Lille: From left-wing bastion to far-right hunting ground

A working class city of 1.2 million, voters are so unimpressed by all five candidates that they don't know who to vote for.

Lille, the capital of France's Hauts-de-France region and the country's gateway to Belgium and the Netherlands, has long been a bastion of the left. In the working-class city of 1.2 million and its densely populated surrounding towns, built on the coal, steel and textile industries, France's current president François Hollande won the 2012 elections comfortably.

Five years later, as the most polarising election in the history of France's post-war Fifth Republic reaches its final weeks, the region is a key hunting ground for the National Front (FN) and its charismatic populist leader Marine Le Pen, following the implosion of Hollande's Socialist Party.

Marred by scandal

Weeks away from polling day, most voters are so unimpressed by the five main candidates they have been presented with that they do not know who they will vote for. But they are tired of an election campaign that has been marred by widespread scandal.

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"No-go area"

Bérangère Burban, who lives in the Bourgogne housing projects in Tourcoing, to the north east of Lille, knows the draw of the National Front among the white working classes who feel forgotten by the political mainstream. The 30-year-old single mother stood as a local FN candidate in 2014, placing second on the party's list for the city.

In an upper floor apartment off a bare uniform hallway in the housing project where she lives, Burban explains she is often afraid to go out her front door. Bourgogne has been described as a "no-go area" for the police in recent years. In 2015 it erupted in riots that saw arson, vandalism and violent clashes after a young man was killed in a car chase with the police.

"It's not easy... you live in poverty, the more you are in social difficulty, the more you shut yourself in, the less you open your eyes because you are afraid of everything, because life is so hard that you only try to survive, to keep your head above water," she says. "You do not care about your neighbours, you only care that one neighbour, who isn't French or white or like you, should be gone."

Burban says her decision to join the FN, one she now regrets, was driven by her desire to take back an element of control in her life. Already a single mother, in 2014 she was pregnant with her second child and struggling to make ends meet. The offer of being second on the FN's municipal party list was flattering when she had little else to pin her hopes on.

Now Burban has left the party, which she felt stood on a shallow anti-immigrant and anti-Europe platform. She says she also clashed with other members over their homophobia.

Despite her political conversion, the same social problems in Tourcoing remain. "Unemployment is through the roof," she says, "Poverty everywhere. Alcohol, abused children, abused women, everything. No jobs or good jobs."

The former FN member is not enthusiastic about the prospect of simply voting for whoever will block Le Pen – even if she now believes it is the only option to save the French values she knows.

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Communist candidates

As the world uneasily eyes the rise of the National Front in France, in Lille the area's Communist Party is hoping the same forces of electoral disillusionment could translate into a rise in fortunes for the far left.

While the Communist Party in France has never seen a return to the popularity it enjoyed in its heyday in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War or the resurgence it enjoyed during the 70s, it remains an electoral force in France. Seven of the Communist Party's 18 senators are drawn from the north of the country.

In a smart clean office on central Lille's rue Inkerman, decorated with posters advertising party events, members of the Communist Party and its youth wing are planning to vote for the 65-year-old firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

Their motivation to vote for the communist veteran, whose Unsubmissive France movement has the backing of the Communist Party, stems more from ideological sympathy than a great warmth of feeling for the candidate personally.

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"I think that he is the best candidate for me because of his proposals, his values," Clara Laby, a 20-year-old activist in the Communist Party's youth wing from Cambrai, explains. "As we decided during the special national conference we will support him in his campaign, so I will do it."

Her colleague, Soizic Lozachmeur, 21 and originally from Lille, agrees. "We are not saying he is flawless, we all know his flaws," she says. "Broadly speaking, the proposals he has are the ones that defend the most people who are struggling."

For Simon Agnoletti, a Communist Party spokesman from Armentières, the political necessity of voting for the most popular far left candidate regardless of his personal feeling is stark. "I will vote for Mélenchon even if I find him unbearable and despicable," he says. "Politically speaking he is the one who has done many things we relate to ... if there is a project to bring back hope to people I think he will be the one delivering it."

If the group is reluctant to back Mélenchon they are clear in their rejection of the Socialist Party's candidate Benoît Hamon who, like his far left rival, has struggled to poll over 13% of the vote throughout the election. They do not believe Hamon will be able to deliver his scheme of a basic income. The Socialist candidate caught attention in the primaries by promising to give a basic income of €500 (£435) per person per month from the age of 18.

"Is the Socialist Party able to win? No." Agnoletti says, answering his own question. "The socialists have all been betrayed... for real they have left a mess," he adds. "We are getting out of five years of Hollande's government," Lozachmeur says.

The communists are far from enamoured with Le Pen and feel the extreme right candidate has successfully managed to frame the debate in her own terms, moving it away from the issues that matter to French people.

"We have placed some topics at the centre of the news as if these are the main preoccupations of the French people and now they are a priority, women can wear the hijab if they want," Lozachmeur says. "They also have disgusting ways of doing it. They say 'if you support Islam you are automatically against women's rights," she adds.

Student politics

The student population in Lille, which stands at over 90,000 across its universities, is one of the reasons the city has retained much of its leftist political sentiment.

Augustin Yzebe, Clément Leblond and Rémy Bretton, all of them political science and law students, discuss the upcoming election in a hallway in the Lille 2's large and sparse 1970s campus building. As they sip coffee and discuss the candidates other students walk between their classes.

The three 19-year-olds accept with little argument the likelihood their standard of living will be lower than that of their parents. At one point their conversation drifts to the prospect that in future generations no one will have to work and they discuss utopian visions of how society will order itself once all labour is done by machines. However, for the most part they rail against the candidates on offer, who are too corrupt, too vacuous or too sinister.

They have given up on the Socialist Party even if they still identify broadly with the left. "We see that the presidential elections are not looking good for the left. Hamon will never give up his spot we all know that. So we will have a divided left wing for the presidential elections and we will lose again. If it is not the right wing that wins then it is Macron, which is not better... or Marine Le Pen. I think it is going to be a mess," Yzebe says.

Rémy agrees and criticises Hamon over his ambiguous stance on the Socialist Party's contentious reforms to France's labour laws. The measures, which have looked to curb overtime hours, threaten the French 35-hour working week and make it easier for poorly performing companies to dismiss their workers, have proved unpopular.

"The only socialist thing they have left is their name, that's it. We cannot trust them! Hamon starts to say in his program that he will revoke the working law. Now he came back on his decision and says 'we will only modify it'. Come on!" he continues.

Among these young idealistic voters it might be expected that Emmanuel Macron, the leader of the independent En Marche! Party who promises to breathe fresh air into the French political establishment, would offer hope. However, the former banker is too much of a blank sheet for them -- style with no substance.

"I think that Macron is really overvalued as he does not have a program. It is just wind, just an image. I do not think people will go vote for that kind of man," Leblond says. He adds that he fears Macron has caught attention in Paris but that beyond he holds little promise. "It is a media bubble, whether is it going to explode or not, we do not know but it remains a bubble," he adds.

Like the students, in Lille's Grand'Place - the heart of the city for hundreds of years and named for Charles De Gaulle, the founder of the Fifth Republic - voters see little appeal in the five main candidates they have been presented.

As citizens hurry between boutique shops over cobbled streets flanked by the Flemish style of architecture with its tall, high-roofed buildings that give Lille its distinctive northern French appearance, they are already tired and unimpressed by the elections that have weeks to run and could leave France irrevocably changed.

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