Jhe Burgundy-Franche Comté regional express train departing from Paris only takes 74 minutes to reach Joigny on the banks of the Yonne in northern Burgundy. Here, the fringes of the capital’s suburban belt meet the countryside among the narrow streets of half-timbered houses and medieval churches, surrounded by fields and the vineyards of the Côte Saint-Jacques.
For decades, the largely agricultural region was fertile ground for many shades of the French left – the Resistance and later socialist President Francois Mitterrand had roots in Burgundy. Today, this is where French socialism pretty much stops the slide of popular support to the far right.
Ten years ago, France’s centre-left Socialist Party (PS) was the engine of French politics: it had a president, François Hollande; a majority in both chambers of parliament, the National Assembly and the Senate; and control of most of the main local authorities in the country.
Now, less than two weeks from the first round of the presidential election, with its candidate Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, trailing in the latest polls at 1.5% (below a sheep farmer named Jean Lassalle and to the Communist Party candidate Fabien Roussel), the mainstream left is in an electoral black hole leaving its voters facing what they call a brain teaser – a big headache.
Do they vote in principle for a left-wing candidate even if opinion polls suggest that none have the slightest chance of qualifying for the second round (except perhaps Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a charismatic figure of the extreme left currently in third position but considered too radical by many)? Are they voting for Emmanuel Macron to repel far-right Marine Le Pen? Or do they stay home and not vote at all?
Sitting in his mayor’s office overlooking the Yonne in Joigny, Nicolas Soret is resigned to the presidential defeat of his party. “Like you, I can only see that winning this election does not seem possible,” he said diplomatically and, as a supporter of Hidalgo, with regret. Locally, Soret, a popular mayor, can be congratulated for having achieved a political feat that proved impossible at the national level: in the last municipal and departmental elections, he brought together a range of left-wing candidates – including Greens and communists – to elect the extreme right.
“We realized that if we didn’t join forces, we could only lose,” says Soret. “So we got together and agreed on a local agenda, based on local issues and local knowledge and that’s why it worked. I really don’t think it’s possible at the national level, but on the ground the left is still there, the voters are still there and the elected officials are still there. We have shown that there are leftist voters. Sometimes you have to dig a little deeper to find them, but they are there.
Joigny has become the symbol of France peripheral, a term used to refer to the territorial divide between the city and the countryside whose populations have been left behind: excluded from jobs, public services, access to high-speed Internet and – because they are more dependent on the car – among the hardest hit by soaring living costs.
It was one of the first places Hidalgo visited when he launched his campaign, declaring it typical of a sick, rural and semi-rural France full of people worried about their future in ways those in the cities didn’t understand. not.
“Factories and businesses have closed and have not been replaced, public services are gone, the city center is deserted, young people can no longer find work opportunities and their parents are worried,” he said. she said afterwards.
The Joviniens, as the 9,500 inhabitants of the commune call themselves, have good reason to feel sidelined, having borne the brunt of the major administrative reorganizations of the past two decades. For 260 years it was a garrison town, but in 2010 the right-wing government of Francois Fillon sent the local regiment to Alsace in eastern France and overnight it lost 410 military and civilians of the army who injected about 80% of their total annual income of 7.8 million euros. in the local economy. Then the city also lost its magistrates and its commercial courts, as well as the maternity and surgical departments of the hospital. Its treasury and tax offices and its police station have all been reduced. In 2008, the Stypen factory, a subsidiary of Bic, manufacturing fountain pens for school children in the country, closed its doors, putting 61 local women, most of them middle-aged, on technical unemployment. A 2011 Senate report described Joigny as the “martyr town” of right-wing government policy.
“Everything was done without any consultation with us,” Soret says of the administrative changes. “It was imposed on us. We were the city that got hit over the head again and again.
“Ten years ago we were on our knees and we are slowly getting back on our feet. But this led to a certain fatalism in the population which fueled the far-right vote.
Marcel Reynaud, the owner of Couleurs Leroux, which has been supplying high-quality pigments and oil paints to artists – including Salvador Dalí – for 112 years, says he hears a lot about his support for the National Rally (RN ) far-right Le Pen. .
“In the road [truckers’] In the cafes, it is a question of how they will vote RN because they feel that their social protections, their remuneration, their hours, their conditions are increasingly degraded. It’s very strange, because they are traditional left-wing voters. It seems that they no longer believe in the sincerity of the PS or, more importantly, in its ability to improve their lives.
“These people who vote RN are not ‘fascists’; they vote RN because they do not feel that the PS has protected them or improved their situation.
Reynaud, 61, worries about homelessness, poverty, social justice, inequality and the undervaluation of essential workers such as nurses and teachers. He backs the idea of a universal minimum income – the Socialist candidate’s key pledge in 2017 – but says he’s not sure who he’ll vote for this time around. He is not alone.
With the presidential campaign so far hijacked by the far right and its obsession with the three i’s – Islam, immigration and integration – moderate left-wing voters feel politically orphaned and there could be worse to come. If Hidalgo fails to reach 5% in the first round, his campaign expenses will not be reimbursed by the state, leaving the PS in a financial crisis just before the June legislative elections.
Political analysts say the left in France, as elsewhere in Europe, has suffered from a tectonic shift to the right driven by populism. For the mainstream left – sometimes called the “governmental left” – the spiral began during Hollande’s single term from 2012 to 2017, when he was accused of tarnishing the party’s credentials with a neoliberal agenda. After the 2017 presidential election, when the PS candidate failed to qualify for the second round – a disaster also suffered by centre-right Les Républicains – it was clear that the mainstream left had lost the vote. workers in favor of the extreme right, the radical vote in Mélenchon and the moderate left either in the new centrist party of Macron or in the Greens.
Thomas Guénolé, a left-wing political scientist, argues that Mélenchon made a “monumental mistake” after it was clear the PS vote had dispersed. “He should have adapted his speech, gathered everyone on the left around him and rebuilt left unity behind him. Instead, he radicalized it and lost the moderate left.
“In 2017, everyone was asking Mélenchon to do it and he fired them bluntly.”
Manon Aubry, 32, co-president of La Gauche in the European Parliament where she is a MEP and activist of La France Insoumise de Mélenchon, believes that the PS is at the end of its political life and that it is time for the French left to regroup around a new, more radical vision. That Mélenchon is slowly rising in the latest polls suggests some voters agree.
“For people of my generation, the PS has nothing to say or to offer. We are at a turning point for the left in France. This does not mean that socialist ideas are dead, but they must be reborn in a new political force,” Aubry told the Guardian.
“Our message for this election is that we must eliminate the far right in the first round, then we can have a real debate on two completely opposite visions of society, that of Emmanuel Macron and that of Jean-Luc Melenchon.”
Back in Joigny, Reynaud, like many others, is still wondering who to vote for in the first round. “Maybe Mélenchon,” he said. “Maybe the Greens.
“For me, it’s not about right or left, it’s about addressing issues that concern people, namely poverty and the future of the planet. How can we live in a country with people who have such wealth, when there are people on the street with no house above their head, nothing to eat… that’s what I want someone one responds.