The French presidential election is off to a fine start in Provence, with the usual mudslinging and waffle that accompany political campaigns. Candidates Sarkozy, Marine le Pen and Hollande have all been duffing each other up in Marseille, whipping their respective audiences into a frenzy of enthusiasm, adulation and flag waving. Hollande had his crowd singing La Marseillaise after telling them he loved Marseille because it was the town that gave France its national anthem.
Sarkozy, for the UMP, made a rather strange appeal to his supporters at the Parc Chanot in France's violent second city. With people being slaughtered on the streets and housing estates in the casually murderous Marseille drug wars - kalashnikovs and drive-by killings y compris - you might think he'd offer something in the way of help to citizens trying to go about their business in a hail of bullets.Yet he asked the people of Marseille and France to help him. "Aidez-moi!" he cried. To which a voter might reply: "You're missing the point."
Front National leader and presidential candidate Marine le Pen pitched up at the same hall soon after Sarkozy, confident in the support she has in the south of France. Aiming a direct punch at the president, she risked offending the people of Marseille by telling them bluntly that the city is a symbol of Sarkozy's failure in government. He had failed, she said, to curb immigration and crack down on violence.
Then Parti Socialiste candidate Hollande toddled down from Paris with a checklist of good works he will perform if elected. More housing. Check. More jobs. Check. Better healthcare. Check. The socialist president of the PACA region, Michel Vauzelle, had issued an Appel du Sud - Appeal from the South - before Hollande's visit. His list of demands was far more precise - high-speed rail link between Nice and Paris, a voie rapide between Gap and Grenoble and freight rail links between Marseille and Turin to run through the Durance valley up to a tunnel to be cut through Montgenèvre. This last development, says the Appel, would ‘open up’ the Hautes-Alpes and Alpes-de-Haute-Provence. Hollande replied cautiously that if elected he'll organise a 'contract' with southern France.
The other candidates have a lower profile than Sarko, Le Pen and Hollande. Mélenchon, for the Front de gauche and Francois Bayrou for the centrist MoDems get a mention in conversation locally but polls show that the UMP, PS and FN candidates are the three front runners in Provence as in France more widely.
Le Pen has only just scraped together her 500 mayoral signatures to become an official candidate. She complained that some French mayors were pressured not to support her. This is by the by, but I had a run-in with her bodyguards a couple of weeks ago at the Salon d'Agriculture in Paris where she was arguing against halal slaughter of livestock. (See photo featuring Le Pen and skinhead.) Someone threw a glass at her and her squad of skinhead heavies took off in pursuit. There was a ridiculous chase round the hall, where thousands of people were milling about eating spicy sausages from La Réunion and gently admiring exotic flowers from French Guyana. The press and TV were filming Le Pen of course. I followed the heavies and found them circling a tall black guy, snarling at him and pointing fingers in his face. So I took a picture and was immediately pounced on. They surrounded me, grabbed my arm and tried to swipe my camera. One of them said "We're police" so I said "Show me your badges". They growled a bit and twisted my arm a bit more. "Erase the photo or we'll take the camera" they said. Hmmm. I had a lot of photos on there that I wanted to keep and I wasn't at the Salon to film Le Pen's cranes rasés. I erased the photo while an elderly woman protested (the only one among all the onlookers). "Why should she have to erase a photo in a public place?" she asked. However, I escaped with my camera intact and a sore shoulder.
Talking to people around here about the election there seems to be no great enthusiasm for Sarkzoy although the polls currently tip him to beat Hollande in the first round. Hollande seems the more unsure of the two - he appealed to voters not to abstain, telling them that the extreme right could benefit from abstentions as it did in 2002, when Chirac unexpectedly faced Jean-Marie le Pen in the second round.
There is plenty of cycnicism about candidates and political parties and it's visible on campaign posters around Provence. Here's some expressive handiwork on a poster at the farmers' market in Velleron. Mélenchon needn't feel bad though. All the candidates are getting the same treament.
And even DSK is on election posters for the right wing. "DSK" the poster proclaims: "the values of the left wing." Ouch! Unfair, surely?, given that DSK's destiny has taken him from the brothel to the courtroom and far from the campaign tail.
It'll be interesting to see how the first round of the election plays out. A feeling at the start of the campaign that François Hollande had it in the bag has, for the moment, dissipated. The outcome seems less predictable since voters are unsure which, if any, candidate has answers to the pressing problems they face. Précarité, or insecurity, is a big issue. The French are worried about jobs, the purchasing power of the euro, the high price of homes, high rent, crime, and many worry about immigration and lack of integration. Sarkozy is saying he'll reduce immigration in a clear bid to pull the rug out from beneath Le Pen. In Provence there is both significant distaste for the Front National and significant support. Traditionally, the FN opposed immigration from north Africa and presented immigrants from the Maghreb as problematic. Immigration is wider now of course and so other races and nationalities are in the frame. The Appel du Sud, with its left-wing supporters, complains that people from northern Europe are taking over Provence and PACA. They are accused of creating 'ghettos of the rich' and a region of second-homes. They are no doubt joined in that view by supporters of Le Pen. I was talking to a young stonemason the other day who was complaining that he cannot afford even the smallest apartment in Provence. "I understand the support for the FN" he told me. "There are too many immigrants in this region. But it's not the Algerians, Moroccans and Tunisians causing the problem in my view. It's the Swiss, Dutch, Belgians,Americans and British." "Sorry" he said, looking sheepish. "But everyone in the north wants to live in Provence for the sun and the way of life. We haven't got room. We can't take everybody."
Seems the left and the right are agreed on one thing in this election then.
Fed up with politics and politicians? There's still time to buy and read my short novel while ignoring the presidential election: