Despite facing charges linked to a fake jobs scandal, French presidential candidate Francois Fillon continues to enjoy support among conservative voters. How is this possible? A visit to his hometown provides the answer.
Michel Dauton's farm is situated just outside Sable-sur-Sarthe, the hometown of Francois Fillon. That is where he served as mayor from 1983 to 2001 and organized his political ascent. On the edges of the town there are a few bigger companies, mainly in the food-processing sector. Beyond lies the flat countryside of the upper Loire region. Dauton grows apples for use in the production of cider, in addition, he has Limousin cattle in his fields. "Agriculture here is very diverse," said the farmer, who is also the spokesman for the local business association. And it is made up of small contributors, no industrial-scale production here. Old villages line the streets; this is the "deep countryside" that has always carried so much weight in French politics.
Fillon is 'one of us'
"Francois Fillon always takes time to talk to people here and he's interested in our problems," said Dauton. That's important for farmers, who face constant pressure from partners to lower prices. "We need a Europe that better protects our interests," he said. For him, Fillon is the candidate with the closest ties to the land and agriculture. "What we need is someone with stature who can get the right reforms through." He also likes the fact that Fillon is experienced; this is no time for newcomers, in his opinion.
And the scandals? "We are just a month away from a decisive presidential election, in a dangerous world," said Dauton. That, he says, is more important than the price of Fillon's suits or the colors of his ties. He is saddened by the fact that Fillon's family is now being prosecuted. "I feel sorry for them both, and especially for his wife," he said, adding that politics in France does need to become more moral.
Help from political Catholicism
In Sable-sur-Sarthe, Sunday is a day for going to mass. Father Bruno Meziere preaches to a full church. Young families as well as migrants pack the pews. "Our parish is associated with Aleppo," he said. The collections go to benefit the destroyed Syrian city. He says that refugees from Syria, Iraq and other countries are all well integrated here; the congregation is very tolerant.
Francois Fillon used to come to mass here when he was mayor. But political support from the new Catholic movement in France is concentrated in Paris. "There are Christians in France that really go on the offensive to represent their faith. That's come out of the demonstrations against gay marriage. There is a group of Catholics who feel they've been pushed to the fringes of politics in France," said Father Bruno. The group calls itself "Sens commun" (common sense) and it was instrumental in helping Fillon to his victory in the primaries.
Mayor or feudal lord?
"When Francois Fillon was the mayor here, he ruled the place like a feudal lord," said Gerard Fretelliere, a long-serving member of the local council and the left-wing opposition. As a local politician, Fillon was a centrist, but later as a minister he took a big step to the right. "He was always two-faced," said his old opponent from Sable. "A lot of people here were happy when he became a candidate. They were hoping that we'd have a president who was from here. But it's not nearly as rosy as that, because he would likely not be able to do much for this region," said Fretelliere, adding that his programs are for the wealthy anyway.
He says that many locals were surprised by the scandal surrounding Fillon, because he always presented himself as being beyond reproach. "But then you dig a little, and stuff like this comes out," he said. But he doesn't have a bad word to say about Fillon's wife, Penelope, just that no one in the village ever would have thought that she would work for her husband.
'They're all the same'
A few kilometers away on the picturesque banks of the Sarthe lies Beauce Manor, which Fillon bought at the start of the 1990s. Its history dates back to the 15th century. Farmer Hubert Olive says that it costs a pretty penny to maintain such a property. On a Sunday afternoon, he and his wife stand at the gates to the manor, looking through the bushes. "We just wanted to see how he lives," Olive said.
He has a cattle farm, and is well versed in the problems facing small-scale farmers. "If I sell my meat for 3.50 euros a kilo, then it's in the shop for 35 euros. The buyers push us to lower the cost," he said. He's also putting his hopes in Fillon. But don't the charges about abuse of public funds anger him? "You know what, they're all the same," said Olive with a shrug, as if to say, it's always been that way, and always will be.