Interesting to see how the Front National has gained ground here in Provence during the recent presidential and legislative elections.
I drove to Pernes-les-Fontaines yesterday morning, continuing my difficult relationship with the Caisse d'Epargne. Caisse d'Epargne is the bank where I chose to open an account when I first moved to France. I based my decision solely on the fact that they have the prettiest building of any bank in Isle-sur-la-Sorgue and I thought, if you must deal with a bank, at least choose one where it's a pleasure to walk up the steps and through the door. As Julia Roberts said in her film Pretty Woman: big mistake, huge.
There are plenty of staff in the banks' branches. They just don't serve the customers very often. I see them tootling about kissing each other in the mornings and chatting while glum clients stand in long queues. The technology doesn't work very well either. The ATM can give you a ticket telling you what transactions have gone through your account, and another telling you how much you have left. But for some reason you can't get a ticket telling you both on the same piece of paper. There's a Deposit function at the ATM in Pernes, but not in L'Isle, but sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes it takes your cash and gives you a receipt. Sometimes the function simply disappears from the menu (usually when you need to put money in to cover the mortgage) and sometimes it takes your money and tells you something went wrong, doesn't return it and doesn't give you a receipt. It still usually turns up in your account about two weeks later but even so, there's always an element of gambling when you bank with Caisse d'Epargne. Sometimes you win, sometimes you don't and it's always unpredictable.
I digress, but just to explain why I drove to Pernes around 48 hours after hearing that Marion Maréchal Le Pen - niece of Marine Le Pen and granddaughter of doughty old fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen - had won the local election there, in the constituency around Carpentras.
Maréchal Le Pen, spearheading the new generation of Lepenistes in France, is a 22-year-old law student with no connection to her new constituency, to the Vaucluse or Provence. Yet she simply walked into the region and beat the incumbent UMP député, Jean-Michel Ferrand, who has been elected and re-elected there since 1988.
True, she's very pretty and has a winning smile. But that's not why she won. It's highly likely that her voters, in their thousands, voted Front National *despite* the candidate being Maréchal Le Pen. These FN voters are builders and carpenters, hard-headed small businessmen, practical housewives and a fair number of professionals. They're unemployed youth and hard-up pensioners. Unlikely to vote for a pretty face, they were not put off by her youth and inexperience either. Nor were they making a protest vote. As Marion herself said in a post-election interview, these were votes of conviction. The people in this part of the Vaucluse, she commented, made a positive choice to vote FN.
It's not hard to understand why. Arriving in Pernes I was surprised to see brightly-coloured posters, everywhere, which said (in French obviously): "Thankyou, everyone. Marion".
Within hours of the result, the FN had its members out flyposting to thank voters. And ahead of the election they'd had the posters printed in order to be ready.
When did you ever hear of such a thing? An elected representative publicly thanking voters in this way? I've never seen that before. Have you? Too often, once the candidate has your votes, he or she is off to a well-heeled life without so much as a goodbye.
And that gesture by the FN was quite revealing. They've understood that many voters, particularly in Provence which has its own set of problems, are sick of mainstream politicians, find them completely out of touch and contemptuous of the voters who elect them. The FN's populist approach is to connect with people's daily concerns in a way that the UMP has clearly failed to do throughout France.
The new, and youngest-ever, député demonstrated this when interviewed after winning the election. When she was asked by the TV presenter what main issue she would be raising in the Assembly, you could almost hear the intake of breath in the studio. Surely she would say "Immigrants!" She didn't. Without missing a beat she said: "Le pouvoir d'achat." Spending power. And went on to talk about the financial pressure her voters are dealing with.
The strategy of keying into local concerns and taking notice of voters has paid off for the FN in Provence and more widely in France. They cannot be entirely dismissed as a fringe party now. Certainly they are still the extreme right, but they're working hard to broaden their appeal.
The defeated UMP candidate in Carpentras, Jean-Michel Ferrand, made a string of errors in his election campaign regarding Le Pen. He dismissed his young rival as irrelevant. He wasn't simply complacent - he oozed complacency. This young girl, he said, knew nothing about the Vaucluse. She would parachute in from the north, eat a few cherries, and go away again. That contempt was dangerously close to contempt for his voters. I've got them in the bag, he was saying. No young pretender can beat me.
He was wrong and it must have been a shock to him to lose. He didn't understand that 'his' voters could quite easily vote, not for an inexperienced student, but for the policies of the FN. And against the policies of the UMP.
The fact that they did just that on the day of the election shows how much ground the UMP has lost in this area. And how effectively the extreme right can exploit the complacency of mainstream parties when economic crisis comes together with social malaise and fear of the future. The right wing in France will not necessarily see off the FN by insulting or deriding them. Nor will the left. They will all have to take on the arguments of the Lepenistes and defeat them.
Fed up with politics? Relax and read Present Tense then: