The Scary Return of a Radical, Far-Right Europe

By Paul Ames

    HENIN-BEAUMONT, France - This former coal-mining town of 26,000 languishing in the economic badlands along the border with Belgium is about as far as you can get from the postcard image of this country as a land of wine and romance.

    Street after street of red-brick row houses lie in the shadow of mountainous spoil tips left behind by long-dead mines that once attracted waves of migrant workers from Italy, Poland and North Africa.

    Downtown, shuttered stores are common. Among those that survive, traditional patisseries and charcuteries - bakers and butchers - are outnumbered by Turkish fast-food joints plastered with garish photos advertising kebab and fries.

    In the cafes, men wearing tracksuits drinking mid-morning beers are a reminder that the 17 percent unemployment rate here is among the highest in France.

    Since March, Henin-Beaumont has also been a National Front town.

    The ultra-nationalist party swept to a landslide victory here in municipal elections, ending decades of left-wing rule.

    Now the party is hoping to repeat that success at a national level by harnessing voters' anger with the political mainstream to become France's biggest political party in this week's elections for the European Parliament.

    "They promised us prosperity, we got recession," party leader Marine Le Pen told supporters at a rally last week. "They promised us strength, we got dependence and humiliation. They promised us security at Europe's borders, we got Romani camps and out-of-control immigration."

    That kind of rhetoric is striking a chord across France.

    A poll Monday showed the National Front leading the pack with 23 percent, ahead of the mainstream conservative opposition party with 21 percent. The Socialists of President Francois Hollande had just 17 percent.

    That picture is being repeated across much of the European Union as its 380 million voters prepare to vote (or abstain, as many do) in the world's second-largest democratic selection after India's general elections. Elections begin on Thursday and last through Sunday.

    Far-right parties and other radical new forces opposed to the European Union are polling first or a close second in nine of the 28 EU countries, including Britain, Italy and the Netherlands.

    Although there are a myriad of local factors at play across Europe, the discontent that led Henin-Beaumont to embrace Le Pen helps explain why voters around the continent are looking for radical solutions.

    Voters here say previous administrations' corruption and mismanagement are the main reasons for the rightward turn.

    There's much to complain about.

    The long-serving Socialist mayor, Gerard Dalongeville, hiked local taxes 85 percent in 2004 in an effort to reduce one of France's highest levels of municipal debt. Five years later, he was dismissed by the national government amid a storm of corruption allegations before receiving a four-year prison sentence for embezzlement in August.

    "The way the town was managed was catastrophic," says local teacher Paul Tondelier. "There was a huge disappointment with the Socialists and people said at least the National Front people weren't involved in all those shenanigans."

    At a national and European level, Le Pen and other radical leaders on the left as well as right have seized on voter dissatisfaction with traditional parties.

    Hollande has seen his popularity ratings plummet to 18 percent just two years after he was elected with 51 percent, by voters disenchanted with his center-right predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy.

    With mainstream leaders across the spectrum failing to answer citizens' concerns over the stagnant economy and rising unemployment, the National Front is finding fertile ground for its kick-the-bums-out message, coupled with populist solutions like a return to protectionist trade restrictions and tougher immigration controls.

    Parties like the Five Star Movement of rabble-rousing comedian Beppe Grillo in Italy and the far-left Syriza party in Greece have tapped into similar voter discontent to challenge for the top spot in their countries' European elections.

    Attacking the European Union has become an even bigger vote winner.

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