Laughable, But Still Dangerous

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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.

Vallée de la Fensch is by no means poor

Marine Le Pen has promised to bring industry back. © Fabian Federl/ZEIT ONLINE

Of the 100,000 jobs that used to exist in the valley, not even 500 remain and the unemployment rate stands at 16.4 percent. Workers who used to labor away in the mines or steel factories are now either part of that statistic, work in precarious service jobs or commute daily to Luxembourg or Belgium, as do a quarter of those who live in the valley.

Vallée de la Fensch is by no means poor. In fact, the region is growing again. Those who work across the border earn decent salaries and there are jobs to be had in the automotive supply and petrochemical industries. But many of those who live in the valley feel betrayed, as do people in other threatened industrial areas of France. Together, they form the foundation of Front National's success.

A Fifth of the Votes Were Enough for Victory

Fabien Engelmann, born in the Vallée in 1979, was elected on March 30, 2014, after receiving the support of just one-fifth of eligible voters in the town. His votes came primarily from the jobless, from retirees and from people living in the former steel-worker neighborhoods. Because almost half of all registered voters stayed home, that fifth was enough for victory.

Engelmann himself comes from a working-class family. After completing his schooling, he got a job on an automobile factory assembly line before later working as a salesman in a clothing store and then as a landscape gardener. He enrolled in the leftist CGT trade union and joined the Trotskyist party Lutte Ouvrière (LO) before later switching to the Marxist Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA). But Engelmann wasn't particularly well-suited to be a working-class avenger. He fought on behalf of workers, to be sure, but only if they were French and white. That is why he was kicked out of the CGT union and why he left both LO and NPA.

Engelmann didn't try to hide his convictions. France is dominated by the "Mohammedan dogma," he believes. "They're forcing their headscarves, their beards and their robes on us." The left, he continues, has been infiltrated by headscarf-wearing women. He is particularly hateful when it comes to North Africans, which could be a product of his family's history. He is the son of French parents who went to Algeria as settlers and were forced to flee during the Algerian war. Engelmann says his parents told him of the "iniquity" of the Algerian fight for independence.

St. Nicolaus Should Give Out Pork Sausage Instead of Chocolate

Once he became mayor of Hayange, Engelmann began on his very first day to paint French flags everywhere, on almost everything: on old wagons from disused mining tunnels, on posters, on the flaking façades of town buildings.

He then painted over a work of art with marine blue, the favorite color of Front National head Le Pen, whereupon the artist sued him. Engelmann also revoked a rapper's invitation to a festival because the mayor felt the lyrics were anti-French. And he said that St. Nicolaus should give pork sausage to children instead of chocolate because it is more French. And he made the African Magi in the annual pre-Christmas nativity play have blond hair.

The other mayors in the Vallée merely laughed at him. It looked as though Front National, just as it had 15 years earlier, when it won a handful of municipal elections, was destroying itself – either through corruption or incompetence. Thus far, a Front National mayor has never been re-elected.

Small-Town Mussolini

Marc Olenine, a lecturer at the valley's university and founder of the initiative Hayange en Résistance (Hayange Resists), describes Engelmann as a small-town Mussolini: laughable on the surface but dangerous nonetheless.

Engelmann organized a "pork festival" in Hayange, at which members of the right-wing extremist Bloc Identitaire stood at the mustard dispensers. He also wanted to ban halal butcher shops for Muslims. When he realized, however, that he wasn't allowed to do so, he had the parking spots in front of the shops transformed into handicapped spaces. He also sent police officers to the halal slaughterhouses during delivery hours, forcing workers there to carry the sides of lamb to their customers on foot. He ordered the renovation of an asylum-seeker's hostel, requiring the residents to move out, and then did all he could to delay the construction work.

In the working-class districts where his voters live

The mayor ordered the local workers' welfare organization to cease offering its services to asylum-seekers – and when it continued to do so, he revoked the rental agreement for its offices and cut off power and heating. He cut subsidies for a football club because it was too "leftist" for him and for a dance school because it offered belly dancing. In just two-and-a-half years in office, Engelmann was convicted of three offenses, including corruption and defamation. Two court cases are still pending.

"Children No Longer Play on the Streets"

Not all of his deputies were impressed, with four of his appointed officials resigning within just a few weeks. One of those is Patrice Hainy, who had been appointed by Engelmman as deputy mayor in charge of sports. It had fallen to him to close down the football club and the dance school. "Engelmann has cleaned up the city so much that there's nobody left," Hainy says. "The youth that used to meet here now meet in the neighboring town out of fear. Children no longer play in the streets because Engelmann has banned the playing of football."

Hainy joined forces with Engelmann in fall 2013 and campaigned with him on behalf of Front National. Today, he says it was "the biggest mistake of my life." He says he ultimately realized that it wasn't the local worker Fabien Engelmann who was governing the city, but that Front National, even if it has regional and local roots, is a strictly hierarchical Paris-based organization. "After all of his escapades, Engelmann began feeling the pressure from Paris," Hainy says. "Marine Le Pen wants to clean up her party's image, and Engelmann's behavior was ruining it." As a result, Hainy says, party functionaries were assigned to keep an eye on Engelmann – and suddenly, the small-town Mussolini began focusing exclusively on his supporters.

In the working-class districts where his voters live, Engelmann had potholes filled and ordered a cleaning service to drive through twice a day instead of just once. A police officer with a dog now patrols the town quarter and a couple of new green spaces were put in. All larger projects were put on ice and the main thing was to not stick out. Engelmann is only interested in serving those who voted for him once before so that he can count on them when he is up for re-election.

Le Pen's Opportunity

It is a strategy that is reminiscent of the one followed by Le Pen in Paris. She only has a chance at victory if an extremely large number of voters opt to stay home on May 7. But that could happen. According to surveys, never before have so many people been undecided on the eve of an election. Never before have so many people said they intend to abstain or destroy their ballots. Never before were leftist voters so disappointed as they were following the perceived betrayal by François Hollande, who ran as a Socialist yet, from their perspective, governed as a neo-liberal.

As in Hayange in 2014, many factors are coming together in the France of 2017 that make a Front National victory in the run-off election at least plausible. Furthermore, with the party under the strict control of Marine Le Pen, Front National is no longer standing in its own way.

In December 2015, Fabien Engelmann once again found himself part of a campaign, this time for French regional elections. Front National lost to the Socialists. But a deeper analysis of the election results showed that 60 percent of voters in Hayange abstained, even more than in the previous year when Engelmann was elected. This time, 53 percent of the remaining voters cast their ballots for Front National. And this despite the fact that Fabien Engelmann had long since begun governing the city like a madman.

Translated by Charles Hawley