Fractured France: A country with deep fault lines - from The Economist - March 29th 2022
The last pit in the northern French village of Auchy-les-Mines closed in 1974, but the silhouettes of slag heaps still rise in the distance across the flat farmland. They bear witness to the muscular past of the mining basin, which a century ago provided employment to 130,000 people.
Today the jobless rate in the area is ten points above the national average. Abandoned mine shafts have become industrial-heritage sites. One in five people live below the French poverty line of €1,100 ($1,200) a month.
Every Wednesday Ma P’tite Epice Rit, a voluntary food truck, stops in front of the red-brick church in Auchy-les-Mines to sell heavily discounted food nearing its expiry date. To buy such produce, residents must show that they live on less than €10 a day after spending on household costs. The truck serves around 100 people in Auchy-les-Mines alone, and many more in the nearby villages it visits each week. “People here are asphyxiated by daily life,” says a shopkeeper on the high street.
Bypassed by high-speed trains and breezy ambition, the village belongs to what Christophe Guilluy, a geographer, calls “peripheral France”. Peggy Belicki, who a year ago set up the food truck, which she fills with apples, potatoes, cabbages, chocolate tarts and more, says that she sees all sorts come by, from pensioners to single parents: “We offer a sort of moral-support service”.
For years, this working-class village looked to the Communist Party to supply both moral support and ideological answers. The current mayor, Jean-Michel Legrand, is from the party, as were his predecessors reaching back over half a century. But the old parties of the French left have increasingly lost blue-collar workers, particularly in national elections. David Grigny, a former cabinetmaker who has been unemployed for 13 years, says that political parties “no longer represent the working class”. This year, he is unsure whether he will even vote. “We’ve lost our values. We are dismantling our country, dismantling its history, dismantling societies”.
On a recent weekday, Emmanuelle Danjou, a sales manager, is to be found slipping leaflets for the former television polemicist into letter boxes on a nearby estate of neat two-storey brick homes. The candidate’s programme “is really focused on a reconquest of our country. We’ve lost our values. We’re dismantling our country, our history,” she argues. “He says out loud what many French people think in private, even if they don’t dare say so openly.” Frédéric Dewitte, from a neighbouring village, joins her on the leafleting round. Mr Dewitte sees Mr Zemmour as a “man of culture, a providential man, who could possibly save France”.
But the candidate who has done the most to scoop up such votes is the nationalist-populist Marine Le Pen. She is now well placed to make it into the run-off at the two-round presidential election on April 10th and 24th. In over a decade at the top of the party founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, Ms Le Pen has distanced herself from the neo-Nazi thuggery linked to his rule. These days she mixes strident anti-immigrant rhetoric with a promise to help ease the rising cost of living.
In 2017, at the last presidential election, Ms Le Pen found support in poorer, more peripheral places such as Auchy-les-Mines. In the run-off, 65% of the village’s voters backed Ms Le Pen. Just 35% backed Emmanuel Macron.
Around 30 kilometres north-east of Auchy-les-Mines lies Lille, France’s tenth biggest city. Here, voting patterns were a mirror image of those in Auchy-les-Mines. Some 78% of voters backed Mr Macron in the run-off.
Across France, this halo pattern was repeated. Vibrant cities, such as Bordeaux, Lyon and Lille, embraced Mr Macron. Their less affluent outskirts plumped for Ms Le Pen.
Lille built its fortune on cotton-spinning and fabric-making, before those jobs moved to low-cost places abroad. Recently, it has leant on this history to reinvent itself as a place of innovation. Young people crowd into the bars in the old town centre, with its freshly painted Flemish façades and opera house, “Notting Hill” coffee shop and yoga classes.
“I didn’t necessarily imagine creating a company today, but I was struck by[Macron’s] commitment, by his motivation”
Mr Macron’s talk of building a start-up culture, and of shaking up the old order, appeals to the tech-savvy. “Five years ago I didn’t necessarily imagine creating a company,” says Victor Gignon, the 24-year-old co-founder of a Lille-based tech start-up called Octavio, which designs wireless audio products. Victor credits Mr Macron for supporting innovation, and with being “able to push people to give the best of themselves”. The sitting president had promised that France would create 25 unicorns, or start-ups valued at over $1 billion, by 2025. That figure was reached in January this year.
Indeed, in 2017 the closer to big cities, or the more connected to them, the greater the vote for Mr Macron. In the outer Paris region, Jérôme Fourquet, a political scientist, found that in communes with a railway station, 77% of voters backed Mr Macron in the second round. Drive out from the capital’s public-transport network, to the semi-rural places that lie more than 20 kilometres from a station, and Ms Le Pen was favoured.
Auchy-les-Mines is too far from Lille to be linked to its public network of trams or suburban railways. Buses are the only form of public transport. Most villagers rely on cars, and many of the small two-storey brick homes have off-street parking spaces or a garage. The rising cost of fuel is a worry, and residents treat the anti-car crusades by Green politicians in big cities as an affront. In Auchy-les-Mines, where 85% of households own at least one car, locals resent the idea that they should be punished for using them, as Mr Macron found to his cost when the gilets jaunes (yellow jackets) uprising broke out in late 2018.
Reconciling connected France with its discontented periphery may be Mr Macron's greatest challenge if, as seems probable, he wins a second term. When the novice politician was first elected, he promised unity for a divided country. Five years on, Mr Macron has transformed France. It is more business-friendly. Incomes have risen for rich and poor. Unemployment has dropped from 9.2% to 7.2%. There are more apprenticeships than ever before.
In struggling areas, he has halved the size of early primary-school classes and introduced free breakfasts. Even in Auchy-les-Mines the president has defenders. “Excusez-moi, but since Macron was elected he hasn’t had an easy task,” says a 70-year-old, standing in his garden in a pair of plastic slippers. On the village’s high street, where the “Best Kebab” fast-food restaurant sits near a boarded-up insurance agency, a tradesman agrees that it is “unfair” to judge the president too harshly, what with the pandemic and the war in Ukraine.
Yet there is a lingering distrust of the tax-cutting ex-investment banker whom Mr Grigny, the former cabinetmaker, calls the “president of the rich”. Many in Auchy-les-Mines struggle to relate to him, and think that he has not governed for people like them. This matters for Mr Macron. Not because he needs the votes: polls currently suggest that he would beat any potential rival in the run-off. But because a second-term president will have to govern a discontented and volatile country, which has shown how readily it takes its unhappiness to the streets—the location where, the French sometimes quip, the third round of a presidential election takes place. And some of Mr Macron’s campaign proposals are contentious, not least his promise to raise the pension age from 62 years to 65.
Mr Macron remains well placed to win not only the presidency in April, but possibly even a majority at parliamentary elections in June, which would give him a fair mandate for reform. He is taking care to spell out ahead of the vote the changes he wants. But already there are voices questioning quite how strong even this mandate will be. If Mr Macron wins against Ms Le Pen for a second time, says Agatha Green, a student in Lille, it will be partly “by default”. Should voter turn-out be low, such accusations will grow. Governing fractured France may be even harder for Mr Macron the second time around.
For more on Emmanuel Macron, see 1843’s profile. For all of The Economist’s French election coverage, visit our election hub