When Bertrand Michaux’s father directed one of the largest steel mills in eastern France, his town, Hayange, tucked in the hills of eastern region of Lorraine, was known as a little “Texas” for its wealth — owed to a mining industry that dated back to Roman times.
This month, Michaux walked with a reporter through the rusted ruins of the shuttered old plant and a town whose collapsed economy triggered discontent that has made it one of Marine Le Pen’s biggest strongholds.
“There were small businesses. People were rich because everyone had a job. Everyone worked here.”
The big change came in 2013 when its owner, the Luxembourg-based ArcelorMittal, closed the plant despite promises by Socialist President Francois Hollande to defend it. The plant had been functioning for centuries and was the last of the big employers in town.
As business came to a grinding halt, charities like the one run by the group Secours Populaire, on the edge of town, became busy.
“It came much faster than they thought. There are people who come here who had very good situations, and a result of the state of things, they lost their jobs,” said Anne Duflot-Allievi, the center’s director.
The center’s warehouse is piled with donated clothing, boxes of food, and furniture. Those who came for help declined interviews.
“There is total psychological misery. People are truly, completely lost. Some really need counseling. It is not easy for them to come to the point of suddenly saying, ‘I am poor.’ People are sometimes ashamed,” said Duflot-Allievi.
The feelings of defeat and despair have made many vulnerable, she said.
“They watch TV, they keep up with politics, and they will believe in hope, and they will believe the first one who comes and tells them that tomorrow they will have a job and will get rid of all the foreigners.”
Le Pen’s nationalist, anti-immigration National Front has succeeded in winning over diehard leftists in Hayange. Once a bastion of left-wing unionists, the town changed politically. The town’s mayor, Fabien Engelmann, is a former animal rights activist and communist but is now a National Front member and vocal supporter of Le Pen.
“Our country is the victim of deindustrialization, mass unemployment,” said Engelmann, during a meeting with a reporter outside Hayange’s city hall, a hulking, square building reminiscent of socialist architecture with the words “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” emblazoned over the main entrance. Like much of Hayange, the building has seen better days. Its paint is worn and weeds grow through the cracks of its steps.
“A problem of massive immigration,” Engelmann said, “is bringing Islamization of our country and increasing the problem of insecurity.”
A few meters away, on the town square, Husein Sinancevic, a Muslim immigrant from Montenegro, draws glares from passing towns people when they see him telling a reporter the story of his family’s flight from the former Yugoslavia during the Balkan wars.
“I fled fear,” he said. “When, in 1998, I came to France I said there is no better place in the world than France. Today, it is not France like before. Today, France is seriously racist.”
“I say to anyone ‘my name is’ and they hear a Muslim name, and they say, ‘Wait, come back later,’ and they smile like that,” Husein said, faking a grin.
At Hayange’s unemployment office, there are few choices for job seekers. In one corner of the waiting area, a rack with pamphlets offers guidance for French citizens who seek jobs in Luxembourg, 30 minutes away.
Laurent Duval, in his 40’s, has been unemployed for months. He said he sees little hope in any of the mainstream, centrist candidates. “Just have a look at [politician Emmanuel] Macron, who is powered by the system. So that leaves us with what, exactly?” he asks.
Duval, like many Hayange residents, does not declare support for the National Front, but said he understands those who support Le Pen and her anti-European Union, anti-immigration stance.
“People don’t want globalism anymore. That’s why when you’ve got some politician who promotes values of ‘we stand for what we are,’ it’s really appealing to a lot of people,” Duval said.
Prosperity as distant memory
At a rally this month in the village of Monswiller in the nearby region of Alsace, more than 1,000 supporters packed an auditorium where Le Pen repeated calls for an end to massive immigration. Her supporters say the message is driven by honesty, not racism.
“I don’t think she is racist. She’s just a woman who is clear, who says things clearly,” said Marie-Bernarde Warnecke. “There are many people who support her who are not exactly of French origin, so to say she is racist, I do not think so,” said Warnecke, a second-generation French citizen whose parents immigrated to France from Cameroon.
Warnecke said she had always voted for Socialists until now. She cited security as her main concern in these elections.
In Hayange, Bertrand Michaux points to a balcony of what was once his father’s office in a decaying ornate 19th century building that was the steel mill’s headquarters.
Part of the facility is now a museum. A stone tower in the complex bears an inscription of the year 1767.
Prosperity is a distant memory. Michaux made a living not at the plant, but as a dentist. His sons have moved on to careers elsewhere in France and Hong Kong.
“It will never become Texas again,” he said. “Texas was the steel mills. It was the mines. All that is obsolete. Hayange has been, I will say, sold.”
Shut for years, the plant is now so decayed that experts say it would have to be demolished before it could ever be fired up again.
Michaux believes that will never happen.
Marine Le Pen’s campaign posters promise she will put France back in order. For some, amid the ruins of the French rust belt, that promise is the only hope.