Sunday 20 May 2018

D-Day for divided France

As Le Pen and Macron face off for power, two neighbouring villages show how much the nation is split

fight to the finish: The far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen did best in the north-eastern rust belt in the first round of voting, whilst the centrist Emmanuel Macron picked up more votes in prosperous western areas
fight to the finish: The far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen did best in the north-eastern rust belt in the first round of voting, whilst the centrist Emmanuel Macron picked up more votes in prosperous western areas

David Chazan

Two villages only a mile from each other in Normandy's green countryside are poles apart in France's presidential battle, highlighting the fury and disenchantment laid bare during a rancorous campaign.

In the picturesque heart of Normandy, Saint-Sulpice-sur-Risle and Saint-Martin-d'Ecublei are twin communities. But Saint-Sulpice favours Emmanuel Macron, the centrist front runner in the final round of the election today. Saint-Martin is seen as a stronghold of the Front National's Marine Le Pen.

The two communities encapsulate the social and economic gap between cities and La France Profonde - 'Deep France' - small towns and villages where people feel like they have been left behind.

Across France, middle-class, urban areas are generally more receptive to Macron's liberal 'neither left nor right' message.

Rural and suburban areas with higher proportions of blue-collar voters tended to vote for Le Pen in the first round, which revealed a clear east-west divide. Le Pen did best in the north-eastern rust belt, and Macron in the more prosperous western areas.

In Normandy, where pockets of prosperity alternate with areas in difficulty with ailing industries, voters were fairly evenly spread in the first round, with 23.93pc backing Le Pen and 22.36pc choosing Macron.

France's future and that of the EU are at stake in an election that takes on added significance after the Brexit and Trump votes.

A victory for Le Pen would mark a continuation of the populist wave.

In these rural villages, few farmers remain. Most residents commute to jobs in local towns or industrial areas. Many live in modern whitewashed houses on estates where property is more affordable than in larger towns.

Local shops and cafes closed many years ago. Around the estates are clusters of historic half-timbered cottages, some converted into holiday homes.

In a reminder that this is Asterix country, on the edge of Saint-Sulpice stands a menhir - like the huge stone carried by Obelix in the comic books. A once-thriving factory that manufactures pins and needles has only been saved from closure because it has been converted into a working museum. The unemployment rate of more than 10pc in the two villages is slightly higher than the national average.

Julien Marre (36), a civil servant who lives in Saint-Sulpice, said: "What's influencing the vote here is the kind of people who live in the two villages. Saint-Sulpice has a younger, more ethnically mixed population than Saint-Martin. Macron's more in tune with these people because he's forward- looking, pro-EU, good for business and open to the world. I'm put off by Le Pen's anti-immigration, anti-EU policies. Her ideas on the economy are extremely dangerous. Even if you don't like Macron, it's crucial to vote against her."

Macron is expected to top the vote in Saint-Sulpice, as he did in the first round two weeks ago, taking 26.45pc of the vote, ahead of Le Pen with 23.34pc. In Saint-Martin, Le Pen won more than 30pc of votes in the first round compared with 23.4pc for Mr Macron.

Saint-Sulpice's mayor, Jean Sellier, a centrist, said local voting patterns reflected a nationwide divide between poorer voters, who feel left behind and live in forgotten, smaller communities, and more affluent professionals.

"It's terrible, there's a colossal feeling of abandonment felt by small communities," said Sellier (62), who also works as a vet, treating the thoroughbred horses Normandy is famous for breeding.

"We haven't got fibre optics or high-speed broadband, so there are problems with the internet and mobile phones. People are worried about unemployment, public services are moving out of the area, and that's what Le Pen is riding. She's surfing on fear."

Saint-Sulpice, the mayor said, was an exception because it had an unusually high number of professionals and managers.

Chantal Ruault (57), who lives in Saint-Martin and works at a nearby theme park, said: "It's terrorism and immigration that made me go for Le Pen. The borders are too open."

Saint-Martin counts only a handful of immigrants among its population of 634.

By contrast, about 10pc of Saint-Sulpice's nearly 1,700 residents are ethnic Turks. Stephane Lemaitre (47), who lives on an estate and is in charge of maintenance at a nearby school, said: "Marine Le Pen is xenophobic even if she pretends not to be. This is a friendly, safe place to live and we get on fine with our Turkish neighbours. I'm voting for Macron even if I don't like all of his ideas. She makes no sense on the euro or the economy."

In the past week, Le Pen has been attempting to downplay her least popular policy of ditching the single currency, which most voters oppose, according to opinion polls.

With terrorism at the forefront of many voters' minds after a string of attacks that have killed more than 230 people in France since 2015, she is more trusted on security and immigration.

But her much-criticised performance in a TV debate with Macron last Wednesday has lost her some swing voters.

Among them is Marie-Jeanne (72), a retired nursing assistant who had intended to vote for Le Pen until she watched the debate. "I was disgusted by all her personal attacks. If that woman's elected we'll have a revolution within six months. Unemployment is the main reason why people in Saint-Martin vote for the Front National, but I'm worried that Macron might not be able to bring it down."

Saint-Martin's mayor, Jean-Pierre Lambla, who belongs to no party, said: "For most people here, voting Le Pen is a protest vote against politicians' broken promises and corruption scandals."

Despite the two starkly different visions on offer in France's most turbulent and potentially most important election in decades, there is a striking lack of enthusiasm or optimism.

Jacques (80), a retired lorry driver, seemed typical. "Life's hard and things have to change," he said. "Le Pen won't win but it's good to show that we're not happy."


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