Weary and worried, French voters are in unpredictable mood

All across the village, people are quick to mention sudden price hikes that belie the official inflation rate of just 4.5 per cent.

A local builder said he’d just been notified of a 12 per cent price increase for plaster. The nearest winemaker faces a 53-percent rise in the cost of glass bottles.

Diesel prices at the local supermarket hover near €2 (US$2.18) a litre, up around 20 per cent since the start of the year.

“We’re going out less and we’re not sure what we’re going to do for the holidays,” said 37-year-old Sarah Lesage, a nurse and mother-of-four.

‘COULD BE WORSE’

Conversations with the voters of Donzy suggested Sunday’s first-round and the second-round run-off on Apr 24 will be won or lost by the candidates seen as most trusted to find solutions.

Though early campaigning was dominated by anti-immigration rhetoric from “France’s Trump” – new far-right candidate Eric Zemmour – polls overwhelmingly show that household spending is the priority now.

Although there was little fervor for Macron in Donzy, there was clear respect by some, admiration even, for his role as the country’s crisis-manager-in-chief.

“With everything that’s going on, at least we have a president that seems to have his head firmly on his shoulders,” said Jacqueline Vincent, 69, clutching baguettes outside a bakery.

“It could be a lot worse.”

Many are grateful for the €100 billion rescue plan announced in September 2020 that has sent the national debt rocketing but has trickled down to places like Donzy.

Four local bars, where people gather over a glass of wine at the end of the day, were kept afloat by government aid through the lockdowns.

“I say ‘Thank you Mr Macron’ for everything I got,” 67-year-old waitress Martine said, adding that her employer had been repeatedly shut during the lockdowns. “I had seven months of salary paid by the state.”

LE PEN’S GAIN

But Macron, a former investment banker, has also earned a reputation for arrogance and high-handedness that is particularly resented in small towns and villages.

A 2018 revolt against him by so-called “Yellow Vest” protesters was sparked as much by his abrasive personality as his pro-business policies and tax cuts for the wealthy.

Distracted by his diplomatic efforts with Russia and Ukraine, he only started campaigning two weeks ago.

Le Pen meanwhile has spent months shaking hands at provincial markets and agricultural fairs, focusing on the issue now on everyone’s minds: inflation and incomes.

“Between Macron and us, it’s a choice between the power of money that benefits the few, and household purchasing power that benefits the many,” she said recently, promising more tax cuts and social spending.

Her decision not to play up fears about Muslim immigration to France, her traditional rallying cry, has helped soften her image.

And she has hammered Macron in recent weeks on the record two billion euros spent on management consultancies during his term, an issue that appeared to be cutting through in Donzy.

HATE SPEECH

Le Pen, 53, has also been helped by Zemmour in her quest to detoxify her image.

Having spent a decade trying to erase her party’s reputation for racism and its association with its violent neo-Nazi fringe, Le Pen found an ideal foil in Zemmour.

The best-selling author of books such as “French Suicide” has several convictions for racist hate speech and wants to deport a million foreigners.

A picture of him giving the finger to a protester in Marseille last November reinforced his image as a cranky political maverick.

“Compared to him, everyone looks like a moderate,” said Arnaud Mercier, an expert on political communication at Paris Pantheon-Assas University.

Polls suggest Zemmour will score around 10 percent in Sunday’s vote, but he has opened up new political space for Le Pen.

He has also normalized the idea of ​​the “Great Replacement”, a white supremacist conspiracy theory suggesting indigenous Europeans are being deliberately replaced by immigrants.

“He’s dangerous in that he encourages conflicts and feeds off hatred,” former Socialist president Francois Hollande said last year.

OLD CERTAINTIES

Mayor Lurier, a retired social housing administrator, is frustrated that the left-wing Socialists have failed to reinvent themselves since Hollande lost power in 2017.

She regrets the decline of France’s two traditional political parties, which have been peripheral in this campaign, and is unconvinced by hard-left populist Jean-Luc Melenchon.

The former Trotskyist is the leading left-winger in a race that could still spring a surprise on Sunday.

“Political parties, whether of the left or the right, provided a framework and the fact that we don’t have that any more means that things are breaking down,” said Lurier.

Socialist candidate Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, is polling around two percent.

The nominee for the once mighty right-wing Republicans party, Valerie Pecresse, is trending downwards on around 10 percent in fourth or fifth position.

‘NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE’

Worried by the biggest war in Europe since 1945 and the largest inflation crisis since the 1970s, France’s election is now seen as highly unpredictable.

Polls show around a quarter of voters are unsure of who to vote for on Sunday, and the same proportion might abstain in what would be a record.

The country appears to be heading for another run-off between Macron and Le Pen, who faced each other in 2017 not long after Britain had voted for Brexit and the United States had elected Donald Trump.

With Le Pen breathing down his neck, Macron has been trying to rally voters by sounding the alarm that his promise of continuity and steady leadership might not be enough.

“Look at what happened with Brexit, and so many other elections: what looked improbable actually happened,” he warned at his first rally last weekend.

“Nothing is impossible,” he added.

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