April 21, 2022

Amiens, France

“I’m an Amiénois,” Emmanuel Macron boasted during a trip to his hometown in 2019. “I am a child of Amiens. And that can’t be taken away from me.”

Three years on, France’s head of state finds himself disowned. Rather than support their centrist boy-next-door in the first round of the presidential election, the winner in the northern city was the one-time Trotskyite revolutionary, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. He still wants to rip up the Fifth Republic Constitution, yet received 15,735 votes (31.27% of the total), compared with 15,121 (30.05%) for Macron.

Amiens is the capital of the historically war-ravaged Somme, an area synonymous with cataclysmic battles against fanatical imperialists from Germany. But this did not stop the far-Right Marine Le Pen from winning the department as a whole, on 32.79% of the vote. With Mélenchon now narrowly ejected from the contest, few would be surprised if she were to defeat Macron here in Sunday’s second round, too.

Macron was raised in Henriville, the city’s most upmarket quartier. Filled with rows of Victorian-style terraces and detached family houses topped with gargoyles, it was a product of Industrial Revolution prosperity and attracted the rich, privileged, and occasionally brilliant. Among 19th-Century residents, was Jules Verne, who was drawn to the district by romance — his wife, Honorine, was an Amiénoise. He soon fell in love with the city, too. Verne’s futuristic writing lauded his adopted Amiens as a place that would always be viewed as The Ideal City — the title of a short story he wrote in 1875.

Verne’s old house in Henriville is just a short walk from the redbrick villa where Macron grew up, and La Providence, the lycée where he was educated. The President’s old science teacher, Gérard Banc, remembers him well as “someone who always stood out”. “He was brilliant in all subjects, very good at sport, and relatively reserved with it,” he tells me. When other pupils didn’t know the answer to something, he would speak up. He was a proper thinker, but was very tolerant, in the sense that he would not crush the others.”

Macron’s parents were both medical doctors, and typical of the professional classes who sent their children to the fee-paying school, which was founded by Jesuit priests in 1868. Means-testing and scholarships later became available to a minority, but most were — like Macron — baptised Catholics from comfortable backgrounds who saw themselves as future leaders.

Recalling field trips to the English Channel coast in the academic year 1992/93 — when Macron turned 15 — M. Banc remembers his pupil delegating fossil finding duties to classmates. “He would always leave his hammer and chisel at home, and just watch while others did the chipping,” said M. Banc. “When something interesting appeared, he would watch and learn, rather than getting his hands dirty with grit and chalk.”

M. Banc, now 72, has worked at La Providence for almost 50 years. He still teaches part-time and has witnessed the societal shifts at the college and the city that surrounds it. “There’s no doubt that there have been big changes in recent years,” said M. Banc. “Like everywhere nearby, Amiens has been affected by unemployment and business failures. Contrary to what some may think, it’s no longer a city of the rich. Factories have closed, and those who have suffered most have started voting for candidates like M. Mélenchon.”

Amiens was bombed to pieces by the RAF during the Second World War, and the original La Providence was destroyed. It was rebuilt in the late Forties next to a site that is now on the outer ringroad. Rather than a traditional French lycée, it looks more like a sprawling American high school — the kind portrayed in films such as Animal House.

In a saga that could easily have come straight out of the cult Hollywood movie, the 16-year-old Macron embarked on an affair with his married drama teacher, then a mother-of-three called Brigitte Auzière. Despite their 24-year age gap, they went on to wed, and Madame Macron — scion of a wealthy family of confectioners from Amiens who still specialise in prestige macaroons — is now Première Dame.

Beyond gushy soundbites at election time, the Macrons have very little to do with Amiens today. Their personal residence is in the glitzy seaside resort of Le Touquet, some 65 miles away from the city, and officially called Le Touquet-Paris-Plage — literally the French capital’s beach.

“Even now, I think M. Macron speaks too eloquently, and ordinary people mistake this for arrogance,” M. Banc says. “The problem is that he has to address the entire nation, and not everyone in France is an intellectual or a philosopher. This alienates them and persuades them to vote for radical alternatives.”

“There’s no doubt that Mr Macron has presided over a period of extremism, and that worries me hugely,” he continues. “He’s been unlucky with the Gilets Jaunes, and the Coronavirus pandemic — the face of France is certainly changing.”

Others with close links to La Providence are more blunt. Like millions across France, they consider Macron to be the “President of the Rich” — a former merchant banker and financial civil servant who has lost touch with ordinary people. Few have forgotten the launch of his new party, La République En Marche! (Forward the Republic!), in Amiens in 2016, and the fact its abbreviation — EM ! — spelled out Macron’s own initials. There were comparisons to alpha businessmen who extend their vulgar egotism to personalised car number plates and solid gold cufflinks.

The President’s fiercest detractor in Amiens is the sitting MP, François Ruffin, another local boy who was two years above Macron at La Providence. Despite his privileged educational background, Ruffin now represents Mélenchon’s anti-capitalist party, La France Insoumise (France Unbowed). Ruffin also directed Merci, Patron!, a scathing documentary highlighting the devastating impact billionaire Paris industrialists have on ordinary lives.

“You were already detested, even before putting a foot in the Élysée,” Ruffin wrote in an open letter published by Le Monde when Macron beat Le Pen to win his first presidential term in 2017. “You are hated, Mr Macron, and I am worried for my country”. Nothing has softened Ruffin’s approach over the past five years. He still refers to Macron as “a creature” of the capitalist elite, while saying that without Mélenchon’s movement “the Left could be liquidated, buried”.

Such dramatic language seems partly justified as I walk through Amiens city centre. There are plenty of boarded-up shop windows, while beggars and the homeless are on almost every street. In the alleyways that lead to Notre-Dame de Amiens, the city’s magnificent medieval Gothic cathedral, used syringes used by drug addicts litter the ground.

The unemployment rate in Amiens hovers around 10%, higher than the national average by around three points, and young people in this student city are particularly affected. Those enrolled at the city’s university, Picardie Jules Verne, are, like plenty of their contemporaries across France, drawn to radical alternatives to the traditional party system. With both the Gaullist conservatives, who now call themselves Les Républicains, and the Socialist Party, decimated in the first round of the election, this has created a big opportunity for Le Pen’s Rassemblement National, which has been concentrating on the soaring cost of living.

“Marine Le Pen today focuses on the purchasing power that is a huge problem for many French,” says Yaël Menache, RN delegate in the Somme. In an attempt to win over young voters, Le Pen’s rudimentary economic policies include wiping out many taxes for the under-30s and cutting VAT on energy from 20% to 5.5%. All of which is potentially attractive if costed responsibly, but bigotry remains at the heart of the RN project. Its current campaign slogan is “Giving the French their money back”, but getting rid of immigrants, and indeed French citizens not considered properly integrated, is undoubtedly the priority.

The principal victims of a Le Pen presidency would certainly be the ethnic minority communities I visit on the council estates of northern Amiens. During the pandemic, an emergency action plan was introduced to manage the spiralling food poverty among those living in the high-rises here. It followed Amiens Nord being given the official status of a Priority Security Zone, which allows the authorities to flood the area with armed riot police to clamp down on those considered a threat to public order.

This move played into the far-Right trope that “alien” cultures could overrun France, with Islam the main target of such poisonous discourse. “This is the real extremism,” says Mohammed Dhabi, who is a 48-year-old machine fitter whose father moved to Amiens from Morocco in the late Sixties. “Muslims are painted as an enemy — not just by Le Pen, but also by politicians such as Macron. He wants to control millions of Muslims using increased numbers of police, instead of dealing with the real root problems.”

After the Second World War, a workforce made up of thousands of colonial subjects from North Africa was imported to rebuild Amiens, and the influx continued as France’s Empire crumbled. Today, the city has one of the largest Muslim populations in Northern France. “The problem is that the original work camps turned into sink estates, and people were left to rot,” says Mr Dhabi. “Now we’re an easy target for those who want to link us with every kind of problem, however unjustifiably.”

“If some of us do vote for Mélenchon it’s because he supports Muslim communities in a country that is very anti-Muslim,” Mr Dhabi tells me. “This is how politics works. Macron is not showing us any support, so what are we meant to do — vote for the fascists like Le Pen and Zemmour?”

Mélenchon has already told his supporters — 7.7 million backed him in the first round — not to vote for Le Pen, but many are likely to abstain. Nobody really knows whether this will assist Macron or Le Pen on Sunday, even if the latest opinion polls suggest a win for the incumbent by up to 10 percentage points. What is certain, however, is that whoever becomes the Fifth Republic’s next president, cities such as Amiens remain vital indicators of deep discontent across France.

Macron personifies a complacent faith in republican and EU institutions that are badly in need of reform. A proper revolution is threatened, and it could come sooner rather than later. M. Banc, Macron’s loyal mentor, says that he will vote for the incumbent, but “unlike last time (2017), I can’t be 100% sure that he will win this time”. If Macron does fail, and lets the far-Right in, will les Amiénois still put up monuments to him one day, as they did in honour of Jules Verne? “Probably… when he is dead,” comes the rather blunt reply.

Yet Macron is still only 44, and full of vitality, so his physical demise is by no means imminent. The President’s political survival is, however, by no means guaranteed — especially if les Amiénois have anything to do with it.