Monday 24 July 2017

Deep divides and hopes in election day France

In deepest Burgundy, a medieval town often points to the way France will vote. Ahead of today's first-round poll, the signs are far less certain than usual, discovers Henry Samuel as he speaks to the residents of Donzy

The Champs-Elysees after the lockdown last week following the Islamist attack in which a French police officer was murdered
The Champs-Elysees after the lockdown last week following the Islamist attack in which a French police officer was murdered

Surrounded by farms producing goat's cheese and foie gras, the medieval town of Donzy in deepest Burgundy is, in many ways, textbook "la France profonde". With a population of 1,660, it boasts a church, two doctors, a butcher, two bakers, three cafes, three schools and a retirement home. There are two factories making drinking straws and umbrellas on the outskirts, and a football pitch.

But Donzy is not just another picturesque rural town. It is seen as a political bellwether, having voted for the winning party at each general election since it became a constituency in 1974.

Jean-Luc Melenchon Photo: REUTERS/Martin Bureau/Pool
Jean-Luc Melenchon Photo: REUTERS/Martin Bureau/Pool

Donzy has reflected the national vote in seven presidential elections, with sometimes pinpoint accuracy.

In 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the then Front National candidate, won 16.86pc of the first-round vote in Donzy and 16.87pc nationwide.

There was a wobble in round one in 2012, but it was back on track in the run-off, plumping for Francois Hollande, the socialist winner.

Yet with today's first-round vote looming, Donzy's political weathervane was in a spin, as no fewer than four candidates stood a chance of reaching the run-off. Latest polls showed the Front National's Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron, the independent centrist, only slightly ahead of Francois Fillon, the conservative, and Jean-Luc Melenchon, the far-left hopeful.

Francois Fillon Photo: AP Photo/Michel Spingler
Francois Fillon Photo: AP Photo/Michel Spingler

Terrorism is hardly a pressing daily concern in the sleepy town, but last Thursday's Islamist murder of a policeman in the Champs-Elysees was on many people's lips.

Even before the attack, the consensus of locals was that the Le Pen vote would be very high. Mickael (30), an agricultural worker, made no bones about backing the anti-EU, anti-immigration contender who promises to make "forgotten France" her priority. Like many, he is feeling the pinch after years of stagnant economic growth and high unemployment.

"I want radical change. I choose Marine Le Pen," he said.

"I juggle with two jobs to get by. I don't take my kids on holiday. I am the France that works, that people don't look at or listen to."

Marine Le Pen Photo: AP Photo/Michel Euler
Marine Le Pen Photo: AP Photo/Michel Euler

Sitting in a bar in the old town centre, Frederique Charpin (31), an accountant at the local retirement home, was also tilting towards the FN candidate. "People have had enough of the way the French political system is organised. Why not change everything with Marine Le Pen?" she asked. As for her threat to leave the EU: "England did it - why not us?"

That said, she held out little hope Ms Le Pen would win the run-off. "In the first round, it will be Le Pen-Macron but after that, Macron will win as the French are scaredy cats. The Le Pens never win. But I'd like it to be her turn."

At the counter, Vincent Chavouet (33), a care worker, was mulling backing the other extreme in Mr Melenchon, an admirer of Fidel Castro, who he felt had interesting ideas on ecology and was not as extreme as some claim.

Preparing ballot boxes in his town hall, Jean-Paul Jacob, Donzy's independent right-wing mayor, envisaged a big protest vote.

Emmanuel Macron Photo: Thomas Samson/pool photo via AP
Emmanuel Macron Photo: Thomas Samson/pool photo via AP

Last Thursday's attack in Paris would only increase that trend, he believed. "I'm convinced it will boost Le Pen. It may not radically change things, but given that the runners are all so close, it won't take much for the running order to change," he said.

Jacob, a rotund notary, is plumping for Mr Fillon and represents just the sort of provincial bourgeois voter the conservative requires. The mayor brushed aside charges that Mr Fillon illicitly paid his British wife a fortune in public funds for a "fake job", calling it a left-wing plot to scupper otherwise "certain victory for the traditional right".

As for Mr Macron, "he's a cuckoo who has made his nest in the left and the right but doesn't have his own", he scoffed. Preparing the fattened livers of geese culled that morning at his foie gras farm, Frederic Coudray (49) insisted that was precisely why he backed Mr Macron. "He's the best person to bring people together. It's good to bring together the best ideas of the right and left," he said. People mock him for sitting on the fence, he said. "But it's good to question, to have doubts, to weigh up the for and against."

He fretted about the impact of the Champs-Elysees attack, recalling the story of Paul Voise, a pensioner attacked and robbed by a gang of youths who then set fire to his home in Orleans in 2002. It received huge media coverage and a wave of public anger over crime and public safety.

Two days later, Jean-Marie Le Pen confounded pollsters by finishing second in the first round of the presidential election.

This time, his daughter is virtually assured of reaching round two.

Sitting in their old stone house in Donzy's outskirts, Gill and Jon Sibley, 58 and 66 respectively, are the town's only two Britons eligible to vote, having dual nationality.

For the first time ever, the committed ecologists have chosen the same candidate, the socialist Benoit Hamon, whom they see as the only "forward-looking" contender who prioritises green issues. Mr Hamon is languishing on around 8.5pc in polls.

Both are dismissive of Mr Macron, who Mr Sibley disparagingly described as a "French Tony Blair" with no ideological backbone.

Both are unequivocal that Ms Le Pen will reach the run-off "to give the politicians a good slapping", but neither believe she will win and are divided on who will be her final opponent.

For Mrs Sibley, a translator, Mr Macron, an ex-banker, will win out as the establishment's anti-establishment candidate.

"I think he has a very good chance because he represents no change whatsoever, and I think the French don't particularly like change," she said.

Mr Sibley, who is retired, felt that Fillon would win in Donzy for similar reasons, saying that the town's ageing population would go for a safe pair of hands, even if many won't admit it given his legal woes.

"Radicals are usually young and old people are usually conservative, which is why I think Fillon will reach the second round."

As for the impact of the Paris terror attack, his wife said: "I know Donald Trump tweeted that it's going to boost the Le Pen vote. I'm not convinced it will make much difference as for France, it's 'just another attack'. But there's another part of me saying perhaps that's just a hope."

Seasoning his goose livers, Mr Coudray believed Ms Le Pen would get an even "higher score than the national average".

He too felt there was a significant "hidden Fillon vote" and that he would finish "ahead of Macron" in Donzy.

But he still held out hope that nationwide, Mr Macron, his preferred candidate, would reach the run-off and then triumph.

Summing up the mist of uncertainty and indecision shrouding Donzy and France, where a third of voters are still undecided, he said: "I see many people who don't know who to vote for… I even imagine some will get as far as placing their ballot in the box and then pulling it out again, saying: 'I've changed my mind'. That's the state of play."

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