Far-right populist Marine Le Pen has cast her vote in Henin-Beaumont. She is awaiting the historic election result in this 'forgotten' small town, rather than in Paris. Bernd Riegert reports.
It is teeming with activity at polling station number 12 in the Jean-Jacques Rousseau School in the town of Henin-Beaumont. An elderly lady proudly tells dozens of film crews that she just cast her ballot for National Front (FN) candidate Marine Le Pen. An agitated man who just voted for far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon yells that she should be ashamed of herself and then hurls crude insults at her. She shouts back that she wants out of Europe and this is the perfect opportunity to do so. Though she cannot really tell DW exactly why she, like Marine Le Pen, is so opposed to the EU, saying only: "I have had enough, and the whole system is rotten." The mood is tense here on election day.
The National Front will likely do well in Henin-Beaumont. The small town, which has high unemployment and a poor education system, is nestled in France's structurally weak north, and is a far-right populist stronghold. The town's mayor is from the FN. Marine Le Pen, who has led the National Front since 2011, grew up in the area. That is why she shunned Paris, where the despised "elites" live, and decided to cast her vote in front of the cameras of international media outlets here.
Le Pen explained her decision two weeks ago, saying that this is where the "forgotten French" live. And that is who she wants to look out for as president. Le Pen arrives in a dark brown Mercedes bus with blacked-out windows. Bodyguards accompany her every step. She enters the polling station through a side door. The many onlookers watching the front door to the polling station from across the street fail to get the glimpse they had hoped for.
Difficult to predict
Victoria, a student, voted this Sunday to make a statement against rightwing politics. She voted for far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon. She is not entirely convinced by his views, but she figures that he is the only candidate who will be able to beat Marine Le Pen in the runoff in two weeks, should she advance. Victoria actually hopes that Le Pen won't advance if either the centrist Emmanuel Macron or the conservative Francois Fillon can beat her today.
Like Victoria, most voters just shrug their shoulders when asked who has the best chance of advancing. "No one knows at this point. This election is totally unpredictable," says Louise, a blonde forty-something, who also voted for Melenchon. Pollsters are of the same opinion as Louise. The four most promising candidates are all within just a few percentage points of one another in French opinion polls. The Belgian newspaper "Le Soir," however, released one last opinion poll that predicted that rightwing populist Le Pen would easily win the first round of voting. Friday was the last day on which opinion polls were allowed to be published in France; though many are being published abroad. Voter participation at midday in northern France was slightly higher than during France's last election. Le Pen may have been able to mobilize more of her base in the region around Henin-Beaumont, or perhaps she has mobilized more of her opponents?
Voting under the threat of terror
The threat of terror means that the vote is taking place under a state of emergency and increased security. After a suspected Islamic terrorist attacked police on the Champs Elysee Thursday night, the French government announced that it would be deploying 50,000 police and 7,000 soldiers to protect voters. Two polling stations near Henin-Beaumont were temporarily closed due to a suspicious automobile – which turned out to be a false alarm. Two police officers are standing watch here at polling station number 12, and things have remained quiet, with the exception of voters loudly shouting at one another.
This evening, FN party leader Le Pen hopes to celebrate a first-round victory, and thus her advance to the runoff, in the Henin-Beaumont gymnasium. Only one FN candidate has ever advanced to a presidential runoff. That was in 2002, when Marine's father, Jean-Marie, faced Jacques Chirac. But Jean-Marie's daughter eventually ditched him. She had to expel him from the party in order to transform it from a rightwing extremist and overtly racist organization into a rightwing populist movement that was also acceptable to France's middle-class voters. The FN was the most successful party in France in the 2014 European elections.
On Saturday, Le Pen's supporters made it clear that Henin-Beaumont, near Lille, is an FN stronghold. They installed Marine Le Pen's initials (MLP) with the words "FN Solution", in big white letters on a spoil heap outside the city. But by Sunday, the letters, which were clearly visible from the freeway, had been removed.