary expression for a short, overweight woman)—not that the frontistes could have said anything else about the film, as they had not and would not see it.
Reviews were good on the whole—by critics and Allociné spectateurs alike, though there was an early troll campaign to lower its Allociné rating—but with some critics reproaching it for being too unsubtle. I thought it was quite good myself. The casting is pitch-perfect, particularly Émilie Dequenne, who merits a César nomination for her performance (pour mémoire, she was nominated for one in 2015, for her role in Belvaux’s Pas son genre). André Dussollier is likewise first-rate as the provincial bourgeois facho. And the depiction of the FN’s modus operandi and rhetoric is totally on target. I detected nothing that did not ring true and, with the exception of the flawed final scene, no contrivances. The film is very good in its portrayal of the cynicism of the FN, of the way it goes about recruiting and then manipulating candidates on the local level—and it is absolutely the case that the party seeks out political novices and ingenues, whose strings can be pulled from on high. Also spot on is the ambiguity of the party’s relationship with the violent elements on its fringe, whom it wants to keep out of sight, not out of fundamental political differences but because the goons make the party look bad and undermine its efforts at respectability and de-demonization.
Hollywood press critics who saw ‘Chez nous’ at the Rotterdam film festival gave it the thumbs up, e.g. from The Hollywood Reporter, Screen Daily, and Variety, with the latter’s Jay Weissberg having this to say
The film is a shoo-in for Stateside distribution, since Belvaux’s theme is the cinematic equivalent of all those articles trying to understand the disgruntled white voters who supported Trump.
See also critic Boyd van Hoeij’s March 9th piece in The Atlantic, “Inside France’s most controversial film of the moment.”
The film has not been a big hit at the box office—with a mere 310,000 tickets sold seven weeks after its release—which is too bad (as I had declared on social media after seeing it that it was “Un bon film, à voir par tout citoyen avant le 1er tour de l’élection présidentielle”…). As for why it has been a relative commercial failure, perhaps people just don’t want to see an overly political film, particularly when they’re being bombarded daily with politics, and during an interminable, exasperating campaign to boot. Allez savoir. Émilie Dequenne and Lucas Belvaux appeared on February 4th on France 2’s late night “On n’est pas couché.” Trailer is here.
On how the FN operates behind the scenes—and manipulates and exploits its own candidates—France 2’s Envoyé Spécial had an exceptional one-hour reportage on March 16th, “Front national: les hommes de l’ombre,” on the three men at the heart of the FN’s finances: Frédéric Chatillon, Axel Loustau, and Nicolas Crochet. The three are formally independent businessmen and simple FN members with no official function in the party—and have no public profile—but are, in fact, in Marine LP’s inner circle. They’re her closest associates and her buddies—particularly Chatillon—whom she’s known since her late teens-early 20s, having partied together in their wild-and-crazy youth and who knows what else. And, as it happens, the three camarades were militants during their student days in the extreme right-wing GUD, known since its inception for physically bashing leftists. As one learns in the reportage, while Chatillon et al may no longer wear black rangers and wield truncheons, their facho politics have not changed an iota. They’re way out there on the extreme right, with the requisite antisemitism and all; thus their non-public profile in the party. If Marine is going to de-demonize the FN, the three camarades must stay out of sight.
But this is hard to do, as the three are so central to the FN’s money-making operations and corruption—and which involves, entre autres, legally obligating novice FN candidates to purchase their campaign material and other services at inflated prices from enterprises owned by Chatillon et al. Marine LP’s former geopolitical adviser, Aymeric Chauperade, is thus quoted in the reportage
Marine Le Pen minore ou néglige la dangerosité de ces gens-là. Il n’y a aucune raison que ce groupe disparaisse. C’est le groupe qui aura amené Marine Le Pen au pouvoir. Manifestement elle ne peut rien faire sans eux et elle ne peut rien faire contre eux, c’est ça qui est évidemment très grave.
It was said that Chauperade broke with Marine in 2015 over foreign policy differences but he asserts in the reportage that it was due to the influence of the three camarades. The Envoyé Spécial report, which is a must, may be watched here.
Another reportage—this in English—is a half hour analysis on the BBC, first aired on March 20th, “Detoxifying France’s National Front.” The description:
Has Front National leader Marine Le Pen really detoxified the party founded by her father 40 years ago? Is it a right-wing protest movement or a party seriously preparing for power? Anand Menon, professor of European politics at Kings College London, analyses the process the French call dédiabolisation. Le Pen has banished the name of the party and even her own surname from election posters and leaflets. Her party is making inroads into socialist and communist fiefdoms in northern and eastern France. Combining nationalism with a message designed to reach out to the left, she speaks up loudly for the have-nots, people who live in the land she calls “the forgotten France.” She targets trade unionists, teachers and gay voters. But widening the party’s appeal leads to a tricky balancing act. Can Marine Le Pen manage the process of political exorcism without alienating die-hard supporters?
Stanford University professor and FN specialist Cécile Alduy, who posted the link on Facebook, wrote that it’s “[o]ne of the best radio shows I’ve listened to in a long time, and the best reporting on the National Front in English you can find around.” Indeed.
L’Obs/Rue 89 has a post dated March 26th on the research of Université d’Avignon political scientist Christèle Marchand-Lagier, “Qui vote FN? Pourquoi? 3 idées reçues sur les électeurs du Front national.” Based on years of interviewing FN voters in the Vaucluse—Marion Maréchal-Le Pen’s fief and an FN bastion—Marchand-Lagier concludes that many FN voters (a) are not particularly ideological, are not well-informed about the FN’s program, and don’t vote for the party with the expectation that it will come to power and change their lives for the better; (b) are far more middle class than lower; and (c) could change their votes in the future, signifying that a significant portion of the FN’s vote remains one of protest rather than adhesion. That’s good to know.
Also refuting idées reçues is demographer Hervé Le Bras in a piece in Slate.fr, dated April 10th, “Qui vote FN? Pas forcément ceux à qui l’on pense.” Cool maps, as one usually finds in Le Bras’ publications. In short, a sizable part of the FN vote resembles that of Trump’s in the US: periurban, small provincial towns, and rural (i.e. not urban); middle class but who fear downward mobility (and which they see around them); and a sentiment of isolation from mainstream (urban) society and abandonment by the state.
Marine LP is having her Paris rally next Monday, five years to the day from the one in 2012. And as with that one, it will be held at the Zénith, which seats 6,300 (and with no standing room-only pit). This is not the largest arena in the city, e.g. some 12,000 can pack the Palais des Sports, and Bercy—where Emmanuel Macron will be holding his rally on Monday as well—can accommodate 20,000. Marine may be high in the polls—in the one out today from IPSOS, she’s tied with Macron for first, at 24%—but still can’t draw big crowds, and certainly not from the Paris region. Not what one would expect from a candidate who has an outside chance of being elected president of the French republic.
UPDATE: The New York Times’ Adam Nossiter has a detailed article (April 13th) on Marine LP and Frédéric Chatillon et al, “Le Pen’s inner circle fuels doubt about bid to ‘un-demonize’ her party.”
2nd UPDATE: Valérie Igounet and Vincent Jarousseau—a historian at the CNRS and photographer-documentarian, respectively—have a photoessay in the Spring 2017 issue of Dissent, “Scenes from the Front: France’s Front National in Power,” which is mainly of Hénin-Beaumont.
3rd UPDATE: Paris-based journalist Scott Sayare has a very good article (April 20th) in The Guardian on “How Marine Le Pen played the media.” The lede: “For years, she has accused French journalists of bias against her family and her party. Yet Marine Le Pen has managed to lead the far-right Front National into the political mainstream – and she couldn’t have done it without the press.”