Weary and worried, French voters are in an unpredictable mood
Donzy (France) (AFP) – Every five years, French goose farmer Frédéric Coudray-Ozbolt rejoices in the attention his peaceful village receives when journalists come knocking around presidential elections.
A two-and-a-half-hour drive south of the capital, Donzy has established himself as a national informant who has correctly picked the winner of every presidential election since 1981.
“It makes us feel like part of France and not the end of it,” Coudray-Ozbolt says of the brief fame he and his neighbors enjoy.
Their predictive powers faltered slightly on the first ballot in 2017, but were restored on the second when Donzy joined the rest of the country in voting for Emmanuel Macron, a then 39-year-old newcomer who shattered the parties’ hold. traditional French. of the government.
But five years later, Coudray-Ozbolt says he is hesitant to vote for Macron again in the first round on Sunday.
“There’s too much public relations,” said the 54-year-old, who prepares the controversial French foie gras. “Every day they announce something. How many things will materialize? »
As polls show far-right leader Marine Le Pen closing in on Macron, still the small favourite, the hesitation of people like Coudray-Ozbolt could prove crucial.
– Inflation worries –
After a highly atypical campaign overshadowed by external events, the words on many people’s lips in Donzy, as elsewhere in France, are “crises”.
“There was Covid 19, now the war in Ukraine,” sighs Jacques Martin, a 66-year-old retired police officer and president of the rugby club.
The local mayoress, Marie-France Lurier, explains that “people are anxious and find it difficult to think about the future”.
Three lockdowns since 2020 have repeatedly crippled life, and now runaway inflation linked to Covid and the Ukrainian conflict is eating away at household budgets.
“The biggest fundamental concern is purchasing power, the need for wage increases and worries about rising fuel and energy prices,” said Lurier, a leftist independent.
People all over the village are quick to mention sudden price hikes that belie the official inflation rate of just 4.5%.
A local builder said he had just been informed of a 12% increase in the price of plaster. The nearest winemaker faces a 53% increase in the cost of glass bottles.
Diesel prices at the local supermarket are hovering around 2.0 euros ($2.18) per litre, up around 20% since the start of the year.
“We go out less and we don’t really know what we are going to do during the holidays,” explains Sarah Lesage, 37, nurse and mother of four children.
– ‘Could be worse’ –
Conversations with voters in Donzy have suggested that Sunday’s first round and April 24 run-off will be won or lost by whichever candidate is seen as most reliable in finding solutions.
Although early campaigns were dominated by anti-immigration rhetoric from “France’s Trump” – far-right new candidate Eric Zemmour – polls overwhelmingly show that household spending is now the priority.
While there was little fervor for Macron in Donzy, there was clear respect from some, even admiration, for his role as the country’s chief crisis manager.
“With everything going on, we have at least one president who seems to have his head on his shoulders,” said Jacqueline Vincent, 69, holding baguettes outside a bakery.
“It could be much worse.”
Many are grateful for the 100 billion euro ($110 billion) bailout announced in September 2020 that sent the national debt skyrocketing but spilled over to places like Donzy.
Four local bars, where people gather for a glass of wine at the end of the day, have been kept afloat with government help during the lockdowns.
“I say ‘Thank you Monsieur Macron’ for everything I have,” said 67-year-old waitress Martine, adding that her employer had been shut down several times during the lockdowns. “I had seven months of salary paid by the state.”
– Le Pen’s win –
But Macron, a former investment banker, has also acquired a reputation for arrogance and authoritarianism that is particularly felt in smaller towns and villages.
A revolt against him in 2018 by so-called “yellow vest” protesters was sparked as much by his abrasive personality as by his pro-corporate policies and tax cuts for the wealthy.
Distracted by his diplomatic efforts with Russia and Ukraine, he only started his campaign two weeks ago.
Meanwhile, Le Pen spent months shaking hands at provincial markets and agricultural fairs, focusing on the issue now on everyone’s mind: inflation and incomes.
“Between Macron and us, it is a choice between the power of money which benefits the few and the purchasing power of households which benefits the many,” she said recently, promising more cuts in taxes and social spending.
His decision not to exaggerate fears over Muslim immigration to France, his traditional rallying cry, has helped soften his image.
And she has hammered Macron in recent weeks on the record two billion euros spent on management consulting during his tenure, a file that seemed to break through at Donzy.
– Hate speech –
Le Pen, 53, has also been aided by Zemmour in her quest to detoxify her image.
After spending a decade trying to erase his party’s reputation for racism and its association with its violent neo-Nazi fringe, Le Pen has found an ideal foil in Zemmour.
The best-selling author of books such as ‘French Suicide’ has several convictions for racist hate speech and wants to deport a million foreigners.
A photo of him giving a middle finger to a protester in Marseilles last November reinforced his image as a grumpy political maverick.
“Compared to him, everyone looks like a moderate,” said Arnaud Mercier, an expert in political communication at the University of Paris Panthéon-Assas.
Polls suggest Zemmour will get around 10% in Sunday’s vote, but he has opened up new political space for Le Pen.
He also normalized the idea of the “Great Replacement”, a white supremacist conspiracy theory suggesting that native Europeans are being deliberately replaced by immigrants.
“It is dangerous insofar as it encourages conflict and feeds on hatred,” former Socialist President Francois Hollande said last year.
– Old certainties –
Mayor Lurier, a retired social housing administrator, is frustrated that left-wing socialists have failed to reinvent themselves since Hollande lost power in 2017.
She regrets the decline of the two traditional French political parties, which have been peripheral in this campaign, and is not convinced by the far-left populist Jean-Luc Melenchon.
The former Trotskyist is the left winger at the head of a race which could still surprise us on Sunday.
“Political parties, whether left or right, have provided a framework and the fact that we don’t have any more means things are falling apart,” Lurier said.
The socialist candidate Anne Hidalgo, mayor of Paris, probes around 2%.
Once-mighty right-wing Republican Party candidate Valerie Pecresse is trending down about 10% in fourth or fifth place.
‘Nothing is impossible’
Concerned with Europe’s biggest war since 1945 and the biggest inflation crisis since the 1970s, France’s election is now seen as highly unpredictable.
Polls show around a quarter of voters don’t know who to vote for on Sunday, and the same proportion could abstain in what would be a record.
The country appears to be heading for another second round between Macron and Le Pen, who clashed in 2017 shortly after Britain voted for Brexit and the United States elected Donald Trump.
With Le Pen out of breath, Macron tried to rally voters by sounding the alarm that his promise of continuity and stable leadership might not be enough.
“Look at what happened with Brexit, and so many other elections: what seemed unlikely actually happened,” he warned at his first rally last weekend.
“Nothing is impossible,” he added.
© 2022 AFP