President Francois Hollande's dismal approval ratings have plunged France's Socialists into crisis. Defeat in the upcoming election seems certain. Nevertheless, party supporters fight on. Doris Pundy reports from Lille.
"The election is really important for us," says an annoyed Julien Laurent. "This year there are hardly any volunteers." Laurent is one of the few party loyalists willing to hit the streets and spread the Socialists' message. He and a handful of colleagues are in the working-class neighborhood of Wazemmes, in the northern French city of Lille, handing out information on Socialist presidential candidate Benoit Hamon's political program. Laurent rings every doorbell - if the door doesn't open, he slips the small pamphlet into the mailbox. If the door opens, Laurent smiles and invites the person on the other side to Hamon's campaign event the following day.
Three parties, three candidates
Polls have Hamon at 10 percent, giving him effectively no chance of advancing to the run-off round of the presidential election, nor of becoming incumbent Francois Hollande's political heir. But Julien Laurent isn't giving up. He attempts to motivate the rest of the team. Don't give up, he says, keep ringing those doorbells.
"You can still see that there were a lot of factories here in Wazemmes," Laurent says as he points down a narrow alleyway. A row of low brick houses lines the street. "This is where the workers lived, they were all Socialists."
For years, northern France was the left's base. But when industry began to falter, unemployment began to rise. Hollande's Socialist government was unable to get the economy going again. Frustrated, many voters began gravitating to Marine Le Pen and her right-wing populist National Front party.
Broken election promises
"Hamon's economic program is very idealistic," says Pierre Mathiot of the Lille Institute of Political Studies, when asked about Socialist's campaign pledges. "He is promising big investments and doesn't care enough about the growing deficit." Proposals like those that Hamon is now making have failed in the past, Mathiot adds.
Northern France is in desperate need of economic help. The Lille region has the highest unemployment rates in the country. In the suburb of Faches-Thumesnil it is 14 percent.
Meriame Motrani runs a welfare supermarket here. It is located on an arterial road between the freeway exit and the airport. Motrani will vote for the Socialists again, despite being disappointed by the Hollande administration: "Wages are so low that it isn't even worth it for some people to work," says the social worker.
Overshadowed by the National Front
Motrani grew up in Faches-Thumesnil. Residents who have less than 300 euros ($320) left over each month after their fixed costs are deducted can shop in her store. "Our neighborhood always went left, now many are leaning right," she says. "The National Front did markedly better in the 2012 elections, but that is nothing compared to how strong it is today." According to opinion polls, the far-right is expected to win 35 percent of the vote in northern France, making it by far the strongest party in the region.
"I wanted to vote for Le Pen this time," says Pascaline Lenne. She has been a customer at Motrani's supermarket for three years, and now she also helps out as a volunteer. "Things just can't keep on like this," she complains. Lenne and her unemployed son have to live off of her disability pension. Her son, she says, warned her against voting the National Front. "He told me that Le Pen is just talking big and won't keep her promises either. So now I am going to vote for [Jean-Luc] Melenchon, the communist."
The end of the Socialists?
Julien Laurent arrives at Benoit Hamon's campaign event straight from work. He and his colleagues have to sit in the back rows because there are so few seats left. Inside the event, nothing suggests that the Socialist party is in crisis. The mostly young supporters wave flags and hold up signs. When Hamon enters the hall, cheers of "President Benoit" erupt. Hamon fights his way to the stage. He shakes every hand that is extended to him along the way. Two young schoolgirls take a selfie with him.
For 90 minutes, Hamon speaks about the 35-hour work week, about equality and about the National Front. Each time he mentions his political opponent, the crowd jeers. When he compares the Le Pen family to the mafia, enthusiastic applause breaks out. In fact, the applause is so loud that he has to stop his speech for a moment. Nevertheless, this could be the last event of its kind.
"The Socialist party won't be the same after this election. The vote will be a disaster," says professor and election expert Pierre Mathiot. Whether it will become a small party on the left end of the political spectrum or in the middle, perhaps even under a new name, will depend on which wing gets the upper hand after the election defeat, he says.
Laurent doesn't care about the dour prognosis. "Even if there isn't a Socialist party after the election, I'll still be with them. No matter what the party is called."