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On the French election campaign trail in the Le Pen 'laboratory'

The National Front has a good chance of winning the first round of France's presidential election. Suddenly, a northern town ruled by the right-wing party is in the limelight. Bernd Riegert reports from Henin-Beaumont.

French, German and Japanese television teams are on the road in the Henin-Beaumont, the National Front's (FN) "laboratory" in northern France. The right-wing populist party has been in power here for three years, making the former coal mining town a political experiment of sorts. It is a community of 27,000 with an unemployment rate of almost 20 percent. And it is here where Marine Le Pen, the FN's presidential candidate, will be waiting for the results of the first ballot on Sunday - not among the despised elite in Paris.

Read: In France, an industrial town grapples with shifting economy

FN there for the people

The FN spokesman for Henin-Beaumont, Christopher Szczurek, patiently guides the journalists through the town hall and across the market square. Wherever he goes, he is greeted with two cheek kisses. The older women with white hair and faux-crocodile handbags especially seem to like him. Szczurek hands out flyers. There are no other political party representatives in the market square this rainy morning. "The people love the National Front because it is there for them and takes care of them," he says.  "It's as simple as that. When our rival was in the town hall, there were many problems. Now, the people are just happy because we are getting things done. We cut the high taxes. People seem to be happier now."

Frankreich Front National Henin-Beaumont Pressesprecher Christopher Szczurek (DW/B. Riegert)

Szczurek: 'The people love the National Front because it is there for them and takes care of them'

The Socialists ruled in Henin-Beaumont for almost 70 years. After several scandals, the FN won an absolute majority in the municipal elections. Mayor Steeve Briois has no time for camera teams. As a high-ranking party official, he is very busy advising his boss, Marine Le Pen, on election matters. Of course he is very proud that Le Pen wants to celebrate her potential first round victory in his model community, of all places. Many polls have the anti-immigration and anti-EU Le Pen in the lead. In the runoff on May 7, however, she appears to have less chance of winning.

Read: Opinion polls tighted ahead of French presidential election

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More or less relaxed

Many voices of approval for the National Front can be heard at the market. An older gentleman who is buying vegetables with his wife explains, "I think she's good. I see a 100 percent forward-looking level of commitment. Everything has changed for the better. It is clean, there are more proposals and the mayor comes and talks to you." Immigrant families from Morocco and Algeria also shop at the market, where cheap clothing, shoes and food are sold. They do not want to comment on the FN in front of a camera. A man at the flower stall thinks that politics simply do not matter to many people. "Politicians are politicians all over the world. And in France, they all seem to have the same agenda. In the end, nothing will change anyway."

Read: Even election augur can't predict how France will vote

Unemployment in the economically underdeveloped Henin-Beaumont region remains high, even after three years of FN control. Many small businesses in the city center are struggling. Bars are closing. The plaster is flaking off many buildings and windows are boarded up. However, more police officers are patrolling the streets. There are more local festivals and flower beds have been built. Scaffolding has been put up around the town hall and the church; building fronts are being renewed.

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Read: Picknicking with left-wing candidate Melenchon

Changing political climate

But many cracks are showing behind the facade, criticizes David Noel, the secretary of the local French Communist Party. His office is located a few meters away from the town hall. Under a poster of the revolutionary Che Guevara, Noel, who constantly has his eye on his political foe, says that the climate in Henin-Beaumont has deteriorated radically. "There is constantly verbal abuse." And, the opposition has been maligned, he adds. Mayor Briois actually even has a feud with the local newspaper "Voix du Nord," which he decries as a left-wing battle organ. Serge Decaillon from the French charity organization "Secours populaire francais" ("French Popular Relief") complains that the city cuts funding or terminates leases for charity organizations that are believed to be infiltrated by left-wing activists.

Frankreich Front National Henin-Beaumont Etienne Balde (DW/B. Riegert)

Balde calls the FN 'a form of dictatorship on the local level'

Henin-Beaumont has also become much more xenophobic, says Etienne Balde. He works for an organization that helps refugees. "That is a huge issue for the National Front, even though there are practically no refugees here in Henin-Beaumont," he says. "They want to go somewhere else." Before the FN took control of the city, Balde's organization received modest funding from the local government. Now that funding has been cut, he says, and his organization is apparently no longer wanted; the political climate has deteriorated. "On the national level, the National Front makes a good impression," says Balde. "They have a squeaky clean image. If you look closer, you can see that they have established a form of dictatorship on the local level."

Read: Undecided French voter? There's an app for that

A wall and the immigrants

The city generated media buzz two years ago when the mayor proudly announced he would build a wall against growing crime. After a bitter dispute in the town council, it turned out the wall would be waist-high, with a gate. It was actually a traffic control measure in a residential area. Even the mayor's "charter for a city without immigrants" has had no consequences "because hardly any immigrants want to go to Henin-Beaumont anyway," admits spokesman Christopher Szczurek. Another useless measure was a ban on panhandling in the city center - it was lifted by a court.

Frankreich Front National Henin-Beaumont Mauer (DW/B. Riegert)

Henin-Beaumont grabbed headlines when the mayor announced he'd build a wall against growing crime

Henin-Beaumont has a relaxed view on the anti-immigration policy that FN leader Marine Le Pen is turning into a major election campaign issue. Over the last 100 years, Belgians, Italians, Poles and North Africans have immigrated to the mining town. If the National Front captures the French presidency, Christopher Szczurek believes it would likely have little impact on Henin-Beaumont. "I do not know if it would make such a big difference," he says. "Every city has its own problems. We have to adapt to problems every time. There is no higher ideology. We deal with reality efficiently. That is why things work." Szczurek himself is a descendant of Polish immigrants. He has no problems with the FN. After all, his family has been French for a long time. But he says things are different with the new immigrants.

On Sunday, Marine Le Pen will make an appearance in her showcase town in a hall that bears the name of the former Socialist president Francois Mitterrand. "It is not ideal, but also not a political message," says Szczurek.

Read: After Hollande, the end of the Socialist party in France?

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