Voters in northern France wooed by Marine Le Pen’s cost of living policies | French presidential election 2022

Jordan Fievez was sitting at the kitchen table of his rented home in a Picardy village, worrying about fuel prices. “Halfway through the month, I’m already overdrawn,” he said of rising bills and the cost of diesel for his 50km round trip to work.

The 27-year-old works in a factory making one of France’s store-cupboard favourites, dried mashed potato mix. He is one of those workers Emmanuel Macron praised for “feeding the nation” during the Covid pandemic. But even with Macron’s €100 handout for “inflation compensation” and the government’s cap on gas and electricity prices – which has kept French prices from rising as fast as in most other European countries – Fievez felt “exhausted” by the struggle to make ends meet . With two children and a partner who earns the minimum wage at a sport shop in a distant town, “it seems like we’re working just to pay for fuel costs to get to work”, he said. In this rural area with few services, it was a 10km drive just to buy milk.

Fievez says he will vote for the far-right Marine Le Pen as president this Sunday. Just over 60% of his village, Solente, had voted Le Pen in the first-round on 10 April, after her promises to lower VAT on basic goods amid the cost of living crisis. “All across the north, people can’t stand it any more, we’re barely surviving – there has to be change,” Fievez said. “Macron is the president of the rich.”

The Hauts de France northern region of France, stretching from the cereal fields of Picardy through the de-industrialised former mining heartlands and up to the Calais coast, has come to symbolize both Le Pen’s support base among workers and the centrist Macron’s challenges to winning re-election on 24 April. Macron is leading the polls by 56% to Le Pen’s 44%. But, with a potentially low turnout, the gap could be far closer than when he beat Le Pen five years ago with 66%. For the first time in the more than 40-year history of the French far right, Le Pen is seen as having a distant chance of winning, in what the French government spokesperson warned this week was a risk of a “Brexit-style” earthquake .

Macron, seeking to show he is not afraid of hearing people’s despair, has deliberately traveled north and east to Le Pen’s heartlands to get up close to angry voters – “within slapping distance”, as observers called it. “You’re arrogant, you look down on us, you’re cynical, machiavellian, you’re a manipulator and you’re a liar,” said one man in the Bas-Rhin who had voted Macron in 2017, but would now switch to Le Pen. “I’m very aware of the divisions in society,” Macron said in Carvin in northern France.

The challenge for Macron’s canvassers was persuading voters of his improvements to the economy – that he had lowered unemployment, capped energy prices, cut taxes and begun to create more industrial jobs in France after decades of factory closures. In the northern mining town of Lens, where unemployment was at 14% when Macron took office and has now dropped to 10%, Le Pen still topped the poll in the first round.

“We have a society that is fractured between the bottom of the pyramid and the top,” said Macron’s ally, François Bayrou. But the picture is more complex than a simple divide between lower-income workers choosing Le Pen and managers and pensioners choosing Macron. Pollsters warn of growing disillusionment and dissatisfaction with the political class. More than 12 million voters did not turn up to the ballot box in the first round.

The bitter final fight between the pro-European, pro-business Macron and the far-right, anti-immigration, Russia-friendly Le Pen has become a contest over which candidate attracts the most hostility. The more than 7 million voters who in the first-round thing the hard-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon, including students, young people and low-income workers in urban areas, hold the key to the vote. Macron needs a large part of them to back him to keep back Le Pen. Some say they are too hostile to Macron to vote for him, others will abstain. Failing to turn out to vote, warned the Macron ally Christophe Castaner, was like playing “Russian roulette” with the prospect of a far-right presidency.

Polling shows that Le Pen’s support is more than a simple protest vote, with growing numbers adhering to her promises to address the cost of living crisis, which is voters’ main concern and will influence the final vote.

Pascal Patte
Pascal Patté has suffered from his falling purchasing power and will vote for Marine Le Pen in the runoff, as he did in the first round and usually does. Photograph: Sameer Al-Doumy/The Guardian

In the Picardy village of Beaulieu-les-Fontaines, Pascal Patté, 58, was another of Macron’s everyday heroes who had kept the country fed during the pandemic. He was an increasingly rare phenomenon in France: a village baker. People in less populated areas of France now have to travel an average of 2.2km to buy bread, the French Senate warned recently, as village shops close owing to competition from hypermarkets.

“I’m at the end of my rope,” said Patté, 58, arranging the baguettes. “In the first two weeks of lockdown in 2020, I sold more than 80 baguettes a day and record amounts of flour and yeast to people who wanted to bake at home. But now I’m back to the struggle. At 7am today, I put out 15 baguettes, by 11am, I’d only sold six.”

Patté is the only baker in a 12km to 15km radius and travels to put his baguettes in vending machines in other villages. “I love my profession, I started baking at 15,” he said. But with fuel prices and costs, he has had to take out a government-backed loan to stay afloat. He saw a vote for Marine Le Pen as a solution. “We have to try something different in France, we need change, we can’t go on struggling,” he said. In his village, Le Pen took 50% of the first-round vote.

Theo Savard
Théo Savard benefited from Macron’s increased youth training schemes, but he now favors Le Pen because of his zero income tax promise. Photograph: Sameer Al-Doumy/The Guardian

Théo Savard, aged 20, symbolized what Macron considers one of his key successes in five years – increasing youth training schemes. An apprentice panel-beater, Savard worked in the bodyshop of a local garage. But he too wanted to change. He had seen the difficulties of the pandemic as his sister was a nurse and his mother worked in a care home for elderly people. He now worries about being able to afford to move out of his parents’ home and the petrol costs to get to work or see his girlfriend, a trainee hairdresser in a big town. He said he was open to Mélenchon’s ideas and did not share Le Pen’s anti-immigration positions or her promise to ban the Muslim headscarf. But he didn’t find her dangerous. He would vote Le Pen for change and because of her promise of zero income tax for people under 30.

“When Macron came to power he was young and said he’d change things, but it seems like he’s done more for rich people than normal people,” Savard said. “It’s not about voting for extremes, it’s that people in rural areas can’t get by.”

Farther north, in the Somme city of Amiens, where Macron grew up, Mélenchon had topped the first-round polls.

Capucine, 23, who had a chemical engineering degree and a future in scientific research, did not vote in the first round. She was radically opposed to the far right, but also angry at Macron’s personal opposition to extending the time-limit on abortion and felt he showed “disdain” to the working class. “I think I’ll use a proxy vote because I can’t bring myself personally to touch a ballot paper with Macron’s name on it,” she said.

Julie, 19, and two fellow law students outside the university buildings, had voted Mélenchon but would now vote Le Pen. “We’re too angry at Macron. He hasn’t done enough to support students. I don’t think Le Pen is a danger, she won’t actually be able to go as far as banning Muslim headscarves or changing the French constitution to lessen foreigners’ rights.”

Barbara Pompili, Macron’s environment minister, who grew up in a former mining area in the north, was canvassing on the streets of Amiens about the danger of the far right. “People don’t see this election as won, there are a lot of people who are still hesitating,” she said. “I think there’s a real need to rebuild trust between the politicians and citizens on the ground.” She felt that the words “far right” would once have mobilized a kneejerk tactical vote by left and right to keep out the extremes, but that no longer worked. As she handed out leaflets, she warned that Le Pen would worsen climate change and “the far right have never brought prosperity to a country”.

Unemployment in the area had dropped from 12% to 9% during Macron’s presidency, and several people voiced their support of his handling of the Covid crisis and the war in Ukraine. “It’s absolutely essential to vote Macron to keep out the far right,” said Martine, 28, who works with children with disabilities.

But most often Pompili stood talking to those who intended to abstain. “Neither Macron nor Le Pen, I can’t bring myself to vote,” said a 19-year-old seeking an apprenticeship in childcare. “I’m not saying Macron is perfect, I’m saying Marine Le Pen is a disaster,” Pompili said.

On the Pigonnier estate, in one of the poorest areas of northern Amiens, Mohammed ran a market fruit stall, and had noticed customers buying less fruit and vegetables as prices rose. He had voted Mélenchon in the first round but would now abstain. “Five years ago, I voted Macron and I was disappointed, I just can’t do it again.”

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