Salers is a quaint little old village nestled among small mountains in the rural department of Cantal, in the center of France. Coming here, you find no sign of the main social and economic trends that have transformed the country in the last few decades. The village, which has a population of less than 400, is famous for its sixteenth-century architecture?buildings made of dark lavastone that give it a distinct, austere charm. In the summertime the village is often teeming with tourists, but in the off-season it reverts to its fairly quiet life.
Yet on April 22, some 8 percent of the registered voters in Salers cast their votes for the young extreme-right leader Marine Le Pen, a surprising result given how remote this village seems to be from the social problems that are often associated with the rise of the Front National?immigration or public order?and the rundown suburbs that often symbolize them. Yet this vote is part of a broader trend visible in the whole department of Cantal, a traditional stronghold of the right wing and the birthplace of one of the most conservative presidents of contemporary France, Georges Pompidou (1969-1974). For the first time since 1958, the Socialist candidate grabbed the largest share of the vote in Cantal, 30 percent, while Nicolas Sarkozy only polled 28 percent. And with 15 percent of the vote, Marine Le Pen made a significant foray in a part of the country where the Front National had always been marginal.
Le Pen?s 15 percent in Catholic Cantal?a 67 increase from the 2007 presidential election?remain below her stunning national score in the first round of the election, 18 percent. Yet it is quite illustrative of the dynamics that have made her and her party the third largest force in French politics. Indeed, this year Marine Le Pen received a strong backing in rural zones far removed from the traditional areas of influence of the FN, such as the deindustrialized north and the south-east. In part, this is because voters were disappointed by Sarkozy?s ?bling-bling? style and vain promises.
But even more important is a widespread feeling of alienation and neglect, a sentiment d?abandon as the French call it. Over the last few years, the austerity politics favored by the president led to a withdrawal of the state from areas like Cantal: schools with too few pupils have been closed, hospitals with too few patients were shut down, as were post offices and even local police gendarmeries. Not only do people in those areas feel despised, but many farmers say they chafe under the regulation and rules of European agricultural policy, which features a large number of controls and checks.
No such evolution characterizes large cities, where the Front National has lost between 4 and 5 percentage points since 2007. But the feeling of alienation that characterizes the French countryside has also spread to many exurban areas (zones péri-urbaines), where many blue-collar workers and lower-grade, white-collar public or private workers have settled because they have been priced out of the main cities. For these voters, purchasing power and the economy are as important as questions of national identity and immigration, which le Pen has woven together in a broad rhetoric against globalization and capitalism. In these areas, as in small towns hard hit by deindustrialization, where unemployment runs high, she has persuaded a large part of what she?s called ?invisible France? that Sarkozy and center-left Socialist candidate François Hollande do not differ much from one another, more or less openly agreeing on globalization, deregulated free trade, and acceptance of international capitalism?s domination of economic policies.
A tension between core and periphery thus helps explain the strong showing of the FN. In rural and exurban areas, populist rhetoric pitting the elites against the people has proved quite effective for Le Pen, who, it must be noted, has adapted her program to this changing electorate. Far from her father?s provocative anti-republican, Holocaust-denying, and openly racist speech, she insists on the need for ?a strong state? against globalization, not simply by strengthening national borders but also by abandoning the euro, restoring public services, and even using the government to plan the reindustrialization of the country. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the populist and somewhat demagogic candidate of the left-wing Front de gauche, managed to grab a larger share of the vote than Marine Le Pen in most large cities, where he campaigned the most. This means that Mélenchon?s firebrand speeches against the FN found an echo in these cities, where the groundwork done by local associations to improve social bonds has produced important effects.
But the first round suggests that the Left may have a hard time doing the same work outside of cities. It is worrisome to see that rural areas are increasingly receptive to the rhetoric and message of the far Right. In the nineteenth century, the integration of rural areas to the French national political debate was essential to the legitimization of the Republic. Let us not let the politics of austerity and the general weakening of governments turn voters in these areas away from the Republic?s main principles.
Photo of Marine Le Pen in 2008, by Ernest Morales, Flickr creative commons