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France: Why a former left-wing district now votes far right

Lisa Louis Cher department, France
July 6, 2024

France votes in the second round of the election on Sunday with the far-right National Rally widely expected to come out on top. Even those in former left-wing strongholds are now choosing the far right.

Woman standing on a field
Genevieve de Brach feels let down by the traditional partiesImage: Lisa Louis/DW

The Cher department in central France used to be a stronghold of the left.

During World War II, it was one of the heartlands of the French resistance fighters known as maquisards. France was at the time partly occupied by Nazi Germany, while the rest of the country was under the rule of French general Philippe Petain, whose Vichy government was collaborating with the Nazis.

Since the 1950s, several provincial towns of the Cher, such as Vierzon, even voted in the Communist Party.

But in last Sunday's first round of voting in France's parliamentary elections, candidates from the far-right National Rally (RN), the party of former presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, came first in all three of Cher's constituencies.

On a national level, the RN won the highest share of votes, with more than 33%. The left-wing alliance New Popular Front (NFP), including far-left movement France Unbowed, the Socialist Party, the Greens and the Communist Party, came second with about 28% of the vote.

The camp of President Emmanuel Macron, who had called the snap elections as a reaction to his party's crushing defeat in June's EU parliamentary elections, landed a distant third place.

Economy and immigration big issues

RN candidate Bastian Duenas outdistanced the communist runner-up by more than 10% in one of the Cher's voting districts.

"Our party cares most about the French," the 22-year-old told DW, as he was preparing to hold a public gathering in a small village called Mehun-sur-Yevre just out of Vierzon before campaigning closed last Friday.

The law student has been a municipal councilor in nearby Mereau since 2020. Just like 28-year-old RN president Jordan Bardella, Duenas is active on the social network TikTok, where he publishes videos with catchy background music showing his day-to-day life.

He says his party will redress the region economically. Unemployment here exceeds the national average of 7.5% after decades of economic decline in an area where industry and the railways used to be the biggest employers.

"We have economic measures such as tax rebates to encourage companies to set up shop in the area. That will make our region competitive again and new jobs will be created," Duenas said.

But for his supporters at the meeting that day, other arguments seemed more crucial. "The RN represents our values and will make our country great again," said 21-year-old Herman Caquais, who is aspiring to become a firefighter.

He was accompanied by 19-year-old Jules Pelladoni, who plans to become a police officer. "I want a future for French civilization," Pelladoni told DW.

Two young men
Herman Caquais (left) and Jules Pelladoni hope that RN will reduce immigrationImage: Lisa Louis/DW

Despite his grandfather immigrating to France from Italy, Pelladoni said he was against mass immigration. "Many immigrants refuse to work and don't want to adapt," he said.

Established parties seen as elitist

20 kilometers (12 miles) further northwest in the hamlet of Saint-Hilaire-de-Court, Genevieve de Brach was giving food to a few of her 110 cattle grazing in her fields.

"Raising livestock was my childhood dream, but things have become really difficult with rising taxes and ever more bureaucratic burden," said the 64-year-old mother of three, who's also the head of the local branch of farmers' union Rural Coordination.

For the first time in her life, like many other voters in the area, de Brach is considering voting for the far right in Sunday's run-off.

"There are no GPs left in this area. The government is spending lots of money to construct a new bridges elsewhere, while our roads are full of potholes," she said. "I feel like having a political elite up there who decide what's good for us. But we have to live with their decisions."

RN election poster in Vierzon
In rural France, the RN appeals to those who have hardly benefited from globalizationImage: Lisa Louis/DW

Political scientist Vincent Martigny, a professor at both the University Cote d'Azur in the southern city of Nice and also at Paris' Ecole Polytechnique, thinks that many people in France share that view.

"The RN appeals to those who have hardly benefited from globalization, feel left behind and have seen their income fall over the past decades," he told DW.

Legal history professor Pierre Allorant from the University of Orleans in the Cher, thinks President Macron has strengthened this feeling of alienation.

"He's been governing in a top-down style and depicting himself as the symbol of mainstream politics and the best rampart against the far right," Allorant said, adding that many voters feel the only protest vote against him is the RN, whereas in the past, they could also opt for communist party.

France: National Rally captures ex-Communist strongholds

Allorant isn't surprised that between a fifth and a third of 18- to 24-year-olds voted for the far right in the first round, according to polls.

"Young people don't know much about World War II — many of them have hardly heard of former RN leader Jean-Marie Le Pen," he stressed.

Jean-Marie le Pen, the father of Marine Le Pen, was convicted several times of downplaying crimes against humanity, such as saying the gas chambers used to kill Jews in the Holocaust were a "detail" of history.

Jean-Marie Le Pen's leadership of the RN turned away many voters in the past. His daughter Marine excluded him from the RN in 2015 in a bid to get away from the RN's antisemitic image.

Can the RN be blocked?

Vierzon's communist mayor Corinne Ollivier doesn't believe in turning people against each other.

"I believe in the value of solidarity," said Ollivier, a former railway worker who came out of retirement to take up the job as mayor. "It's unbearable that one camp always stokes the fear of others."

DW met with Ollivier as she visited a kindergarten being refurbished by the government for €1.6 million ($1.7 million). "When we provide such high quality infrastructure, we hope people will understand that we care about them and give us their support," she said while walking through the freshly painted classrooms.

Elderly woman wearing glasses
"I believe in the value of solidarity," said Corinne Ollivier, the communist mayor of VierzonImage: Lisa Louis/DW

The communists might indeed still come out on top here on Sunday. In the voting district around Vierzon, the third-placed candidate has withdrawn from the race to avoid splitting the vote in an attempt to stop the National Rally from winning.

Around another 210 third or fourth placed candidates that made it to the second round have also rescinded their candidacy in a bid to foil the far right.

"The withdrawals could prevent the RN from obtaining an absolute majority in parliament, although polls still predict the party will get the highest number seats," said political researcher Martigny.

But, one day, that strategy might no longer be enough to prevent the far right from coming to power in France.

Edited by: Kate Hairsine