As the clock on the main television news channel ticked toward early projected results at 8 p.m., a loud countdown began around the room: trois … deux … un. There was the briefest of pauses before, at the top of the hour, far-right leader Marine Le Pen’s picture flashed on all the screens.
A roar rose around the large sports hall, packed with supporters waving a sea of tricolor flags at the news: The leader of France’s National Front party was one of the top two finishers in Sunday’s presidential election, headed now for a runoff with independent centrist Emmanuel Macron.
Shouts of “Oui, oui, oui!” thundered through the room. Someone began singing “The Marseillaise.”
And then the celebrations really kicked off. There was 1970s American disco music and cheesy French pop — two adjectives often believed to be a contradiction in terms. There was crooning and dancing of the conga and the hokeypokey, some high kicking a la Moulin Rouge, and a chaotic attempt at line dancing.
For a political party that demands “French first,” the playlist Sunday featured Kool & the Gang and Michael Jackson.
“It’s like a typical provincial wedding,” said one television reporter.
Then, as if on cue, in came the “bride”: a triumphant Le Pen, who was instantly mobbed.
The sparkling water being served in plastic cups was whisked away and replaced with real champagne.
In the entrance hall of the Francois Mitterrand sports complex (named after a former Socialist president but nobody was letting that spoil the mood), a stand selling Le Pen knickknacks — lighters, pens, earrings in the shape of the party logo, a navy blue rose — was doing a brisk trade.
Navy blue, which is bleu marine in French, featured heavily in the merchandise, as did the election slogan, “In the name of the people.”
Le Pen’s speech was short and strident, peppered with her trademark emotive adjectives: “savage globalization,” “arrogant elites,” “big money.” At each weighted pause, the crowd cheered and flags fluttered.
Mikael Sala, a National Front party secretary in Val d’Oise, northwest of Paris, told anyone who asked that Le Pen was on her way to the Elysee Palace.
“We are now just 15 days until she takes the reins to save this country. The mood is euphoric. France will have the taste of the happiness of having Marine Le Pen as the head of state,” he said.
One young woman waving a French flag was close to tears. “It’s the most wonderful day of my life,” she said. “All the polls said Marine Le Pen would be in the second round, but so many people in the elite and the press were against her, we hardly believed it could happen. Now it has.”
Outside, locals pleaded with security guards to be let in to the festivities, and passing cars hooted their support.
Le Pen was the only one of the five main candidates to await the election results outside the French capital, home of the “arrogant elites” she likes to despise. Two hours from Paris, Henin-Beaumont, a down-at-heel town in Le Pen’s postindustrial heartland, was chosen deliberately.
It has few attractions, perhaps save the large, early 20th century town hall with its carved stone decorations of shirtless, tin-hatted miners — or maybe the church of St. Martin, opened in 1932 to replace the one blown up by the Germans during World War I.
Unemployment here is nearly twice the 10% national average, and Le Pen’s trademark themes — anti-Europe, anti-foreigner, anti-migrant — have struck a strong chord.
Moroccan-born shopkeeper Abdallah Aouza said locals like “drinking alcohol, and voting FN,” a reference to the National Front. (On Monday, Le Pen announced she was stepping down as head of the Front to focus on running for president.)
“We’ve had an FN mayor for three years now, and we live with it. It’s not a problem. Still, I’m hoping it will be Macron who wins in two weeks,” Aouza said.
On Monday, the morning after the election, most of the action was in the Cafe de la Paix, where cafe owner Dino was holding court with the media, giving interviews in French, Italian, Spanish and English when he wasn’t waiting tables.
She will most likely lose, he told reporters quietly, before resuming the solidly diplomatic face he shows his customers.
Presently, Steeve Briois, one of Le Pen’s closest aides, who was elected mayor of Henin-Beaumont in 2014, strolled in with a posse of male friends and sat down.
A steady stream of customers and passersby approached the table to shake Briois’ hand, while an increasingly loud and bombastic customer who’d been drinking for some time at the bar was unceremoniously pushed out of the door.
To everyone’s surprise, he went quietly.
“We are extremely optimistic,” said Briois as the man left. His companions nodded and smiled.
Dino also smiled, then turned away. Was that a wink?
Willsher is a special correspondent.