Almost as soon as you drive off the ferry at Calais there are signs for the Camp du Drap d’Or – the ‘Field of the Cloth of Gold’ – the site of the infamous meeting in 1520 between two of the biggest egos of 16th century politics: François I of France and Henry VIII of England. Over 17 days, the two kings strove to outdo each other with their sumptuous tents, flashy clothes, endless jousting tournaments and monstrous banquets (during which more than 4,000 sheep were somehow consumed).
But diplomatically, the summit achieved little. According to French legend, it all turned sour after Henry lost a wrestling match to François.
Over the next three weeks, the Pas-de-Calais plays will play host to another epic rivalry, as the two biggest egos in French politics (at least now Nicolas Sarkozy has quit the scene) go head-to-head in the parliamentary elections, which unfold over two rounds on 10 and 17 June. A few miles from the Field of the Cloth of Gold, in the constituency of Hénin-Beaumont, Front National leader Marine Le Pen will do battle with Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the flamboyant leader of the far-left Front de Gauche.
No prisoners will be taken, no quarter will asked for or given. Both sides say it’s not personal but everyone knows that it is.
Le Pen has made Hénin-Beaumont, a former mining area hard-hit by deindustrialisation and with a largely white working-class population, her political fief. A regional councillor here, she came close to capturing a parliamentary seat in 2007. In the first round of the 2012 presidential election, Le Pen topped the poll locally with more than 31%.
So to pitch up in Hénin-Beaumont looks like an audacious and typically theatrical move by Mélenchon. As the prominent French commentator Alain Duhamel observed yesterday: he is effectively challenging Le Pen to a game of double or quits.
If he loses again, after coming a poor fourth behind Le Pen in the presidential election, Mélenchon will be finished. He will look like an empty political vessel that just makes a lot of noise. So why risk it, when he could have stood in the ‘red suburbs’ of Paris (where he is a senator), or in Marseille, and won easily?
Because to win in Le Pen’s backyard would be a famous and heroic victory for the left. Mélenchon would enter the National Assembly in triumph as the slayer of the fascist-in-chief – never a bad thing on a French left which often defines itself in terms of the far right rather than its everyday centre-right opponents.
But Mélenchon’s gamble isn’t as brave as it seems. Hénin-Beaumont leans heavily to the left. Sarkozy’s UMP party does so badly here it isn’t even bothering to stand, throwing what little weight it has behind a centrist candidate. The local Socialist party is divided and still tainted by a corruption scandal in 2009. The latest polls show Mélenchon beating Le Pen in a head-to-head by around 10%. He will need a whopping excuse if he loses.
So despite her strong showing in the presidential race and a clear run at the right-wing vote, Marine Le Pen may still fail to get into the National Assembly, even on home turf. The FN brand remains toxic. Many moderate voters would rather vote for a leftwing firebrand than a party they still see as neo-fascist. And Le Pen’s party has limited appeal for moderate UMP supporters: her economic programme, for instance, has more in common with Mélenchon’s than Sarkozy’s
This is why the FN’s 18% or 20% is unlikely to translate into many MPs. The two-round electoral system means voters are often choosing a compromise candidate. And the FN are are not many people’s idea of a compromise.
There will be a lot of posturing, a lot of showing off and a lot of fireworks over the next three weeks. But just like Henry and François slugging it out in the Artois mud 400 years ago, this battle of the extremes is mainly for show. The armies of French politics are certainly on the move, but the real battle is elsewhere.