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Near EU border, Le Pen wins support even among French who back the euro
April 4, 2017 / 2:30 PM / 7 months ago

Near EU border, Le Pen wins support even among French who back the euro

HAYANGE, France (Reuters) - Aline Dugravot is in a bind over whether to vote for Marine Le Pen in France’s presidential election: she likes the National Front leader’s anti-immigration message, but also likes the EU and the euro currency, which Le Pen wants to abandon.

General view of Hayange, France, March 31, 2017. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler

The 34-year-old commutes to her insurance job across the border in EU neighbour Luxembourg, and is worried that she would be hurt if the National Front takes France out of the bloc.

“The euro, the European Union, that’s really important for me. An exit would be a complete mess,” Dugravot said outside her house in Hayange, a town of less than 16,000 people just 20 km from the border.

Le Pen, 48, is on course this month for a first or second place finish in the first round of France’s presidential election. In a May 7 runoff she is likely to come closer than any far right leader since World War Two to winning the French presidency, although polls still show her losing.

One result of her surge in popularity is that it has outstripped support for one of her main ideas: ditching the euro and quitting the EU, which remains a fringe position in France even as Le Pen has won greater acceptance in the mainstream.

While one in two voters agree with Le Pen’s stance that there are too many immigrants in France, only 22 percent want to ditch the euro, a Kantar Sofres poll showed.

Le Pen blames the EU and its common currency for stifling the French economy. She says that after taking power she would negotiate for six months and then hold a referendum on whether to quit the EU and ditch the euro.

For Marc Schmitt, a 25-year old cleaner who commutes to Luxembourg from a village next to Hayange, that makes it possible to support Le Pen for president, even though he wants to keep the euro.

It takes him 45 minutes to commute across the open EU border every day, and he worries that if France quit the bloc and brought back border checks it would take far longer to cross.

“I would simply vote ‘No’ in the referendum,” said Schmitt, who said he was still undecided about the presidential vote but thinks Le Pen has “a lot of good ideas”.

“SCAREMONGERING”?

Opposition to the EU is popular with grassroots National Front voters and helps establish the party’s anti-establishment image, but makes it harder for it to win over other voters.

A view shows the city hall of Hayange, France, March 31, 2017. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler

Some leaders within the National Front wanted to back away from hostility to the euro when the party failed to win control of any regional and local councils in two sets of elections in 2015, despite strong scores. But a party meeting devoted to the issue decide not to change tack.

Instead, Le Pen is hoping to win over enough voters who, like Schmitt, are willing to vote for her for president even though they want to stay in the EU.

Areas in northeast France near the borders with Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany are some of the strongest pockets of National Front support in the country. (See map: tmsnrt.rs/2n70MzB )

The steel mills have shut in Hayange, where unemployment tops 17 percent. About a third of those in the town with jobs now work across the nearby border in Luxembourg, a tiny, wealthy country where the number of workers commuting in from France has tripled since border checks were eliminated in 1995.

Slideshow (4 Images)

Yet despite its reliance on its EU neighbours, Hayange has elected a mayor from the National Front, Fabien Engelmann, 37.

He says it would still be possible for commuters to work in Luxembourg or Germany if France left the EU. Special passes could be issued to speed their crossing of the border.

“I am European but I am against the European Union,” Engelmann said in front of the town hall, which flies only the French tricolor, without the blue and yellow EU star flag which flies next to it above most municipalities in France.

“Many French people worked in Luxembourg before borders were opened up, and that wasn’t a problem,” he said. “There will be a referendum and French voters can decide for themselves if they want to stay in the EU or not. Let’s stop this scaremongering.”

Michele Pavesi, a 69-year-old retiree whose two sons work across the border, said she would still vote for Le Pen.

“I don’t think that leaving Europe would change the fact that commuters go and work in Luxembourg. If all the commuters left Luxembourg, where will Luxembourg find its workers?”

But 58-year old Andre Sobies, an assembly line worker for carmaker Peugeot PSA who saves up what he can to go on holidays to EU countries like Greece, said he wanted France to stay in the bloc.

“We’re lucky to live near the border and travel with the same currency. It’s such an advantage.”

Click tmsnrt.rs/2lPduBG for graphic on French presidential election

Writing by Ingrid Melander; editing by Peter Graff

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