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French Workers In Calais Throw Support Behind Marine Le Pen


In the electoral battle over populism in Western democracies, the score is tied 2-2.


Populists got huge wins last year with Brexit, Britain's vote to leave the European Union, and of course Donald Trump's victory here in the U.S.

CORNISH: More recently, though, populist candidates came up short in Austria and the Netherlands. And this month, the battle shifts to France.

SHAPIRO: That's where far-right candidate Marine Le Pen is running strong. Like Donald Trump, she's appealing to industrial workers hurt by globalization. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from Calais, France.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Pascal Duquenne opens the big metal doors of Union Building in this port city along the English Channel and climbs several floors up to his union office. Duquenne works at an American chemical plant which is going to close later this year, leaving 108 people without jobs.

PASCAL DUQUENNE: I think a majority of the workers are going to vote Marine Le Pen.

LANGFITT: Really? Does that surprise you?

DUQUENNE: No. It is because we have no help from the government. And our production is going to China and to Germany.

LANGFITT: The company says it's shutting the plant to save money in a down market. Duquenne says the firm sold a patent for some of the paint pigment it makes to China and is closing the factory to comply with European Union anti-monopoly rules. Marine Le Pen has vowed to pull out of the EU and put France first. Duquenne doesn't support her, but he understands why many of his fellow workers do.

DUQUENNE: She will close the frontiers. She liked the Brexit in England. So some of them think that it's the way to get out of the bad economic situation.

LANGFITT: Professor?

JEAN-YVES CAMUS: Nice to meet you.

LANGFITT: Nearly 200 miles to the south in Paris, I met up with Jean-Yves Camus. He's a scholar and co-author of the book "Far-Right Politics In Europe." Over coffee at a cafe, he explained what happened to Calais over the past three decades.

CAMUS: This was an industrial area. It was the coal industry, the steel industry. And most of those factories including the coal and steel have totally closed down.

LANGFITT: Putting tens of thousands of coal and steel workers on the street.

CAMUS: We now have the third generation of people living on welfare in this area. It's a situation of desperation.

LANGFITT: Camus said the decline in Calais reminds him of what happened to similar industries in western Pennsylvania. Some French factory workers have given up on traditional political parties. They're attracted to an outsider like Le Pen.

CAMUS: They do not want to vote for the conservative right or the socialist party. And what they want is a big change sending all those people who have been elected since 1981 back to nowhere.

LANGFITT: That sounds a lot like the upper Midwest in the United States and how they voted in November in the States.

CAMUS: Then also, that's much like the drain the swamp slogan by Donald Trump. People all just fed up.

LANGFITT: Back in Calais, Pascal Duquenne, the union rep, takes me over to his factory. We pass the port where ferries sail across the channel to England.

It looks like a prison.


LANGFITT: It's double-fenced, razor wire on top.

The port is heavily fortified to keep migrants from stowing away on boats. Not long ago, Calais was home to the jungle, a giant migrant camp. Duquenne says migrants used to hide in the plant. At the factory gates, we run into Roman Verenque, a fellow worker. He supported Le Pen before and may again in this month's first round of voting. Verenque likes Le Pen's tough policies on migrants and Muslims, which he compares to the American president.

ROMAN VERENQUE: (Through interpreter) Concerning immigration, your president, Donald Trump, took the bull by the horns. And in France, we are not able to do it. In France, we accept everything. And in France, we are dying.

LANGFITT: But Verenque won't vote for Le Pen in the second round. He finds some of her policies too risky. But he hopes his vote sends a message the eventual winner that France must change. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Calais.


Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.