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Macron courts working class in French rust belt

LENS, France — As he travels to France’s historic industrial heartland, Emmanuel Macron is playing to the locals’ gritty regional pride — and handing out a hefty wad of cash to a key electorate.

The French president announced Wednesday a new €200 million envelope of public funds to support the former coal basin near Lens in northern France. His government also touted the benefits of Macron’s pro-EU agenda for the region under France’s six-month Council of the EU presidency, with the bloc’s banner even making it onto the front pages of local newspapers while EU ministers were in town.

The tour of northern France, whose mining industry once inspired Emile Zola’s masterpiece “Germinal” and is now a stronghold of the far-right National Rally, is a strategic move for Macron ahead of April’s presidential election, in which right-wing candidates threaten to upset his expected bid for a second term. 

While Macron has not yet announced that he will be running, there is no doubt that his campaign is already moving ahead at full throttle as he and his ministers multiply their number of trips to key battlegrounds.

The northern region has experienced a wave of industrial shutdowns in recent years and records unemployment levels above the national average. 

Walking into a wooden assembly hall full of local elected officials in the small suburban town of Liévin, near Lens in the Hauts-de-France region, Macron retraced “the brutal deindustrialization” that hit the area, promised that the government will top up its pledged funding if needed and praised the locals’ “resilience.”

“People here are proud of their roots, of living here, with a willingness to meet the challenges of our time,” Macron said.

Macron’s opponents, however, were quick to criticize him, with conservative heavyweight Xavier Bertrand from Les Républicains slamming the visit as “an electoral trip at the expense of the republic.”

“This land of the Hauts-de-France … is foreign to him. He does not understand the people from here,” said Bertrand, who is president of the regional council.

Macron also commemorated a 1974 mining accident, recalling a similar visit in the 1990s by former Socialist President François Mitterrand.

The National Rally rebuffed the gathering, with Le Pen opting to campaign nearby the same day — not without criticizing Macron’s funding promises as “laughable.”

National Rally’s representatives were invited to the meeting with Macron but decided not to go. “We refuse to endorse this thing, our parliamentarians will not go to shake hands with Mr. Macron,” said Jean-Philippe Tanguy, a regional councilman for Le Pen’s party.

The Elysée anticipated the criticism and denied any link between Macron’s announcements and the upcoming vote. “We are not getting out the checkbook two months before the presidential election. We have been working on this territory for five years,” an Elysée official said Tuesday.

Waving the EU flag

Earlier this week, EU industry ministers and commissioners met in the local offshoot of Paris’ Louvre Museum, a metal and glass building designed by star architects and meant to epitomize the past and the future of the location, from which one can see the “black pyramids,” the highest slag-heaps in Europe.

Industry Minister Agnès Pannier-Runacher and EU Commissioners Thierry Breton and Maroš Šefčovič depicted the north of France as a land of industrial transformation, made possible by EU support.

Macron on Wednesday touted recent private investments and his government insists that the region is set to be at the center of Europe’s industrial transformation centered around the rising battery industry.

The new jobs are badly needed.

Last year, Japanese tire-maker Bridgestone and Spanish chemical group Maxam shut down their plants in the region, leaving hundreds of workers unemployed.

A few kilometers north of Lens, in Douvrin, Franco-German joint-venture ACC has just started construction work to build a battery giga-factory. Another battery factory will be built in Douai by Chinese firm Envision to supply French carmaker Renault. This week France’s Verkor also announced it will build a battery cell factory in Dunkirk.

The ACC project — which brings together carmakers Stellantis and Opel and France’s Total — benefitted from €1.3 billion in state aid from Germany and France to build the Douvrin factory and a second factory in Germany.

The ACC project plans on creating between 1,400 and 2,000 jobs by 2030, said Matthieu Hubert, secretary-general of ACC.

But workers who have lost their jobs to previous factory closings remain skeptical.

Battery projects won’t be enough to remedy unemployment in the area, according to Grégory Glorian, head of the local left-wing CGT trade union, who was let go in 2009 after Belgian group Beaulieu closed its regional plants.

“Every time a factory shuts down, politicians tell us that it’s no big deal because we are going to build a battery factory,” he said.

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