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When Fabien Engelmann entered the main hall of the town council building for the first time as mayor, he was wrapped in a giant French flag. He positioned himself behind the podium and called out: "Your time has passed. The people want patriots, not Soviets!" Engelmann had reached his goal. Every third voter in his town of Hayange had cast their ballot for him, the candidate from the right-wing populist party Front National.

That was in early 2014, but it is exactly the kind of moment that Marine Le Pen, the (now de facto) leader of Front National, would like to emulate on May 7. She is hoping to become president of France on the strength of her focus on issues that are currently of import to French voters – and on the strength of a historically low Election Day turnout. She is hoping that the entire country will make the same decision that Hayange made. That, at least, is the plan.

In addition to Hayange, Front National currently controls the city halls of 10 additional cities in the country. And the party is hoping to demonstrate in those municipalities that it provides credible political leadership. Front National wants to prove that it has changed, that it is capable of governing.

Closed Stores, Empty Gas Stations

Fabien Engelmann's town is located in Vallée de la Fensch, a valley in the country's erstwhile steel and coal heartland located between Belgium, Luxembourg and the western German state of Saarland. The region is home to 10 cities that have essentially merged together with a total population of 70,000. One of the towns is Hayange, with 15,000 residents. The French flag flies proudly from city hall, while the European Union flag was taken down and stored away on the day Engelmann took office. The main street is lined with closed bakeries, closed clothing stores, empty gas stations and boarded-up cafés. One of the windows of Bar de l'Europe is cracked and a few old men are standing at a bus station smoking and waiting.

The town of Hayange in northeastern France was once one of the centers of the country's steel and coal industries. © Fabian Federl/ZEIT ONLINE

A four-lane highway bridge spans the valley over the rooftops of the low apartment buildings that were once built by the large mining companies for their workers, making the roar of car and truck traffic the town's constant companion. From everywhere in Hayange, the hulking remains of two disused blast furnaces can be seen, reminding residents of what they were once promised – and of the promises that have been broken.

Of 100,000 Jobs, Not Even 500 Remain

In 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy made a visit to the neighboring town of Gandrange and promised that the steel mill would remain in operation. Sarkozy went on to win the presidential election – and the steel mill was closed down. In 2011, François Hollande came to Florange, likewise a neighbor of Hayange, and promised that the blast furnaces would continue to operate. Hollande was elected and the blast furnaces were switched off. Now, Marine Le Pen is promising to bring the steel industry back to the region.