In the first round of the French presidential election on Sunday 23 April, Gwendoline, an 18-year-old from Hénin-Beaumont, a small northern town of 26,000 inhabitants, voted for the first time, for Marine Le Pen. Le Pen cast her own ballot in Hénin-Beaumont too. The Front National mayor, Steeve Briois, was elected in one round of voting in 2014. I met Gwendoline in a windswept railway station parking lot, on 1 May, as we were waiting for a bus to take us to Hénin-Beaumont. Our train had been cancelled. She laughed at how grim her bank holiday Monday had turned out to be – stuck in a car park on her way back from a funeral, with a mock baccalauréat exam to look forward to the next day. When the bus finally arrived, it took us very slowly across former mining lands, around a slag heap, not far from Oignies, where the last French coalmine closed in 1990. Gwendoline said that everyone in her class who was old enough to vote, voted for Le Pen. There wasn’t much to do in town, she said, maybe go to Auchan, the biggest shopping centre north of Paris, in the next town. ‘It's Hénin-Beaumont, it's not marvellous,’ she smiled.
The French presidential election has seen countless ‘firsts’: an incumbent president not standing for a second term; his party’s candidate getting only 6 per cent of the vote; a final round that includes neither of the two main parties; a likely winner with no party at all; a losing candidate who delivered speeches via hologram.
Going into the first round of the French presidential election, four candidates have polling figures between 19 and 23 per cent. The shooting of a policeman in Paris on Thursday night won’t do any harm to Marine Le Pen’s chances of making it to the second round. In 2002, her father narrowly beat the Socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin, into third place (16.9 to 16.1 per cent), setting up a second round contest with Jacques Chirac that he lost by the record margin of 18 to 82 per cent. Since the 13 other candidates, who between them took 47 per cent of the vote in the first round, were more left than right-wing, it is quite possible that Jospin would have won the second round if only he had got that far. Almost certainly, several of the 13 would have beaten Le Pen.
On 9 April, the left’s late-runner for the French presidency, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, held a rally in Marseille. He called for the formation of a Sixth Republic while his supporters – 70,000 of them, according to his campaign team – roared ‘Résistance! Résistance!’ Five years earlier, almost to the day, he stood in the same place, for the same purpose, sharing the same message at a very similar time: weeks before the first round of the presidential election, with his campaign enjoying a sudden late surge in support. Mélenchon hasn’t changed much since then, but the political atmosphere around him has transformed.