When I leave my house for a short walk, I don’t lock the door. Crime and violence in my beautiful corner of the Norman hills are almost unknown. There is no obvious poverty. There are few residents who were not born in France. There is me. There is a British couple who run a bed and breakfast business. There is a Dutch-born farmer.
And yet almost one in three people in my commune (population 354) voted for Marine Le Pen in the first round of the Presidential election last year. More than half of the vote went to anti-establishment candidates of the far Right or the hard Left. If there was to be an election tomorrow, after 14 months of the confident, go-ahead “New France” proclaimed by Emmanuel Macron, the Le Pen vote would be unchanged. It might even be higher, despite the fact that Madame Le Pen’s rebranded Rassemblement National is floundering in national polls and facing bankruptcy.
Why should my peaceful commune in the Calvados hills be so alienated from mainstream, metropolitan or suburban France? Rural Normandy used to be immune to the appeal of the far Right, but in every similar small commune in Calvados around 30% voted for Marine Le Pen in the first round of the presidential election last year. In parts of eastern and southern France, there are villages which voted between 60% and 70% for the then Front National.
Of all the fault-lines in Emmanuel Macron’s France – thriving white cities versus energetic, frustrated, multi-racial suburbs; secular fundamentalists versus dogmatic Catholics or Muslims – the rural-urban divide is the least discussed. Few of the overdue reforms introduced or planned by the young President will do much for rural France. In Paris, Macron is reviled (unfairly) by the hard Left as a “President for the Rich”. In La France Profonde, which has long regarded itself as profoundly ignored, he is dismissed as a “President for Cities”.
One year into the Macron Era, I decided to talk to some of my Norman neighbours about politics – not necessarily an easy task. There are two elderly women called Madeleine in my hamlet (population 8) They live 100 metres apart. They have not spoken for 30 years. They have not quarrelled. They just have nothing to say to one another.
The commune’s mayor, Marie-Christine, 67, says: “This is, to be honest, not a very open place. People, many people, not all, are very enclosed, wrapped in their own lives. They have little curiosity about the outside world. Caen is about as far as their knowledge or imagination stretches. The depressing fact is that this is as true of some of the younger people as it is of the older ones.”
Let me describe, without naming it, the commune to which my hamlet belongs. It typifies, I think, the difficulties facing rural France as small-scale farming retreats, local businesses vanish and the 21st century – in the form of high-speed internet or reliable mobile telephone coverage – fails to arrive.
It is a commune of 354 people and 260 voters – a string of hamlets and villages in the hills 30 kilometres south of Caen. According to local legend, it was a favourite hunting ground for William the Conqueror when he retired to Normandy in the final years of his reign. The area was mistitled La Suisse Normande – Norman Switzerland – by a British journalist a century ago. Gentle hills loop around one another in shifting tones of grey and green. Forests lap over the ridge-tops. This might be Shropshire Normande or Herefordshire Normande but not Suisse Normande.
When I first came here 20 years ago, there were still a dozen farms, including two small, scarcely mechanised dairy farms in my hamlet. There are now seven farms in the commune and none in my hamlet. Year by year, we have watched as the Caen suburbs seep southwards along the main roads and soak up the hillsides. Our main village – “le bourg” – has its own small estate of pale-peach coloured bungalows, inhabited by people who work in Caen. There is no tension with the long-time locals; there is no contact at all.
The big issue locally this summer– one that sums up for many the arrogance of Metropolitan France – is President Macron’s decision to reduce the speed limit on two-lane roads from 90kph to 80kph (50mph). Frankly, I think the decision was justified. French country people drive too fast. The death rate on French roads fell by 5% in July, the first month of the new limit.
Local people do not see things that way. They think that the 80kph limit is designed to harvest more fines from rural pockets to spend on urban France.
But that’s enough from me. Let me allow a few of my neighbours – those who were willing to express an opinion – to speak for themselves.
Catherine, 54, has lived in the commune all her life. She works as an administrator for a painting/building company in Caen 20 miles away. She is about to leave the village and buy a flat in town. “There is no one much here that I can talk to,” she said. “In Caen I have friends. There is night-life. A social buzz. And I won’t have to drive 60 kilometres every day…”
Catherine has always voted centre-Right. Faced with a choice between Le Pen and Macron in the presidential run-off last year, she spoiled her ballot.
“No one here ever admits to voting for Marine but the far Right goes up at every election. Why? This place is not racist or xenophobic. There is no crime, no sense of being insecure. Lots of people, like me, go out for a few minutes and leave their door unlocked.”
“If a black or brown person visited the village, or even came to live here, they would be treated like anyone else. And yet I think that there is a kind of submerged racism all the same. People see brown and black faces on the TV news or in the French football team. Some don’t mind. Others feel uncomfortable. It’s not the France they know. They see riots. They see the terrorist attacks in Paris and Nice. They see the young black men on Ouistreham (the Channel ferry port near Caen) trying to reach England. They feel threatened, even though there is no direct threat to them. They vote Le Pen as a kind of protest or gesture….”
Would she say that there is a cultural divide between urban and rural France, similar to the cultural gulf which appears to exist between urban and rural parts of the US or Britain?
“No, I don’t think that’s an issue in France. People are conservative, yes, but the issues that drive rural people in, say, America – gay rights, guns, religion – they’re not so important here. People’s concerns are more practical. The 80kph speed limit. Macron’s new taxes on pensioners’ incomes.”
Michel, 82, is a retired postman who lives in a mobile home on the edge of my hamlet. He voted for Marine Le Pen in both rounds of last year’s election.
“It’s not just about immigration or Islam. People here are fed up. More and more fed up. We’ve been betrayed by every generation of politicians for 60 years, starting with De Gaulle. And it’s not Macron who’s going to change that. Just look at him. Does he look as though he would care about a place like this? All they want is our money. More and more money. Look at the 80kph speed limit – another thing people in cities have concocted to impose on a countryside which they don’t understand. There’s anger already but nothing compared to what there will be when the first wave of fine notices starts to arrive.”
“People have the impression that they are paying and paying and paying and getting nothing back. And the debt is still out of control. Where does the money go? It must go to the immigrants because it’s not coming back here. We will end up like Italy or Greece with a debt we can’t pay. It’s time to try something else, to put France first, to think of the real French first…”
“I was lucky I got out of farming when I did”, Denis, a 67 year old retired farmer tells me. “It was already no fun with the falling milk price and constant new rules from Paris and Brussels. Now, from what I hear, you have to have a bathroom for each cow. And even the bigger, mechanised farms can’t make money. They have to invest and grow to survive and they can’t afford to repay their loans. There used to be 20 or 30 farms in this commune. Now its’s what, six or seven, and it won’t end there. Normandy – the whole of France – we are heading for big ranches like they have in America or Australia.”
“I don’t know who votes for Le Pen. It’s not me but I understand the people who do. There is a feeling of betrayal, of having been fed with constant lies. Every year at the big farm show in Paris, the politicians talk about France’s love of farmers and farming. What they mean is that they love the big food companies which pour money into political parties and even control the farming unions…
“Farming, the land, used to be our identity here. Everyone was connected with farming one way or another. Now, most people in the commune have nothing to do with farming. Their parents or their grandparents may have farmed, but it means little to them. Farmers are a small minority in their own community. People – and not just the incomers either – are furious when they have to wait for a tractor blocking the road.”
Marie-Christine, a retired special needs teacher, is the first female mayor of the commune.
“The older people, I have the impression, remain faithful to the centre-Right or traditional Right. This Le Pen vote – and also the hard-Left vote – is coming from younger people in their 40s or 50s or even their 30s. Partly it is ignorance – a readiness to believe any rubbish that they see on the internet or social media. But it’s not just that. There is also a fear of the future… a sense that everything is changing out there and that it’s leaving places like this behind or threatens us in some undefined way. That’s the way I read the vote for Le Pen – an attempt to slow down a future that people fear.”
Is there a cultural rift, a rejection of Metropolitan values?
“Yes, but not quite like what I read about in the US or in Poland, say. Homosexuality or abortion or transgender rights, they don’t much drive opinion here either way. What you do have is an undefined refusal to accept the new or the modern. Me, for instance, I’m the first woman mayor that the commune has had. I can tell you that it doesn’t go down well with some people – including with other members of the council. There is a feeling that women shouldn’t lead or manage.
“I fear that the extreme vote will continue to grow here. Just look at what has happened in Italy, or Poland or Austria or Germany. The same thing could happen here. It would only take someone with a message a little more subtle than Marine Le Pen.”
In rural France, then, rejection of modern, urban values hardly figures. Guns and hunting and Europe are marginal issues. The main source of anger is a feeling of being ignored or exploited or left behind.
Don’t underestimate the extent and the emptiness of La France Profonde and the problem that causes. France (64 million) has a somewhat larger population than England (55 million) in four times the space. If you climb to the ridge above our commune and look to the south, a town-free landscape of scores and scores of similar villages stretches to the horizon. A similar landscape, rarely interrupted by towns, continues for 800 kilometres to the Pyrenees.
When farming was king, each of these villages generated its own identity and its own raison d’etre. Energy and life blood has now drained to the cities and suburbs. For all the lip-service paid by successive French governments to small, traditional farms, Paris has almost always favoured large-scale, intensive farming.
Faced with so many economically and socially becalmed rural communities, no government can be expected to devise ways of imposing new energy or confidence from the outside. High speed internet offers remote forms of rural employment but our commune, like many others in France, has poor mobile phone coverage and no high-speed internet. The cables are supposed to arrive in 2020. Even then, a new influx of net-friendly “horsins” (outsiders, like me) is unlikely to repair the commune’s sense of fractured identity.
Multiply my commune by 30,000 – the number of rural communes in France – and you grasp the scale of the problem. Marine Le Pen may not survive her present difficulties, but rural France offers wide open spaces, literally, to a would-be successor.