New Factories and Jobs Are Not Enough to Stem France’s Far Right Surge


Between abandoned coal mines and an engine plant scheduled for closure, a gleaming new factory hovers like a phoenix over Billy-Berclau, a small industrial town in northern France. Inside, 700 newly hired workers are making next-generation electric vehicle batteries for the Automotive Cells Company — part of a grand project to revive the wider region’s flailing fortunes.

A “Battery Valley” is rising here from the remains of industries that shuttered during a wave of globalization. Three more giant electric car battery plants are expected to open by 2026, a testament to a re-industrialization strategy that President Emmanuel Macron’s government has trumpeted as an antidote to the far-right National Rally party, which has gained ground in areas decimated by job losses.

“Industry is an anti-National Rally weapon, because in places where anger has risen, we’re restoring hope,” Roland Lescure, Mr. Macron’s deputy industry minister, said earlier this year.

But the bet is not paying off politically. Billy-Berclau, and nearly every other town in this region of Pas-de-Calais handed a resounding victory last week to National Rally in parliamentary elections — a trend that is likely to be repeated in a final voting round on Sunday.

“There’s a sense of disconnect,” said André Kuchcinski, president of the Artois-Flandres Industrial Park, an area covering more than 1,100 acres where Automotive Cells Company, known as ACC, is expanding its new plant. “You have a government that pushed for development and job creation, but a lot of people are still struggling and feel insecure,” he said. “A new factory doesn’t address that, but there’s a feeling that the far right does.”

Around Billy-Berclau, people speak in hushed tones of a political earthquake coming.

“There used to be thousands of more jobs. The new factory only makes up a fraction of the ones lost,” said Marc Vandamme, 54, a home care nurse, sipping a beer at the Europe Cafe, a local hangout where people buy lottery tickets or down a coffee before work.

“People feel defeated and angry,” Mr. Vandamme said. “The cost of everything keeps rising, and they’re also worried about immigration,” he said. “The National Rally is promising to fix all that, and many are saying, let’s give them a shot at running things.”

The Battery Valley initiative was supposed to address such worries. Pas-de-Calais, a former mining area that stretches from the flat plains around Billy-Berclau to Dunkirk on the coast and toward the Belgian border, has lived through wrenching cycles of industrial blight and rebirth since the end of World War II.

Heavily unionized, Pas-de-Calais had tended to vote for Communist or left-leaning candidates representing workers’ rights before swinging in the early 2000s to support more centrist politicians. In the 2012 presidential elections, François Hollande, a Socialist, won over half of the vote.

But by then, globalization had started to bite. Over decades, tire makers, steel and paint plants, as well as the French automakers Renault and Peugeot (now part of Stellantis after a merger with the Italian automaker Fiat) had been relocating manufacturing to lower-cost countries to battle cheaper competition from Eastern Europe and Asia.

Marine Le Pen, the far right candidate for the movement then called the National Front, capitalized on the malaise. She rebranded the image of the party, long associated with overt racism, antisemitism and Holocaust denial, into one that championed workers and purchasing power. She campaigned fiercely in towns across France that had lost jobs to globalization — especially in Pas-de-Calais, where she set up her election office to attract working class voters.

By the time Mr. Macron ran in France’s 2017 presidential elections, nearly 40,000 more industrial jobs had disappeared from the region. Ms. Le Pen won 52 percent of the Pas-de-Calais vote that year, nearly twice the amount for Mr. Macron. In the 2022 presidential election, she captured 57 percent of the vote.

Mr. Macron, who once defended globalization, swung to a new priority: reindustrialize France with “technologies of the future.” In Battery Valley, ProLogium of Taiwan is expected to open a battery plant, along with two others involving French and international investors. A series of new electric battery recycling plants will also be built. Mr. Macron says there will be 20,000 direct jobs created over the next decade, and as many indirect ones.

Inside ACC, which is co-owned by Stellantis, Mercedes and TotalEnergies, some are clinging to Mr. Macron’s promise of a better future. Eight soccer fields long, the plant, which opened last summer, received about 840 million euros ($910 million) in state subsidies. It sits on a site once dominated by Française de Mécanique, a subsidiary of Stellantis that manufactures internal combustion engines, which has downsized to about 1,400 workers, from 6,000 workers at its height. As it continues to wind down, ACC has pledged to take on 700 of its former employees.

Among them is Christophe Lequimme, 52, who built car engines for 22 years before being retrained by ACC to work on lithium car batteries.

Billy-Berclau’s wavering fortunes could be traced through his family, starting with his grandfather, who lost his job in the mines when they closed in the 1960s, but found work at Française de Mécanique. Mr. Lequimme’s father and mother spent their careers in that same factory, and Mr. Lequimme followed in their footsteps. When the layoffs came, he jumped at the chance to work at ACC.

“It’s a great opportunity for a new beginning,” he said.

But such optimism hasn’t echoed through the broader community.

In last weekend’s parliamentary elections, Bruno Bilde, a local National Rally politician who is close to Ms. Le Pen, won nearly 60 percent of the vote, knocking out his main rival, Steve Bossart, the center-left mayor of Billy-Berclau.

Mr. Bilde declined requests for an interview. But in the lead-up to the election, he was actively courting voters at the ACC factory, posting a photo on X of him with a group of supporters brandishing National Rally pamphlets. “Thank you for your welcome,” he wrote, adding: “The National Rally is the leading party for workers!”

Such talk unnerves officials at ACC. Matthieu Hubert, the company’s secretary general, noted that National Rally has branded electric vehicles as cars for the elites, and its platform calls for ending a European Union ban on gas-powered vehicles starting in 2035 that is designed to combat climate change.

“I can’t say it doesn’t worry me,” Mr. Hubert said, adding that European automakers are racing to stay ahead of Asian and American rivals by producing cleaner vehicles, taking back supply chains and building batteries. “This factory represents the future.”

For Billy-Berclau’s mayor, Mr. Bossart, the rise of the far right in a region where billions in new investments are pouring in is a paradox that goes beyond economics.

“We have many people who own their own homes, who have decent pensions. People have jobs and there’s low unemployment,” said Mr. Brossart, 28, who was born in Billy-Berclau. “And we’re drawing big investments like the ACC factory.”

Even so, locals had grown increasingly concerned by a sense of insecurity, even though the town did not have crime like larger cities. But on television, news programs frequently show images of migrants in Calais near the English Channel and link them to reports of crime, stoking worries.

There was also a sense that Mr. Macron had grown out of touch and did not understand their struggles, Mr. Brossart said. They were angry that he raised the retirement age to 64 from 62, and felt he had not done enough to address a cost of living crisis, including high energy bills that the National Rally has promised to reduce.

“This region is more attractive than it has ever been for investors,” said Mr. Bossart. “But people’s anger has accumulated. As soon as they can vote, they are showing their despair.”

Ségolène Le Stradic contributed reporting from Billy-Berclau.

Source link


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here