CALAIS, France — In an election that highlighted the global appeal of anti-establishment, anti-immigration messages, French citizens on Sunday were voting in regional polls in which a surging far-right party had the potential to upend the nation’s political establishment.
The surprisingly strong showing of the National Front, which has campaigned to stop immigration, slash benefits to non-citizens and restrict France’s ties to the European Union, was a measure of the extent to which France’s traditional politicians have lost credibility with their electorate. A first round of voting a week ago put the National Front well ahead of President François Hollande’s Socialist Party and second in the nation. Subsequent opinion polls showed the National Front narrowly trailing in Sunday’s second round.
National Front leader Marine Le Pen, whom some consider Europe’s Donald Trump, has tailored her message to disaffected voters who feel stuck in the mire of their nation’s listless economy. With a charismatic personality that contrasts with the introverted Hollande, Le Pen was powering into the top rung of French politics even before a year bookended by terrorist attacks in Paris and dominated by a refugee crisis in between.
Even if the National Front fails to capture a regional governorship Sunday, its policies already have reshaped French political life and sharpened an already skeptical attitude toward France’s mostly Muslim immigrants. In the wake of the Paris attacks, which killed 130 people last month, Hollande echoed National Front ideas when he suggested stripping dual nationals accused of terrorism of their French citizenship. And with France’s 2017 presidential election looming, Le Pen is emerging as a powerful force who could mount a credible effort to oust the president.
“I will make the government’s life a nightmare. Do you hear me? Each day of every single week, each minute of every single day,” Le Pen said in a television interview this week.
Nowhere have France’s struggles been on more dramatic display than in Calais, a wind-swept coastal city where 5,000 asylum seekers are encamped near the railroad tracks that lead into the Channel Tunnel connecting to Britain. Calais was long a working-class stronghold, but many of its factories have sputtered out of business in recent years. And with refugees now an omnipresent sight in the bedraggled city center, many residents say they fear for their safety.
In the Fort Nieulay section of Calais, where 15-story housing blocks jostle with 19th-century brick warehouses, many voters said Sunday that they were fed up with a Parisian political class that they said rarely ventured far from the gilded halls of power.
“We’ve tried the other parties. We might as well try the National Front,” said Mathieu Coze, 30, a train engineer in Calais who was coming out of a balloting station with his wife and 3-year-old daughter Sunday. “The National Front has always talked about migrants. We’ve already lost a lot from what our fathers and grandfathers fought for,” he said.
Le Pen, who is seeking to head the northeast region of Nord-Pas-de-Calais that encompasses the city, has said that she would cut all regional funding for immigrants and refugees, although her critics say she would have little practical power over her key issues, which are mostly determined at a national level. In the first round of voting Dec. 6, she won 41 percent of the region’s vote, trouncing her two rivals.
Even without a ballot-box victory Sunday, analysts here say, Le Pen may be the real winner of the election.
“They are the victims of the system, the voice of the people that no one wants to hear, the voice of the working class,” said Bruno Cautrès, a political analyst at the Center for Political Research at Paris’s Sciences Po, who said a defeat would fuel an even stronger sense of estrangement among National Front voters.
Le Pen has engaged in a years-long effort to overhaul the onetime fringe party started by her father, Jean-Marie, who embraced anti-Semitic views and minimized the Holocaust. The younger Le Pen has repackaged herself as a clarion voice for the working class and struggling small-business owners. She has buried many of the same messages as her father in friendlier language, such as emphasizing France’s secular values, a move that critics say is coded language targeting Muslims.
Jean-Marie Le Pen had some ballot-box success, including in 2002, when he pushed his way onto the second round of presidential balloting. But never before has the National Front seemed on the verge of blossoming into a credible third party for France. The success has given new life to its isolationist impulses and harshly unwelcoming attitude toward people who do not fit its white, Catholic model of what it means to be French.
Marine Le Pen, like U.S. Republican presidential candidate Trump, has capitalized on a sense that establishment politicians care more about their own survival than about the fate of those who have not prospered for decades. Also like Trump, she can be a blustery, entertaining figure in rallies and in interviews. But unlike the American billionaire, Le Pen has been more careful about embracing policies that seem outright racist or directed against specific religions, in an effort to build her party into a formidable fighting force.
“I am French. I defend all the French citizens, no matter their origin, no matter their religion. It’s as simple as that,” Le Pen said last week when asked about Trump’s proposal for a temporary bar on Muslims entering the United States. She declined to endorse his efforts.