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Rural unease ahead of French presidential vote

A cow in a cow shed close to the source of the Seine in eastern France

As France heads towards its most unpredictable election in decades, politicians are preparing to visit the annual agricultural show in Paris this weekend. It’s a key event in the election calendar, because the French countryside is still an important part of the national identity – and the election campaign.

It’s not easy to talk politics against the bellowing of an amorous bull. But then the needs of the countryside have often jarred with France’s political elite.

“It’s spring,” his owner, Alain, says. “And we’ve opened the shed: he can see the cows…”

Spring also heralds the French presidential election. And the main candidates are gearing up to do their tour of duty this weekend at the Paris Agricultural Show.

Every presidential contender has lined up to be photographed with a cow and a pint of beer.

Jacques Chirac looked famously at home there, Nicolas Sarkozy visibly less so.

Rural idylls are France’s national brand. Governments might change, but the countryside, so the story goes, does not. And at election time, every politician wants to be the farmers’ friend.

In the countryside itself, though, there are those who are weary of this kind of friendship.

The small town of Chatillon sits in a corner of Burgundy – with its grand heritage of food and wine.

Image caption Hubert Brigand, Mayor of Chatillon, says there is now a “two-tier France”

Chatillon has had a centre-right mayor for 22 years now. But since 2010, the far-right National Front (FN) has doubled its share of the vote, both in the town and the wider region, to almost 30%.

Mayor Hubert Brigand puts that down to a lack of support for the rural economy, which he says is creating a “two-tier France”.

“The big politicians don’t care about the rural economy,” he told me. “No economy means no jobs, and no jobs means fewer people. Those who live here feel abandoned.

“We’ve seen one government after another, and none of them have reversed this trend. People don’t believe they have a future in the countryside, and this has an impact on their vote: they’re fed up, and they don’t believe in traditional parties.”

An hour’s drive away, Philippe Bertrand’s small dairy farm sits at the source of a trickling stream called the River Seine, which swells and widens as it flows down to Paris.

Mr Bertrand has been a farmer here for 25 years, and his parents before him. The cow-shed and the barn filled with straw look as if they’ve hardly changed. But, with growing competition over milk prices, Mr Bertrand says he’s been running at a loss for years.

Rural votes are an important battleground in this election, especially in right-wing areas such as this. A crisis in French farming, dwindling public services and now a financial scandal in the centre-right Republican party are pushing some voters towards the National Front.

Mr Bertrand is not planning to vote for the National Front, but he says some here are quietly turning to the far-right nationalist party for answers.

“If there’s one idea that sparks interest, it’s the idea of turning inwards: the nationalist spirit, closing of borders, protectionism, limiting the movement of people,” he said. “You don’t see many FN voters here. It’s a vote that appears in the ballot boxes, but it isn’t openly expressed.”

Image caption The bridge over the Seine at Chatillon in Burgundy

Travel west from Burgundy and you hit some of rural France’s left-wing strongholds. The town of Tulle – where President Hollande was once Mayor – is so attached to the Socialist leader, they wanted him to run again. Even so, many here are now looking away from the established party towards new political alternatives.

One Socialist councillor has already declared he’s shifting his support to liberal newcomer Emmanuel Macron. A recent meeting to discuss Mr Macron’s proposals was packed, he said: “It would be hard for the Socialists to fill a room like that.”

But even here in this left-wing region, the National Front came away with 20% of the votes in the last regional election, in 2015. And it’s not hard to find people who understand why.

“There are good and bad things with Marine Le Pen,” one woman told me in the weekly market. “With her we rediscover a France worthy of the name. But she scares people a little, so let’s see.”

“It would be a good thing to reduce immigration,” another shopper said. “We take care of immigrants who have just arrived here better than our own homeless people.”

A short drive away, in a low-roofed building on a small industrial estate, a team of 14 workers make France’s Maugein accordions. They sell for up to 15,000 euros (£13,000) each – painstakingly made by hand, one instrument per day.

These days, old French traditions such as this don’t stay in the villages. These accordions find their way to China. Globalisation is now the great dividing line in French politics – seen by some as stealing their future, by others as delivering it.

Image caption Maugein’s handmade accordions are now available in China

Workers here say globalisation hasn’t done much for the region, except for here at the factory. Manager Richard Brandao says he’s pro-globalisation, even though his accordions are taxed by China at 35% to protect Chinese producers.

“I say yes to globalisation,” he told me, “because we have to compensate for shrinking sales in France, and the fall in buying power and confidence here. That’s why we want to sell abroad.”

France, he says, needs an “electric shock” to its economy.

“Our clients suffer from a lack of confidence and that has an impact on sales. They don’t trust in the future, or even know what the future will look like, so they delay buying anything.”

The divisions across the rest of France are clear here in the rural areas, too.

Small businesses, farmers, young unemployed all have their complaints.

With growing disappointment in established parties, polls suggest that Marine Le Pen will make it to the second round of France’s presidential election, though will struggle to win.

With no political allies, it’s proved impossible in the past for her to gather up 50% of the nation’s votes.

But the relationship between France’s rural heartland and its political elites is changing.

Farmers say that mainstream politicians like their countryside traditional – but want the benefits of globalisation, too.

Marine Le Pen may be divisive, but she’s promising to protect French borders, French people, the old way of doing things.

Her promise is alluring to many, that France’s model doesn’t need to change.

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