The town center of Henin-Beaumont, France, in February. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

When a far-right politician captured city hall in this northern French town three years ago, many in the city’s Muslim community feared the worst.

National Front leader Marine Le Pen, who is in a presidential runoff election scheduled for Sunday, has Islam in her crosshairs. But in the hollowed-out industrial town of Henin-Beaumont, one of Le Pen’s top deputies, Mayor Steeve Briois, upended expectations with his light touch on the culture-war agenda that has long been the National Front’s central focus. 

After Paris terrorist attacks in January 2015, Briois rushed to Henin-Beaumont’s Ennasr Mosque to deliver reassurances that drew a strict line between Islam and radical Islamism. Last year, he approved the mosque’s expansion. And he has overhauled the town’s roads and parks, expanded the police force, cut local taxes and attended to the daily needs of his 27,000 residents in a manner that even his critics grudgingly acknowledge has been competent.

Now, with Le Pen in an unprecedented runoff against another political outsider, centrist Emmanuel Macron, the eight French towns run by the National Front showcase what far-right governance could look like in France. In Henin-Beaumont, the party’s flagship town, many residents say Briois has shown flexibility by focusing on pocketbook issues and playing down anti-immigrant policies. But people who have dared to oppose the mayor say that he has a fearsome, combative approach to those he views as his political enemies. They fear the consequences of handing the near-monarchic powers of the French presidency to the far right.

“He’s doing great things for the city. He takes care of the streets. He’s been able to reduce taxes,” said Hervé Fontowicz, 54, a disabled market vendor. He said he planned to vote for Le Pen on Sunday in the hope that she could reverse a tide of globalization that he said has overwhelmed towns such as Henin-Beaumont, which once bustled with coal mining and manufacturing. 

“There’s nothing left. There are no jobs left here. Look at how all these stands are empty. It’s a disaster,” said Fontowicz, sweeping his arm across the city’s open-air street market, where vendors selling cheap cellophane-wrapped underwear jostled against butcher stands offering horse sausage. In his deserted corner of the market, there were more vendors than customers. A mall that opened on the outskirts of town a few years ago robbed them of customers who were already struggling to pay for the basics, he said. The only business to open recently in the city center is a funeral parlor, fitting for an aging area where unemployment stands above 15 percent, sharply higher than the national average.

Le Pen has long embraced Henin-Beaumont, where the mines started sputtering out of business decades ago and a steel forge shut down just last year. She served on the town council and last month held her first-round election celebration in a stadium on the outskirts of town, a sharp retort to Macron, who partied in Paris. When she temporarily stepped down last week from the leadership of the National Front — a bid to make herself more palatable to voters — she made the mayor her placeholder at the head of the party.

That means a far-right party that has thrown “pork festivals” — municipal celebrations intended to offend Muslim sensibilities — is run by a man who has taken a far softer approach.

“We are against radical Muslims, radical Islamists. These are the enemies. The huge majority of Muslims who live in Henin-
Beaumont respect France and are patriotic,” Briois said in an interview in his office in city hall, where he has arranged a bust of the French Socialist hero Jean Jaurès so that it looks down over the room — an unconventional choice for a far-right politician.

Even if Le Pen falls short of a runoff victory on Sunday, as polls suggest she will, she is forecast to deliver a historically high 40 percent share of the vote — an unthinkable result just a few years ago, when the National Front was written off as a collection of Nazi apologists. The success is a testament to her strategy of delivering a fierce protectionist economic agenda alongside her party’s long-standing focus on ending immigration and targeting Muslims. And it positions her to sweep into office should Macron stumble.

Toned-down rhetoric

The muted emphasis on immigration was a winning move in Henin-Beaumont, whose modest center is dotted by halal butchers, Turkish pizza parlors and Polish grocery stores in two- and three-story buildings. They are the legacy of France’s post-World War II economic boom, when French businesses swept across Europe and northern Africa in search of workers. Many residents have a tolerant attitude toward immigration.

The National Front is “using the strategy of the chameleon. They know how to adapt their speech to a local audience,” said Marine Tondelier, a local politician from the opposition Green Party who has written a book about life under the National Front.

In other regions where it has captured city hall, the approach has been far more confrontational. In the Mediterranean coastal town of Frejus, the National Front mayor has sought to raze the local mosque. In nearby Beaucaire, the mayor sought to shut down late-night hours for Muslim restaurants during Ramadan, when observant Muslims can eat only during the night.

Still, in most of the towns, the basic issues of city administration have been addressed in a professional, unambitious manner, observers say.

“Le Pen decided that this is her chance” to convince French voters that the National Front can govern, said Jean-Yves Camus, a scholar of the French far right. “They do their job. They attend city councils. They attend the markets every Sunday.”

In Henin-Beaumont, voters gave the National Front a chance after an embezzlement scandal felled the Socialist mayor here in 2009. A technocratic successor nursed city finances back to health in the years that followed, but he was forced to make unpopular cuts to do so and he lost to Briois in 2014, just as there was finally money in city coffers. 

Political ‘humiliation’

Even as residents have been won over by the beautification campaign, critics say the political climate has darkened.

“When everything could be perfect, they remain incredibly aggressive with anyone who doesn’t agree with their views,” said Pascal Wallart, the head of the Henin-Beaumont office of the regional Voix du Nord newspaper, who has been targeted with harassment since the newspaper ran editorials criticizing the National Front ahead of December 2015 regional elections. “It’s the level we’d expect from children at recess.”

A Facebook page run by Briois supporters dismisses the Voix du Nord newspaper as “leftist propaganda” and mocks the physical appearance of opposition leaders.

“We’re talking about a permanent humiliation here,” said Eugène Binaisse, 77, the mayor who lost the 2014 election and is called “old Binaisse” on the Facebook page. 

Asked about harassment, Briois did little to dispel the allegations. 

“If it’s people close to us, it’s not the mayor,” he said. “Those who criticize are unfair and unjustified.”

He played down any deliberate strategy to tone down immigration rhetoric. Last year, he ­declared Henin-Beaumont a ­“migrant-free zone,” even though it has not been asked to host any refugees, and in the past he has been quoted in local media saying that he cannot stand it when North African immigrants speak among themselves in Arabic, because it shows they are refusing to fit in. 

Still, many in the town’s Muslim community say they have found a way to coexist. At the town mosque on the outskirts of the city, construction is underway on the new green-and-white prayer space. (Briois asked them to leave out minarets and shorten their domes.) In the city center, shopkeepers say that town leaders have always been professional.

“On the scale of the city, there are no problems,” said Youssef Kouba, 41, a halal butcher who runs a shop on Henin-Beaumont’s main square. One late afternoon this week, a cross-section of the town filtered through to buy lamb shoulders, steaks and sausages after work. Kouba, who was born in the area and whose parents emigrated from Morocco and Algeria decades ago, said that it was good that Briois was accessible at weekly markets and elsewhere in town life.

But he said that he feared that the tone would change if Le Pen seized the Elysee Palace. 

“Right now their hands are tied here,” Kouba said. “When she wins, this is when you’ll be seeing their true face.”

Virgile Demoustier contributed to this report.