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Voters in the French countryside feel abandoned by political elite
French people remain deeply attached to the countryside, but only one in five people live there today. With the farming crisis, a lack of jobs, and many shops and services closing down there's a strong sentiment of abandon. Polls suggest support for the far-right National Front will be higher than average in the upcoming elections, as will abstention rates. Yet how and whether country dwellers vote could well determine who France’s next president will be.
On a high speed TGV, the town of Laval in Mayenne, western France, is just a couple of hours from the capital. But it’s a big 300 kilometre divide. Eighty percent of the land in Mayenne (population 300,000) is devoted to agriculture. Cows are out grazing on the gently undulating green fields, but village after village bears the scars of rural exodus: boarded up schools, farms converted to holiday lets, and - tellingly - the characteristic canary yellow post office signs look shabby and neglected. Many have closed.
“There’s a lot of frustration, a feeling that politicians, an elite, have lost touch with the local people,” says retired local schoolteacher Marie-Paule Arrieta. “I think both right and left have failed.”
Arrieta has lived in the small village of Saint-Berthevin-la Tannière, less than an hour’s drive from Laval, for 40 years. She's seen her beloved countryside wither. Her three children, one of whom is a doctor, have left to work in big cities.
“There’s a lack of jobs here, that’s why the young are leaving the area to find work elsewhere. There are only elderly people living in the villages. There’s a lack of doctors, post offices are closing. There are few facilities and yet people pay taxes. So they’re frustrated and they want the state to protect them."
However irrational, "they want the state to favour French people over foreigners," she says.
A recent study by market research body IFOP showed that support for the far-right, anti-immigration National Front (FN) is around 25 percent in rural areas, and that it increases to around 30 percent in places where local shops and services have closed.
Marie-Paule Arrieta is not in the least tempted by a vote for the FN, in her eyes “a xenophobic, anti-European party”. But having voted Socialist in the past, she's disappointed with how they've performed in government.
“This time I’m not satisfied with their policies, I haven’t quite decided who I’ll vote for.”
According to political scientist Jérôme Fourquet, the countryside was “not much of a priority for the Socialist party,” all the more so because “they’ve never had strong electoral support there.”
In an interview with Causeur magazine, Fourquet cites Agriculture Minister Stéphane Le Foll’s reaction to the plight of small French farmers hit by the falling price of milk and pork following the end of EU quotas.
“He more or less said, ‘I don’t fix the prices’. It was like admitting he didn’t have the means to intervene on behalf of the countryside.”
While French farmers benefit greatly from EU agricultural subsidies, the lion’s share goes to large cereal farmers who make up just 20 percent of the total. Meanwhile the majority are left struggling. Crippled by debt and often isolated, one farmer committed suicide every two days last year, according to France’s public health agency.
National Front leader Marine Le Pen is campaigning as the “candidate of the forgotten”, claiming she’ll defend people against crime, immigration and the ravages of globalisation. Fourquet says the simple fact her party, unlike the others, has recognised the suffering of small farmers is part of the reason they’ve picked up support in rural areas.
Arrieta doesn’t believe any of the parties have much of a policy for the countryside.
“I don’t think it’s high on their agenda,” she says. “They want to cut the costs. Living in the country is very expensive [for government] so they want people to live in the cities.”
We have to defend ourselves
“We do feel a bit abandoned. Our grants have been reduced but we still have to provide services and activities,” says Maurice Houlette, mayor of Saint-Mars-sur-la-Futaie, population 630. The former farmer is in his third term and has witnessed what he calls rural desertification.
“I remember 25 years ago there were 80 or 100 farms in the commune of Saint-Mars. Now there are barely 20. And tomorrow there will be even fewer. So gradually the farming community is shrinking,” he says.
But like the hardy 1,300-year-old hawthorn tree that dominates the village centre, Houlette is determined not just to weather the storm, but help breathe life into the village. “We have to defend ourselves with our own means,” he says. “And we’re fighting altogether, to try and keep the village alive.”
Along with deputy mayor Philippe Boissel, they’ve re-opened the village shop as a social enterprise, employing two people on government-subsidised contracts.
The shop sells the usual bread and newspapers along with basic foodstuffs at cost price and any profits will help secure the job contracts. They also sell fresh, mainly local, produce.
“We work with 60 local producers, and privilege short supply chains,” explains Boissel, pointing to refrigerators stocked with fresh meat, cheese and organic yoghurt. The beer is brewed locally and the wine “tried and tested” by the local committee.
“The shop’s designed to be as useful as possible to local people,” he adds, and it seems to be working. 1,800 people come through its doors every month, many are elderly, but teenagers too.
“This shop isn’t just providing a service, it’s bringing people together,” says Boissel, “creating links between people.”
“The problem living in a village is that you need a car, there’s no local transport,” says retired nurse Mathilde Mani as she shares a joke with the cashier. The shop’s had a big impact on her life. “I come here every day, they have everything you need and if they don’t they’ll order it for you. Everyone’s friendly.”
Farming for the future
Ludovic Rattier, a 34-year-old farmer, steps down from a large modern tractor to take time out to chat. He’s the third generation in his family to farm 100 cattle, 50 for dairy and 50 for meat. Times are hard.
“I’ve been doing this for 13 years and this is the first difficult one,” he says. “We’re losing money in both milk and meat. At the moment it’s operation zero. People who’re buying our milk or buying our cattle are not necessarily on our side. They’re looking out for themselves.”
The farm can't survive on EU subsidies alone, but rather than getting into debt like so many of his fellow farmers, Rattier’s reducing his overheads.
“We try to be self-sufficient on the farm, so we’re making our own animal feed from clover and peas.”
He’s cut down on buying farm machinery by joining a local collective and sharing as much equipment as possible.
And since the local shop opened, he’s been supplying it with beef.
“It’s not easy to put into place, and we’re still trying to find more selling points, but I’ve got a cow ready and I’ve already sold 11 of the 18 crates. I’m working hard.”
“You have to believe, have to change your methods and work with short supply chains. That’s the only thing that will save us.”
If the school closes, the village will die
While schools in many surrounding villages have closed, Saint-Mars-sur-la-Futaie's primary school is flourishing, thanks in part to the mayor and his team. He's only too aware that a village without a school is doomed to die… taking its electorate with it.
“We have 53 pupils divided into two classes,” says teacher Céline Geraud. “We’re all very dynamic in this school, we even have a web site.”
She shows me tablets, computers, interactive blackboards and a video projector, financed partly by an active parent-teacher association.
They used to have three classes, but the regional education board closed one down because the village was two pupils short of the required number. The local council didn’t have the power to hire another, but was able to hire a teaching assistant to ensure the kids would get the best schooling possible.
“It’s not just keeping a school open for the sake of it,” says Philippe Boissel, pointing to a recently renovated dormitory where a dozen three year olds are having their afternoon nap. “There’s a real project behind it. The town council invested 80,000 euros in this school. We want the decision makers to see that pupils who come through this village school can do as well, if not better, than kids from urban areas.”
Paris doesn’t care about us
Despite a thriving school, shop, and some farmers prepared to think creatively about the future, there's little enthusiasm for the 11 candidates competing to become France’s next president.
Mayor Maurice Houlette refuses to name names, believing “a mayor of a small commune like this should not be aligned to one party or another". But he admits that “a lot of voters are asking themselves questions” in view of “everything that’s happening with our candidates”.
His deputy, Boissel, is more forthcoming. “The National Front has gained ground here, but it’s not a far-right stronghold. It’s a conservative, Catholic part of France, so it wouldn’t surprise me if François Fillon continues to get support.”
Fillon is no son of the soil, but he lives in the neighbouring Sarthe region.
Farmer Ludovic Rattier says despite the scandal over alleged misuse of government funds, he may vote for Fillon because he “seems to know the figures better than the others”.
Would he be tempted by the National Front given its plan to withdraw from the eurozone and replace the common agricultural policy with one that favours French produce? “In theory,” he replies, “but then if she gets elected we’ll see what happens. Like so many, they promise stuff, and then they leave you in the lurch.”
Le Pen? “Never!” says Mathilde Mani back in the village shop. “She says things that aren’t true and she divides people.” What about Fillon then? “He has no place in these elections, I'm sick of all these oldies”.
Mani says she’s most drawn to the younger, Socialist candidate, Benoît Hamon.
“He talks about the people and our needs, about nature and air pollution. I feel he’s close to the countryside,” she says. “But his party’s more or less dumped him.”
Back at the school, Pascale Davy has finished her stint as canteen dinner lady and is now monitoring several dozen kids as they energetically bike around the playground. She also works at the village hall, and runs a limited “postal agency” following the closure of the village post office. She has little time to follow the campaign trail but, unlike some people she knows, she plans to vote.
“Some people have given up, they’re not interested. But this is about our future, our children’s future. It’s important to take an interest in what’s going on up there at the top. Even if they don’t seem interested in us.”
She feels for local shopkeepers. “They’re having real problems and why are there fewer shops in villages? It’s because the social charges are too high.”
Both centrist Emmanuel Macron and conservative François Fillon are in favour of cutting business taxes. Davy won’t be drawn as to whether they’ll get her vote. “The important thing is that we can continue living here,” she says.
For Philippe Boissel, this village has a future, and with a bit less defeatism, others could too. “There’s a really good quality of life here, housing is cheap, it’s attractive, people are friendly, we just need more jobs.”
Big companies may not be queuing up to invest in the area but Boissel believes the internet revolution will attract start-ups and self-employed people. The local council is pushing hard for fibre optic internet technology.
“It should arrive in the next couple of years,” he says. “I think it will encourage Parisians for example who’re looking for a healthier, calmer life with more space to bring up a family, to move here, work from home, and pop back to Paris for meetings.”
One might be his daughter, who currently works for a start-up in Paris. “Once your kids get good qualifications, they leave places like this. Maybe we can help them come back.”