PARIS (Reuters) - With his square-jawed good looks, easy smile and way with words, Edouard Martin could have been a Hollywood movie star.
But the steel worker and trade union activist who confronted Presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande to defend jobs at a doomed blast furnace in Florange in northeastern France has just traded his hard-hat for a politician’s suit.
Hollande’s Socialist Party (PS) recruited Martin, 50, as its top candidate for the May 25 European Parliament election in the rust belt Lorraine region.
As with center-leftists elsewhere in Europe, it is a bid to win back blue collar voters from the far-right and hard left.
It looks like a lost cause. An Ifop poll published last week (April 23) showed the anti-EU National Front in the lead in the eastern constituency with 26 percent, the conservative UMP party on 24 percent and the PS trailing far behind on 15.5 percent.
The town of Hayanges, where Martin worked at an ArcelorMittal steel mill, elected a former CGT union organizer as its far-right National Front mayor last month.
Mainstream center-left parties face the same problem across the 28-nation European Union as a disenchanted industrial proletariat that has borne the brunt of globalization and the financial crisis, is drawn to the political extremes.
“The National Front has been the number one party among working class voters in France for more than a decade, with the exception of the 2007 presidential election,” said Pascal Perrineau, professor of political science at Paris’ Sciences-Po university and a specialist on the extreme-right.
In Germany, many unionized workers deserted the Social Democrats (SPD) for the radical Left party a decade ago after then Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder enacted unpopular reforms of the labor market and unemployment benefits, and his successors were part of a coalition that raised the retirement age.
Those voters have not returned even though the SPD managed to insert a national minimum wage and earlier retirement for those who started work young in the new coalition’s program.
The SPD that once won up to 40 percent of the national vote remains becalmed around 25 percent, 15 points behind Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats (CDU). The Left party has just under 10 percent as have the Greens.
In Britain, the right-wing nationalist UK Independence Party, which campaigns for leaving the European Union, is increasingly drawing support from working class and poor voters who traditionally back the center-left Labour Party.
Opinion polls show UKIP, led by charismatic former metals trader Nigel Farage, vying with Labour for top slot in the EU election. Political scientists Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin found in a survey of 100,000 voters that UKIP is picking up backing from social groups they call the “left behind”.
It is no longer just a refuge for single-issue, middle-class Conservatives “who live out in suburbia, complain on the golf course about the costs of the EU, and long for the days when Margaret Thatcher handbagged the Eurocrats”, they said in a new book “Revolt on the Right”.
On the contrary, UKIP’s anti-immigration and anti-establishment message is drawing a distinct profile of core voter: “Blue-collar, old, white and male, with few qualifications and a very pessimistic economic outlook”.
In the 1960s, the working class made up half the British electorate. By the time Tony Blair’s New Labour won power in 1997, that proportion had fallen to one in three, so he adapted the party’s message to appeal to aspiring middle-class voters.
“We have bitten very big chunks out of the Labour vote in northern England but no one has noticed,” Farage told Reuters in an interview in February, when his party came a strong second in a parliamentary by-election in traditional left-wing territory.
UKIP activists were welcomed in housing estates where no one had seen a non-Labour candidate on their doorstep for decades.
Asked how he could succeed when opinion polls show the EU is not among voters’ top five concerns, Farage said: “It is if you spell it IMMIGRATION. Immigration and Europe are the same thing.”
Britain saw more than 650,000 immigrants - mostly from new central European member states - arrive after the EU expanded to the east in 2004. Although unemployment is low, the newcomers have vied with local workers for low-paid jobs, depressing wages and fuelling competition for housing and schooling.
In France, industrial workers mostly voted Communist until 1981, when many switched to Francois Mitterrand’s Socialists, who enacted retirement at 60 and a shorter work week.
But factory closures, stagnant wages, high unemployment and growing inequality have turned many of those voters against the PS, which has become a party of civil servants and elected officials seen as remote from workers’ concerns.
This has driven growing numbers of “left behind” French to Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration, protectionist National Front, and to a lesser extent to the Left Front of anti-globalization firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon, which includes the remnants of the once-mighty Communist Party.
As in Britain, many of these voters have conservative social values and have been alienated by policies such as gay marriage. They want tougher policies on crime and immigration, which many tend to blame for their own social decline.
Europe’s mainstream center-left parties seem at a loss to bring these groups back into the fold without losing other key voter segments such as gays, Muslims, women and the progressive, educated middle classes.
Some strategists advocate more flag-waving patriotism - a tactic used with some success by Blair. Others want to field more working class candidates, such as steel worker Martin, who tells workers protectionism is the wrong answer to job losses.
“We have to stop kidding ourselves that France can preserve an industrial base all on its own. We need an industrial policy at European level to count in a globalised economy,” he said in an interview.
“France has no raw materials. Nor does it make the machinery any more. That comes mostly from China and Taiwan. If we want to keep producing steel here, we need imports,” the former member of ArcelorMittal’s European works council said.
“What’s more, 70 percent of our customers are foreign firms outside Europe. We sell steel to China. So if the National Front came to power and applied its program, it would wipe out French industry.”
The polls suggest neither his charisma nor his arguments will save the Socialists from another drubbing at the hands of angry workers.
Writing by Paul Taylor Editing by Jeremy Gaunt.;