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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Monday, 23 April 2012

The French Elections: a village perspective

On St George's Day, we have the results of yesterday's presidential elections in France.  The final standoff in May will be between Hollande and Sarkozy.  It is the first time in recent history that an incumbent president has not come out in front at round one.  Hollande has the edge, not least because the larger centre and left parties will throw their weight behind him. The real shock of Sunday was the perfromance of the far right Front Nationale: Le Pen secured almost 20% of the national vote.  This is deeply worrying for France and for Europe: France could be a bellwether for the rest of us.  And it is worrying for Sarkozy because it's far from clear that even he turns up the anti-immigration rhetoric, these anti-European, anti-Euro voters will switch allegiance to him at round 2.

On our hill-top in France as in every town and village, bill-boards went up 2 weeks ago with affiches for all the election candidates. Each candidate had their own board.  In an intended or unintended irony Sarkozy and Le Pen occupied spaces at the left hand end of the line, while Hollande was well out on the right.  I know this because the faces of these politicians were staring directly into our house: they greeted us as we opened the shutters each morning and eyeballed us each time we went out.  They were installed by 'official election poster officers' (as their yellow vests proclaimed them to be).  By Friday when we departed, Hollande's had already been defaced - only lightly (it might have been someone sharpening a tool on his physiognomy).  But it indicates the right-wing tendencies of our department.  Sarkozy expected to do well here, and he did. 

In France, the President is directly elected by the nation's voters, not by deputies.  The electoral college is each commune: every city, town or village.  The statutory election posters set up in every commune are supposed to inspire Athenian-style political debate in the streets and squares.  I can confidently say (since the supposed agora was opposite our front door) that hardly anybody even stopped to look at them let alone stand there and argue.  I did watch one pair of young men walk up the line of candidates discussing each one, but the way they were pointing to their faces and hair-styles suggests that this was not a profound political expression of the demos at work. If it had been an impassioned political debate, we would have known about it: you can hear most of what passes in the street from inside our sitting room.

I was in fact struck by how little debate there seemed to be in the village in the 2 weeks before the election.  Despite the barrage of media coverage, villagers did not seem preoccupied with the political and economic future of their country.  So it was a surprise to learn last night that the turnout in the village was as high as 80% of the 300 or so souls who have a vote.  This seemed typical of small villages in that part of France from what I have been able to ascertain.  It was no surprise that Sarkozy came out in front, though his lead over Hollande was not huge.  It was a relief to know that Le Pen only achieved 10% of the vote, half the national average. 

If Hollande makes it, as seems likely, what effect will his tax-and-spend policies have on the village?  No-one knows.  Local concerns will be: how will it affect rural unemployment and poverty?  Will small local business thrive or wither further?  What effect will it have on agriculture?  Will there be more or fewer tourists and will they have more to spend or less?  And since the village is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, will there be more cash for the maintenance of historic buildings? I think it's fair to say that on the hill no-one is holding their breath.  The most eloquent body language in front of the posters last week was the Gallic pff and shrug of the shoulders.  I doubt that will change.

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