From rural France, warning signs for Macron's election bid

Incumbent French President Emmanuel Macron has long been considered the heavy favorite to win a second term in April’s election. However, discontent simmering in France’s rural areas indicates that lead may be less solid than originally believed.

Noemie Olive/Reuters
A woman walks past official campaign posters of French presidential election candidates displayed on bulletin boards in Vire, France, April 5, 2022. A recent poll indicates more than 1 in every 4 French voters are uncertain about how they will vote.

Health worker Josiane Comtesse is almost certain she will vote for President Emmanuel Macron in Sunday’s presidential election, but then she reflects on his plan to make the French work longer and her perception that he is arrogant, and she thinks again.

Like many in the rural Normandy town of Vire, for decades a center-right stronghold, Ms. Comtesse, who works at the local hospital and nearby schools, is swinging from one political offering to another.

“I was telling my sisters that I’m hesitating,” she said outside her flat in a low-income estate on the outskirts of Vire. “I’m 87% sure it’s Macron ... well it’s him or this man,” she continued, pointing to a campaign flyer for far-left veteran Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

Ms. Comtesse acknowledged that the two candidates are diametrically opposed. Mr. Macron is a liberal who embraces globalization and wants in a second term to raise the retirement age to 65. Mr. Mélenchon is an ardent socialist who talks of guaranteed jobs for the long-term unemployed and restoring a wealth tax.

Vire, a town of some 11,000 people, is the sort of place that Mr. Macron might hope to win comfortably. Historically, the center-right or conservatives have won roughly half the votes here.

However, Mr. Macron’s 2017 dynamiting of a post-war political landscape dominated by the two mainstream parties on the center-right and center-left created a void for populists to fill, analysts say.

The last week has been tough for Mr. Macron. His comfortable lead in polls has eroded as far-right challenger Marine Le Pen and Mr. Mélenchon both make gains, raising the prospect of a strong anti-Macron vote in the runoff.

A poll this week by Harris Interactive showed Ms. Le Pen, who has softened her rhetoric and tapped into the day-to-day grievances of average voters, notably their purchasing power, within three points of Mr. Macron in the second round.

Even so, Mélenchon activists like retired professor Olivier Gaussens sense that voter indecision may yet allow their third-placed candidate to cause a first-round upset on Sunday.

Going door-to-door with fellow activists, they spoke to some 30 people. All were undecided, ready to change their minds, or planning to abstain. Many were angered by Mr. Macron’s plans to push the retirement age back three years.

“We hope to leverage some of the indecision on issues like retirement, the minimum wage, and higher salaries,” Mr. Gaussens said.

An Elabe poll at the weekend indicated more than 1 in every 4 voters were uncertain about how they would vote.

Voter discontent

Vire’s mayor Marc Andreu Sabater, is a Macron loyalist. He said Mr. Macron was the best-placed candidate to guide France through the current tumult but conceded the president had not done enough to convince some on issues such as the cost of living.

“There are a lot of people hesitating between whether they express their anger because they can’t fill up the cars or pay their electricity bills or, given the context, keep continuity to not knock everything down,” he said.

Surveys show nearly half of all voters intend to shun the center-ground and cast a ballot for a candidate on the far right or hard left as the tussle between liberal globalists and the forces of nationalism that brought Donald Trump to the White House and Brexit to Britain continue to play out in France.

Marie-Therese Hennebel, a retired nuclear factory worker, who lives in the same apartment block as Ms. Comtesse, said she admired Ms. Le Pen’s folksy charm and straight talking.

“When [Le Pen] talks she is fair and tells the truth,” Ms. Hennebel said, bemoaning her low pension and rising food costs. “Things are too expensive now. You have nothing left out of 20 euros.”

Inflation in France passed 5% in March. In a region where economic activity centers on industry, agriculture, metals, and automobiles, Vire’s residents worry the cost of living will only get more expensive if the war in Ukraine carries on.

Remnants of the anti-government “yellow vest” movement that shook Mr. Macron’s leadership during 2018-2019 are again coming together in Vire, revealing the underlying discontent in rural France that persists.

They met at a roundabout for the first time in months in late March, the group – a mix of leftists, far-right sympathizers, and those fed up with France’s democratic system – and discussed the need to dislodge Mr. Macron.

Some are ready to vote for Ms. Le Pen in a second round to block Mr. Macron from power, even if they voted Mr. Mélenchon in round one.

“Five years of Macron, after five years of quasi-socialism, after five years of [conservative Nicolas] Sarkozy, that’s enough,” Jean-Marie Thomine, who joined the “yellow vest” movement in 2018, later said.

This story was reported by Reuters.

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