Butter before votes (Tim Graham/Getty Images)

June 9, 2022   5 mins

In rural France there are strict rules about dinner party chat. No politics, no religion, no work. The safe topics are the production of artisan goat’s cheese, floods or droughts, and the career of Rafael Nadal, who, despite being born south of the Pyrenees, has effectively been adopted by les Français. Asked to dinner last month by friends down in the village, the subject of Macron or Le Pen in the Elysée was never even on the table. The closest we got to discussing politics was to wonder whether euthanasia in Switzerland is worth the cost when you could get Claude, the alcoholic shepherd, to do the job for €100. After dessert, I was no wiser to the voting intentions of the gathered diners than I had been when we chatted over the apéros.

Not much happens in the little village of La Roche in Nouvelle-Aquitaine — which, to be honest, is how we all like it. True, there was a scandale last year. Someone painted their shutters mauve, as opposed to the regulation blue, earning a stiff letter from Monsieur le Maire. But in general the French are very good at privacy. Hence the distance-keeping, formal “vous“, and the reluctance to use Christian names on a first social encounter. You can see why: after Revolution, after the choice between Resistance and Collaboration, there lingers in France the feeling that you need to be careful what you say, and of revealing who you are. Unlike in Britain, there are no political posters in windows or gardens.

There are people in La Roche who, despite having known each other since the Stone Age, still address each other formally as “Madame” or “Monsieur”. But still, there was an air of excitement about the presidential election. “On va gagner”, someone had enthusiastically scrawled on the official poster of “Marine” — she’s always Marine, not Le Pen, like Boris is Boris — outside the polling station, the village Mairie.

In the event, Macron beat Le Pen by just nine votes here, out of a voting population of 235. His victory was not a surprise to me. My wife has evolved a near faultless theory on the presidential voting habit of our neck of rural France, this beautiful but forgotten land where you might need to drive for miles and miles to find a doctor, and the diesel cost of delivering goods to the local Intermarché is pushing prices through the sheet-metal roof.

Her theory is: pretty villages (such as La Roche, with its Romanesque church) go for Macron; everywhere else plumps for Marine Le Pen, whose vote is escalated by the number of nearby wind turbines. (Éoliennes are not placed in south-west France; they are dumped, like scrap.) If, on Le Monde’s interactive map of how France voted, you type in lovely Dampierre-sur-Boutonne, with its Renaissance château, you get a Macron win. Key in poor Les Églises with éoliennes every which way and you get Le Pen.

Now, as the National Assembly vote approaches, it is worth nothing that the French electoral process has a certain built-in capacity for paranoia. The base voting unit, the commune in rural areas, can be, as with La Roche, very small. The results are detailed, and precise. I suspect quite a lot of La Rocheans are walking around wondering not who voted for Marine, but who the hell were the two residents who voted for the Trotskyists of Lutte Ouvrière? (I must admit that one does get a wide choice in a French election: Lutte Ouvrière are also standing for the local Assembly seat, as is Le Mouvement de la Ruralité, the wonderful diehard defenders of la chasse, the right of cockerels to crow, and a landscape free of éoliennes — and, I kid you not, whose TV election broadcast is sung. Brilliantly.)

I met my neighbour Frank by accident at the bar-tabac in the local town of Chefnay yesterday morning. After shaking hands, he almost spilt his espresso in his relief to tell me about the presidential election: “The Nazi lady didn’t get in… but in the village, it was close!” I gave myself a mental pat on the back: I had Frank marked down for Macron; a former teacher, Frank is quintessential Macron Man — that is, retired, comfortable state pension, and middle class. Leaning forward, he whispered: “I listen to the conversations… the people who like her [Le Pen], they don’t have the education.” He then looked around, apprehensively, to make sure no-one had heard the indiscretion.

With Frank in confessional mode and emboldened by a pastis, I asked him about this week’s first round of voting for the National Assembly. The Left-green coalition, Nouvelle union populaire, écologique et solidaire (NUPES) is sold as the 2022 version of the Thirties’ Popular Front; it has oomph and high hopes of installing the veteran Left-wing firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon as Prime Minister (think Corbyn, but brainy, with the body of a docker). “Pfff” was Frank’s dismissive response. “France is not going to vote for Mélenchon. His people are all students and…” he trailed off. Students, famously, do not get out of bed to vote. Also, you can expect the Elysée, as the vote approaches, to portray Mélenchon as the bastard son of a swivel-eyed Lenin and a baby-eating Devil.

“Le Pen?” I asked. Another “Pfff” from Frank, but this time the sound was that of a balloon with a slow puncture. He was right. The workers and the farmers around La Roche, the people who were the backbone of Marine’s vote (the Rassemblement National is effectively the party of the French proletariat nowadays) have lost the head-held-high confidence they had after her respectable 41.5% in May; in party political broadcasts, Le Pen now looks as though she has been interrupted on some very relaxing vacances. What energy she does emit goes to ensuring that her rival to the Right, the former pundit Eric Zemmour, never rises from his coffin again.

“It is finished before it begins,” said Frank of the election to the Assemblée Nationale. “Nobody wants instability…” He meant an assembly without a Macron majority, which would ensure four years of  bust-ups between the Matignon, the prime minister’s très chic residence in Paris’s 7th Arrondissement, and the Elysée Palace. To ensure that the national boat is not rocked before the first round of voting, Macron has chosen Elizabeth Borne as his (acting) prime minister, a woman of reputed competence, but zero excitement. Macron’s cabinet is half Right, half Left, the physical incarnation of the President’s centrist philosophy, “en même temps”. At the same time.

Sipping his espresso, Frank went on, “And of course, there is the system…” It is a very French habit, the started but unfinished sentence. He meant that the process of voting for the National Assembly, two rounds and first-past-the-post, is structurally designed to favour centre parties; so in 2017 Le Pen’s party received 34% in the second round — but ended up with a pathetic six députés out of 577. A cynic like me might add that with the Fifth Republic’s love of a near-monarchical president, and the National Assembly reduced to rubber-stamping, the majority does not bother to vote for the Assembly anyway. Thus, in 2017 the turnout for first round of the presidential election was 73.9%; for the first round of the voting for the legislative, it was 49%.

“Of course, he is not popular,” said Frank, as if reading my thoughts. “But what is the choice, really?” Suddenly enthusiastic, he exclaimed, “What about La Rochelle! Champions of Europe!” We were on to the other safe topic of conversation in south-west France: rugby. Frank’s political insights were over. His personal shutters had closed. On rising, I noted he took his change; in the crisis of pouvoir d’achat we are all counting our cents. And it will effect turnout on Sunday. After all, butter before votes.

Driving home, I passed the official display of election posters on metal hoardings outside La Roche’s Mairie. Some of the posters are peeling off. Unlike in the presidential election, none has been annotated with felt pens, no candidates’ pictures daubed with a Hitler moustache. No one can be bothered. On the houses the now uniformly blue shutters are closed against the midday heat. The only thing sleepier than La Roche is the French assembly election and its foregone conclusion.

John Lewis-Stempel is a farmer and writer on nature and history. His most recent books are The Sheep’s Tale and Nightwalking.