The Social Question Redivivus

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey, Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.

by Oliver Goldsmith

The little town of Longwy has a ghostly air. For many years it was an important center of iron and steel manufacturing in the industrial basin of the northern Lorraine and a proud stronghold of socialist and communist unions. Since 1975, however, the local industry, like steelworking everywhere in Western Europe, has been in trouble. Today the steelworks are gone, and so, at first sight, are their workers. At noon on a working day the town is quiet, with empty shops, a few sad-looking bars, and a deserted railway station occupied by a gaggle of drunks. The erstwhile steelworkers, grown old, wait out their lives in bars and cafes, or else stay at home with the television. Their wives and daughters have part-time, nonunion work either in new factories and offices distributed in the fields outside the town or else at commercial centers deposited optimistically at crossroads some 20 miles away. Their sons have no work at all and mill around at these same commercial centers looking at once menacing and pitiful.

There are towns like Longwy all over Europe, from Lancashire to Silesia, from the Asturian mountains to the central Slovakian plain. What makes the shattered industrial heartland of northeastern France distinctive is the political revolution that has occurred there. In the legislative elections of 1978, when the left was defeated nationwide, the voters of Longwy returned a communist deputy to Paris, as usual. Twenty years later, in the legislative elections of May 1997, the right-wing National Front -- which did not exist in 1978 -- came within 3,000 votes of overtaking the local communist candidate. A little farther east, in the similarly depressed industrial towns and villages around Sarrebourg that abut the German frontier, the National Front did even better: moving ahead of both communists and socialists, its candidates secured more than 22 percent of the vote in half the local constituencies.

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