ABBEVILLE, France (Reuters) - The farmland around Abbeville, in the Somme valley of northeastern France, saw some of the heaviest fighting in two world wars. And for France’s far right it is again a battle ground - this time for European elections in 10 days’ time.
To lead its campaign for the 751-seat European Parliament, Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National, previously known as the National Front, has chosen Jordan Bardella, a fresh-faced, 23-year-old from a tough neighbourhood of northern Paris.
Mixing youthful vigour and rapid-fire soundbites, Bardella seems to have energised the party base, helping the RN come from behind to stand marginally ahead of President Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche list in the latest polls, at 22.5% to 22%.
“If En Marche doesn’t come out on top in this election it’s going to be a big blow for Macron, and he’s obsessing about it,” Bardella half-joked as he canvassed in Abbeville, a quiet town on the River Somme with a Socialist mayor, but where high youth unemployment is stirring anxiety among the 25,000 residents.
“Change is possible in how Europe is run - we’re ready to deliver it,” said Bardella. “The European Union is killing Europe. We need more national sovereignty, more economic patriotism and we need to put a stop to open immigration.”
France’s vote will be held on May 26, with 74 seats in the parliament up for grabs amid high expectations that this election will see substantial gains for the far right across Europe, with nationalist parties in Italy, Hungary, Denmark, Austria and Poland all expected to perform strongly.
In the last European elections in 2014, Le Pen’s party came top in France, winning nearly 25 percent of the vote, a result pollsters put down to low turnout and the fact the European vote is often treated as a protest ballot.
Since then Le Pen has shifted tack slightly, dropping calls for France to quit the euro single currency and for the end of the EU. Instead she advocates the overhaul of the EU from within, with its 28 member nations taking back power.
Her platform, delivered almost verbatim by Bardella, plays up fears of rising immigration from the Middle East and Africa, criticises EU free-trade deals for hurting French farmers and producers, calls for more protection for French industry and workers, and hammers Macron for his pro-business policies.
It is a combination that portrays France as under attack from all sides, undermined as a nation, subject to rules set in Brussels, a pale imitation of what it should be - rhetoric with echoes of President Donald Trump’s populism.
“We need to put the doors back on France, so we decide who comes in,” said Bardella, speaking before addressing around 150 supporters, mostly older men, some waving the French tricolour, gathered in a red-brick hall off Abbeville’s town square.
“We don’t want a Europe that imposes things on others. We want a Europe of sovereign nations that get to set the priorities for themselves.”
Macron has cast the EU vote as a showdown between advocates of pro-European, “progressive” politics like himself and the anti-immigrant, eurosceptic nationalism of the likes of Le Pen, Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Italy’s Matteo Salvini - a gauntlet his opponents have willingly taken up.
With the lead candidate on Macron’s list, former Europe minister Nathalie Loiseau, 54, struggling to connect with voters and having made repeated blunders, the French president faces the very real possibility of his party coming second in the election, which would erode his influence in Europe.
Loiseau, a technocrat with limited frontline political experience, has apologised for her errors, including an initial denial that she had appeared on a far-right student union ticket 35 years ago, and sought to reboot her campaign. [L5N22I4XD]
Macron, having fought hard for EU reform since coming to office, and with France hoping to have a major say in deciding who gets the top jobs after the election, including the European Commission president, needs the momentum of victory.
In Abbeville, noted for its 15th-century Gothic church and a large central square dotted with cafes and fountains, there was little awareness that the far right was holding a rally, and only marginal interest in voting for it.
“I don’t support them - I’m a unionised worker, I’m on the left,” said Aurore Sannier, 33, a mother of two young children. “But my ex-husband was National Front. In some towns near here, 60% or 70% will vote for the far right.”
For Bardella, first or second in the election will feel like success, ensuring he gets a seat in the European Parliament, where the RN hopes to form a group with like-minded parties and control up to 80 seats in the chamber.
If it pulls that off, the RN would gain substantial power, including leadership of committees, which can have wide influence in the European Parliament, with its oversight of legislation affecting more than 500 million EU citizens.
Overall, the EPP, a group of centre-right parties, looks likely to come out top in the election, but with a much reduced share of the vote from 2014, and no single group is likely to win a majority, making coalition-building the priority.
For Bardella, it’s a golden opportunity.
“We wanted out of Europe when we were isolated,” he said. “But now that we have allies like Salvini in Italy and the (far-right) FPO in Austria, we want to work with them to take back sovereignty from the European Union.”
Editing by Mark Heinrich