Apathy and Anger in France’s Election Everytown

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AUXERRE, France — With its magnificent 13th-century Gothic cathedral and its prominent statue of Paul Bert, one of the founders of France’s secular school system, Auxerre seems to encapsulate French history. Half-timbered houses line picturesque riverbanks. Vines roll across the surrounding countryside.

“Auxerre is the typical French provincial town,” said Crescent Marault, the mayor.

So typical, in fact, that for the past 40 years the Burgundy town has consistently voted for the winning presidential candidate, mirroring results at the national level and making the town a political bellwether of sorts.

Today, like much of France, Auxerre has experienced a shift to the right, the result of a malaise that stems in part from the difficulties of getting a job in the provincial town, and stagnant earnings for those who are employed — as well as from less tangible fears over immigration and crime.

Mr. Marault, the right-wing mayor, came to office in 2020 by beating the former socialist mayor of 19 years. He said insecurity was a growing concern for his constituents.

“It’s as if some people let themselves be intoxicated by the comments on a national scale,” he said. “But frankly, we cannot consider that Auxerre is a city where there is insecurity.” The crime rate in Auxerre is higher than the national average but far below that in Paris.

This drift rightward has been accompanied by growing disillusionment with politics as a whole. Many people seem to have given up on the idea that political change can make any difference to their lives.

“The presidential election is a moment of polarization of media attention, but is not found in people’s daily lives,” said Benoît Coquard, a sociologist who specializes in rural life. “It’s important to see this gap between the media bubble and what is actually happening in the lives of people who are uninterested in it.”

Valentine Souyri, 38, a bus driver who was watching her children at a playground, said that “the problem is not immigration.”

“The problem is that the people who want power don’t know what it’s like to be down here,” said Ms. Souyri, who never fails to vote in elections. But this time, she’s unsure.

“None of them talks about what we are really interested in,” she said. “I’ve been looking for an ophthalmologist for my son for a year, I haven’t had a dentist for two years. Here we have nothing, it’s a desert.”

“My parents were minimum-wage earners too, but they got by more,” Ms. Souyri added, echoing persistent concerns in France that social mobility is broken and social protections are diminishing.

She once told her son, who wanted to become a member of the National Assembly, that “you are a child of a minimum-wage earner, you will be one, your children and grandchildren will too. Welcome to France!”

Such frustration over a future perceived as bleak explains some of the shift toward political extremes. In the 2020 first round of regional elections, the far-right National Rally party was second in Auxerre, with 20 percent of the votes — up from 9.3 percent in the first round of the 2007 presidential election.

Émilie Pauron, 37, also a bus driver in Auxerre, has voted for Marine Le Pen, the National Rally’s leader, in every presidential election since 2012.

“The state has no money, and there are French people in the countryside who are starving,” Ms. Pauron said as she watched over her daughter — whose father is Congolese — at the same playground on the outskirts of town. “And those who arrive,” she added, alluding to immigrants, “we give them everything. We must stop.”

Many in Auxerre mentioned the rising cost of living as their main concern. A recent poll shows a similar feeling at the national level, with 51 percent of French rating purchasing power as their main source of concern, well before immigration.

Like in many medium-sized towns of so-called “peripheral France,” Auxerre suffered from the closing of a factory in 1990s — in this case, one that made woodworking tools and used to be among the area’s main employers. Now cut off from the main centers of population and employment, the town is experiencing the disconnect from the governing elite in Paris that drove the Yellow Vest movement three years ago.

With less than three months to go before the April vote, the presidential campaign is feverishly discussed in the French media.

On the right, polls show between 12 and 18 percent support for Ms. Le Pen; a far-right rival, Éric Zemmour; and Valérie Pécresse, the candidate of France’s established conservative party, Les Républicains. They are fighting to unseat President Emmanuel Macron, a centrist, who is leading the polls with 24 percent. The left, hopelessly splintered, has no candidate with more than 10 percent.

In the 2007 presidential election, a majority in Auxerre voted for Nicolas Sarkozy — 31 percent in the first round and around 52 percent in the second one, matching the nationwide figures.

In the first round of the 2012 election, too, Auxerre voted in the same proportions for the main candidates as at the national level. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, from the hard left, won 11 percent, Ms. Le Pen 17 percent and François Hollande, the socialist who would be elected, roughly 30. In 2017, Mr. Macron came out on top in Auxerre in the first round with 25 percent.

If Auxerre is a bellwether, it seem curiously detached in this election. For many people, the vote seems to feel as distant and irrelevant as Paris and the elites who live there.

Guy Roux, 83, a former trainer who brought Auxerre’s soccer club to glory in the 1990s, guiding it to its only French league title, said he understood residents who longed for the era before local companies were shuttered by global economic competition.

“When Zemmour talks about deindustrialization, he describes it well,” Mr. Roux said of the far-right polemicist who has upended the campaign with his apocalyptic anti-immigrant view of a declining France.

“And Auxerre is in the thick of it,” Mr. Roux added. “He is somewhat right, but he exaggerates.”

Not everyone is sold by Mr. Zemmour’s nostalgic vision of 1950s France, though.

“Given his ideas and his mentality, I think he is not from our time,” said Doumbia Yacou, 39, who works in security.

“Of course we’re interested in politics. But when I watch Zemmour, it’s immigration, always immigration,” said Kader Djemaa, 51, an unemployed father of three, in a downtown cafe.

“But nothing is changing for us here, for the people” he said.

“We don’t follow anything at all in the election because we’re not interested,” said Cindie Bourgeois, 38, standing in line on a recent afternoon in front of a bakery.

She and her husband didn’t remember voting in any recent presidential election, and had no plans to do so this time.

“It’s not even a topic at home,” Ms. Bourgeois said of the election.

In interviews, residents voiced concerns like frustration with noisy urban rodeos on the central square — a product of Saturday night boredom, with the local nightclub closed because of Covid restrictions. They fretted about rising gas prices, especially since many shop at a mall on the outskirts of the town, and over the future of their children, in a city where few find jobs.

Brigitte Dutoit, 64, born and raised in Auxerre, has managed a high-end lingerie store in the city center for the past 27 years. She usually votes on the right, but this time is different.

“I don’t think I’m even going to vote, or if I do, it will be blank,” she said, adding that she felt the voice of the people was never heard.

In 2017, she gave her vote to Mr. Macron, hoping for change. But like many here, she does not feel that her life has improved over the past five years. The government’s handling of the Covid crisis disappointed her even more. “They lied to us a lot,” she said.

“I like to do my civic duty but I’m disgusted,” she added. “Really, really disgusted.”



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