April 11, 2022

Here is a confident prediction about tomorrow’s first round of the French presidential election. In my lovely, peaceful village in the Calvados hills, Marine Le Pen will comprehensively top the poll. President Emmanuel Macron will come third or maybe even fourth. In the second round, Le Pen will win by a landslide.

Nationally, the polls suggest that this strange, long-frozen election will be a close-run thing — much closer than seemed possible two or three weeks ago. New survey data even suggests Le Pen could sneak victory, though Macron probably still has the edge.

My village Culey-le-Patry has no crime, no obvious suffering and no immigrants apart from myself and a couple of other Britons. Nonetheless, Marine Le Pen — far-Right, anti-migrant, anti-EU, enthusiastically pro-Putin until February — will sweep to local victory here in both rounds of the election. The same thing will happen in thousands of villages across France.

Village by village, that vote is tiny. Culey only has 280 electors, and a population of 355. There are, however, 30,000 angry villages in France: angry at petrol prices; angry at poor services; angry without really being able to explain why they are angry.

Yet this anger is nothing new — nor is it entirely Macron’s fault. In the second round in 2017, Le Pen got 34% of the vote across France; in my village, she got 44.7%. In the first round, Macron led the poll nationally; in Culey-le-Patry, he came fourth, while Le Pen came first with 29% of the votes. She may get over 50% this year.

Historically, Normandy is not fertile territory for the far-Right — unlike, say, the struggling parts of the industrial North or the Paris-hating South-East. And yet rural Normandy has been swinging gradually towards the Le Pens, father and daughter, for two decades. The smaller the village and the greater the distance from a large town, the bigger the Le Pen vote.

Little by little — it started long before Macron and the Gilets Jaunes — villages like Culey-le-Patry have changed political sides. They used to be the bedrock of the centre-right, Gaullist and soft-Left status quo in France. They have become, almost without realising it, a breeding ground for a tear-it-down populism which seeks to destroy France’s outward-looking, pro-European post-war consensus.

And yet few people in Culey or similar villages care about politics or follow political events from day to day. Several people I spoke to were unaware that the opinion polls had shifted dramatically in recent days. They assumed Macron would win but intended to vote for Le Pen. I did not find a single person who said they would vote, or had ever intended to vote, for her far-right rival Eric Zemmour. His rise (and fall) was largely a metropolitan/suburban phenomenon.

Zemmour’s decline was partly fuelled by his long history of enthusiasm for Vladimir Putin. This is something shared by Le Pen, but she has soared in the last three weeks, mostly at Zemmour’s expense, by focusing on high prices and low wages. The overall far-Right share of the vote (32-34%) has scarcely changed.

In my conversations, not one person brought up the war. They spoke of the high petrol and diesel prices caused partly by Putin’s invasion without mentioning it directly. An exception was our mayor, Marie-Christine Danlos. “I think people here do care about Ukraine,” she said. “Certainly they do. We are surrounded by the memories and scars of war from the summer of 1944. I certainly hear no pro-Russian feeling. None at all.”

“But in the end most people here are tightly wrapped in their own lives. They live for today and tomorrow. They feel sympathy for Ukraine but they are very, very angry about petrol and diesel prices. They are angry and worried about rising food prices. Who do they hear on TV talking most persuasively about the cost of living and purchasing power? Marine Le Pen.”

Mme Danlos, 70, is a retired social worker. She has always voted for the Left. This year she will vote for the hard-Left candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, not because she likes his extreme positions against the EU and Nato, but because he is the only Left-wing candidate with a slim chance of reaching the second round.

“I’m afraid of Le Pen,” Mme Danlos said. “And do you know why? Because I find myself nodding in agreement with her when I see her on TV. She speaks good sense about prices and low incomes. She comes over these days like a traditional candidate of the Right, not the far-Right.

“I fear that it hides a great deal. None of it will be good for this country or the people of Culey-le Patry. And yet she will get a lot of votes here and in the surrounding villages. A lot.”

***

Culey-le-Patry is in the valley of the river Orne, about 40 kilometres south of Caen. The commune, including a main village Le Bourg and ten hamlets, stretches five kilometres from the western bank of the river to the ridge of the highest hills in Calvados. The whole area was mistitled La Suisse Normande — Norman Switzerland — by a British journalist a century ago. It is more like Shropshire or Herefordshire than Switzerland.

When I first came to live here, 24 years ago, there were still 20 or so farms, large and small, including two tiny, scarcely-mechanised dairy ones in my own hamlet (population: 8). There are now just five, highly-mechanised farms in the eight square kilometres of the commune — and none in the hamlet.

Year by year, I have watched as the Caen suburbs march southwards along the main roads and climb up the hillsides. Our main village has its own small estate of a dozen bungalows, inhabited by people who drive every day to work in Caen. There is no tension with the long-time locals; there is no contact with them at all.

One by one, many of the wonderful local characters that I got to know 20 years ago have died or moved away. There was Jean-Michel, the hippy-farmer who drove his tractor backwards because all the other gears no longer worked. He moved south and last I heard he was an agricultural inspector.

There was Bernard, a successful farmer who was delivered by an SS doctor during the height of the Battle of Normandy, in July 1944. He flew his own bright-yellow light aircraft off one of his fields until one day, after morning-milking, he failed to come home.

He is buried in the Culey cemetery, next to Sergeant Maurice “Mike” Wilson of the Royal Australian Air Force, whose Spitfire crashed in the commune in June 1944, just before the SS doctor delivered Bernard. The doctor (a resolute Nazi until the end) used to visit Bernard — calling him “my French son” — each summer from the mid-Seventies until he died in the late Nineties.

The commune used to be divided socially between farmers and non-farmers (whom the former tended to despise). It was also divided between “the people of the church” who voted centre-right and “the non-church people” who voted to the Left.

Along with the school, Culey church closed, except for funerals, in the Eighties. The bar-restaurant shut ten years ago. Of the remaining population, perhaps only 150 are Culey born-and-bred (although that includes three of the eight people in my hamlet, who have lived there for 80 years or more).

In the 20 years that I have known it, Culey-le-Patry has become younger and more prosperous but its sense of community has diminished. That may change. We have 50 local children (the highest figure for a long time). They know each other much better than their parents do. They all travel to school together on the bus.

I see no evidence of great poverty or suffering but people keep their secrets to themselves. Mme Danlos, the mayor, says several local families rely quietly on the “Restos de Coeur” and Catholic food charities.

There are seven doctors within ten kilometres; a health centre; a council gym; loads of shops in the valley; a cheap bus service into Caen. A fast broad-band cable system, installed by hardy teams of contract workers of Polish and North African origin, will be switched on for every house in our obscure commune this month.

Neglected, rural France? Not really. Not all of it.

What is lacking is a local source of prosperity and pride — the small dairy farms on the hills and the factories and iron-ore mines which once provided jobs down in the valley. We are now a community with no clear raison d’être and no longer any real sense of community.

Other places in France may have more specific reasons for their anger with the establishment and the elites — crime, unemployment, immigration. In Culey, there is anger at high fuel and food prices. But that is a temporary phenomenon. There is also an  ill-defined feeling of marginalisation and loss: of not belonging to the successful, outward-looking France of Paris, Toulouse and Bordeaux, but no longer having any clear local identity either.

Denis, 78, a retired farmer told me: “Farming, living from the land, not just in the countryside, used to be what brought us together here. Now we farmers and ex-farmers are a small minority. People — and not just these new hoursins (incomers) from Caen — are furious if they have to wait for a tractor blocking the road.”

Denis has always voted centre-right — for De Gaulle in 1965, for Chirac in 1995 and 2002, for Sarkozy in 2007 and 2012. In 2017, he spoiled his ballot rather than vote for Macron or Le Pen in the second round. This year, he will vote for the centre-right in Round One and Le Pen rather than Macron in Round Two. “I don’t like her but she is not going to win anyway and I can’t stand Macron,” he said. “Even after five years I just don’t know who he is.”

Jean-Philippe, 28, is a plumber who drives 40 kilometres to work in Caen each day. He was very active in the Gilets Jaunes movement of 2018-9, which began partly in protest against pump prices when diesel was €1.50 a litre.

Last month, after the Ukraine war began, diesel rocketed to €2.20 a litre but has now subsided to €1.80, partly thanks to an €0.18 a litre government rebate. Jean-Philippe said: “The price of diesel and petrol is still much too high. Sometimes I wonder if I can afford to go to work. I would be better off claiming unemployment pay. It’s fine the government blaming Russia and the war. But why don’t they cut the 20% VAT on fuel to 5.5% like Marine Le Pen says she will? The politicians would rather give the money to  migrants, or to themselves, than help rural people like us.”

Who will Jean-Phillippe vote for? Le Pen in both rounds.

One of my most eloquent guides to Culey politics had always been my next-door neighbour’s cousin, Catherine, aged 58. “It’s complicated,” she says.  “It’s very complicated. Don’t say it’s all about xenophobia and immigration because that would not be correct. If an Arab family moved to Culey, they would be treated like everyone else. No one would scrawl graffiti on their house.”

“And yet the vote for the far-Right goes up at every election. Why? There is no crime, no sense of being insecure. Most people, like me, if they go out for a few minutes will leave their door unlocked.”

“There is a kind of submerged racism here. People see brown and black faces on the TV news or in the French football team. It’s not the France they know. They feel threatened, even though there is no direct threat to them. They vote Le Pen as a kind of protest or gesture…”

As Catherine says: “It’s complicated.”

***

Macron’s rural failure is not so much to have failed to invest in La France Profonde. Whatever the Gilets Jaunes may say, successive French governments have hugely subsidised rural France from urban and suburban taxes. Rather, Macron’s rural failure is part of his wider inability to persuade the whole of France that it can share in the outward-looking confidence and prosperity of its thriving cities.

When she slipped from view during Zemmour’s rise last year, Le Pen embarked on a village Tour de France. She gained lots of positive publicity in local papers, unnoticed at the time by the Paris and foreign media, including me. Her message was always the same: “Village France is the real France. The rebuilding of the real France starts with you.”

It was a flattering message but a deeply misleading one. There can be no future for village France if France as a whole is not prosperous. Le Pen’s policies — disconnection from Europe, discrimination against immigrants — would turn the whole of France into a village, isolated from Europe and the world.

From the ridge above Culey, you can see the flatlands of western France which stretch all the way to the Pyrenean foothills. We are just one pebble in thousands of similar pebbles on that beach, all no doubt with a similar ill-defined feeling of lost local pride and prosperity. The suffering of such places is finally more existential than economic. This is not a question of Somewhere and Anywhere. It is a sense of Somewhere-Lost.

Neither Marine Le Pen nor her 5% VAT on fuel will bring a sense of identity and pride to the many Culeys out there. They will, all the same, vote massively for her tomorrow.

 

*Some have names have been changed.

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