France election: Le Pen and Melenchon duel for northern town

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Media captionThe parliamentary vote has reignited the battle between the far right and far left.

There are scarred landscapes surrounding the northern French town of Henin-Beaumont and on them stand the ghosts of forgotten industry.

Rusting pit wheels, towering over disused mine shafts and mountainous slag heaps, are now disguised beneath wild and rampant vegetation.

Even the light industry that replaced the coal mines is disappearing.

On the edge of town the local Samsonite factory, which closed in 2007, is forlorn and abandoned.

Its enormous factory floor is now home to squatters - they have replaced the workers whose jobs were transferred to Eastern Europe.

Five years on from the closure half of the 200 people who were made redundant are still unemployed.

Feeling abandoned

To former worker Brigitte Petit the factory provided more than just a salary - it gave structure and life to her local community.

Image caption Henin-Beaumont was thought to be a secure seat for Marine Le Pen

"We were like a family," she said. "We loved our work. And they made us believe it was a job for life."

"Today we feel abandoned, betrayed," Ms Petit said.

Amid such anger and despair the far right party of Marine Le Pen is finding record support.

Nowhere in France did Marine Le Pen perform better in the presidential election than in this region. This weekend she stands for the parliamentary seat - one of a handful of constituencies where her party, the National Front (FN), believes it can win.

"We want change," said one supporter who waited for a signed photograph of Ms Le Pen.

"No to Europe. We want to go back to the franc. We have been ripped off by the euro. We don't have the means to live any more. I had to cancel my car insurance to feed my children."

'Vampires' of the right

But scenting blood is Ms Le Pen's arch rival, Jean-Luc Melenchon, champion of the far left and leader of the Left Front.

He has descended on Henin-Beaumont to "shine a light," he said, "on the vampires of the National Front" and to snatch from them a seat that a month ago looked guaranteed.

The FN dismiss him as an outsider who has parachuted into Henin-Beaumont to satisfy his own ego.

"It's true, I am not from here," Mr Melenchon told me. "I am not from anywhere. I was born in North Africa. I have lived all over France, like many of the people in this country."

"Madame Le Pen represents a France that no longer exists. People who've lived forever in the same place, who can never accept people from the outside."

They divide bitterly on immigration and in recent weeks the battle has grown ugly.

The National Front's well-marshalled supporters have been busy and the billboards are re-pasted every day with images of Marine Le Pen.

This week a new flyer was being distributed among traders in the town.

It caricatured the far left leader as Hitler, sporting the moustache and a swastika and behind him the Nazi party slogan "Arbeit macht frei" ("Work makes you free"). Mr Melenchon has complained. The FN have denied any responsibility.

Shared concerns

But while on many issues these two parties are firmly opposed to one another, on economic matters there are surprising parallels.

These are populist parties, inward-looking. They appeal to the suspicion in France that surrounds capitalism and the free market.

Both advocate a rise in the minimum wage. They are Eurosceptic, albeit in different ways. Mr Melenchon is not anti-Europe, but he does not think it is working for France. And both pledge protectionism, to defend French jobs from the "evils" of globalisation.

In the local party headquarters Marine Le Pen tells me she is amused by Mr Melenchon's challenge.

"I think he loves me," she laughed. "He follows me all around the country."

Image caption Martine Aubry (left) is the head of the Socialist party, whose candidate is Philippe Kemel (right)

But she tells me I am wrong to draw parallels between her party and the Left Front. There are fundamental differences, she says.

"The extreme left remain 'internationaliste'," she said. "We are patriots. We believe in the French nation."

"Only the French people can guarantee their own prosperity, security, identity," Ms Le Pen said. "The far left is opposed to our brand of nationalism. They are not against Europe. Far from it, they want more Europe."

Socialists' stand

There are two rounds of the parliamentary election - and the decisive 17 June round follows a first-past-the-post system. Up to 10 candidates will stand in the first round this Sunday.

The frontrunners go through to the second round, which tends to become a two- or three-horse race.

There has been a longstanding agreement, particularly on the left, that candidates running third will stand aside to give a better placed candidate a clear run.

That could happen in Henin-Beaumont, where either the governing Socialists or Mr Melenchon will progress alone.

Nationally the first round will give a true picture of what level of support each party has.

Bruno Jeanbart, a pollster from OpinionWay, says he expects to see the Socialists win with a narrow majority - essential if President Francois Hollande is to force through his reform programme.

Becoming mainstream

Image caption The Socialists under President Hollande (right) are expected to win by a narrow margin

But the vote for the National Front, Mr Jeanbart said, could mark a turning point. Not least in its challenge to the party of former President Nicolas Sarkozy, the conservative UMP.

"Traditionally the (National Front) lost one-third of their votes between presidential and legislative elections," Mr Jeanbart said.

"If they perform well in this election it shows people are not only voting for Marine Le Pen, they are voting for the National Front itself. And they are voting for the far right, and its agenda, to become part of the mainstream."

On a personal level Ms Le Pen badly needs to capture Henin-Beaumont to capitalise on her recent success.

The polls do have her comfortably ahead for Sunday's first round vote. But she will be defeated a week later if the Socialists do decide step aside and endorse Mr Melenchon, in the decisive second round.

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