We promise to return to pretty pictures fairly soon but given the significance of the French presidential contest we thought it might be worth making some observations from down here. The ‘down here’ bit is significant because most of the English language political comment seems to have come out of Paris. As anyone with any slight interest in France will know, the first round of the elections reduced the number of candidates to two: Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron. Our village, like most of the south-east and north-east voted strongly for Le Pen. We have not conducted in-depth surveys as to why this is the case. A lot of people we talk to have been very hesitant to discuss who they are voting for.
Clearly, there is concern about immigration and, just as important, assimilation. Built into the French system is a rather naive view that after a few years anybody who comes to live here from whatever background will automatically have adopted a secular French way of life so that sooner or later there be one uniform happy national culture. This faith in the overwhelming power of the French system is so complete that the census forms – which we filled out earlier this year – don’t even ask for religion. Well, it turns out that some cultures are much more resistant to assimilation than expected. (The British system of presuming that different cultures with different values can coexist has, of course, its own problems.)
Now we find a lot to like about M. Macron. He has many virtues: youth, energy, looks, education and intelligence, and holds firm to those endangered liberal values of tolerance and openness. Less well-known are the facts that he is, or at least was, a very good classical pianist and that he speaks fluent English with a clarity and concern for grammar that ought to embarrass Donald Trump. And he looks good in a suit. What is there not to like?
The answer, down here at least, is quite simply that that people can’t identify with him. France, as with many other countries these days, seems to be increasingly divided. There are the elite, fundamentally Parisian, who wear smart suits and carry big phones and who are doing very nicely, and then there is the rest of the country. That rest of the country includes the depressed urban areas, particularly one gathers in the north-east, largely shunned by tourists, and the agricultural areas of much of France profonde. In both areas there is nostalgia for the increasingly sentimentalised “three great decades” after the Second World War.
Here in agricultural France one senses a real unease with the Macron image and if he is voted for in the second round it will be because he is the lesser of two evils. One can’t help but think it would have been a good idea if, a couple of years ago, his advisers had persuaded him to buy a farm somewhere in a remote village and accumulate endless photos of him walking the dogs, frowning over the state of his vines, shooting the odd wild boar with the local hunt, buying his baguette, drinking coffee in the village square and above all playing boules. At the heart of his low polling figures down here is the real concern that actually he isn’t truly French. It’s the suit that does it.