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TONNEINS, France — Tonneins should be an idyllic place to live. Full of history and charm, the small town is perched above the Garonne in south-west France and is surrounded by gently rolling countryside. Sounds like an expat’s dream.
And yet more than half of the city’s voters supported far-right populist candidate Marine Le Pen in last weekend’s presidential election.
Despite the natural beauty of the area, signs of decline and decay are everywhere. Young people hang around the main square, there are entire streets with boarded up shops and, overlooking the river, an empty bandstand is a reminder of better times.
“It’s a sad town,” said an elderly woman sitting on a bench with a couple of friends. “Before, there was a butcher, a baker, a grocery store, there is nothing now,” adds another.
“There is nothing for the young people, mine have all gone to the big cities, Strasbourg, Paris, Lille…”, adds a third.
Tonneins is like thousands of provincial towns across France, once decaying rural gems, painful reminders of a France in decline. And they have become easy prey for Le Pen, who in Sunday’s election made big gains across the country.
The far-right leader extended her grip beyond strongholds in northeastern and southern France and pushed west into regions that traditionally voted center-left. The Lot-et-Garonne constituency, which includes Tonneins, voted for socialist Francois Hollande in 2012 and centrist Emmanuel Macron in 2017, but this time fell behind Le Pen.
Although Macron won re-election with 58% of the vote, the far-right National Rally has never been stronger, with Le Pen gaining 9 percentage points on his second-round result against Macron five years ago.
Now in his second term, the pressure is on Macron, who is seen as a president for big global cities, to focus his energies on voters who feel left behind or left out, including those in cities and rural villages. With legislative elections approaching in June, Macron’s La République en Marche party must claw back support in places like Lot-et-Garonne if it is to retain control of the National Assembly.
But circling places like Tonneins is no easy task.
Here, the main concerns relate to the rising cost of living, security and immigration – three issues that play to the strengths of Le Pen’s National Rally. Before the presidential election, Le Pen avoided the big cities and led a grassroots campaign focused on increasing purchasing power with eye-catching promises to cut VAT on basic goods.
In Tonneins, his words found an echo. Kevin Escoder, a 24-year-old freelance landscape gardener, voted for Le Pen because he wanted “change” and supported his policies on pensions and inflation.
“[My wife and I] both have full-time jobs, but wages are much lower in the countryside and we struggle to make ends meet,” Escoder said.
Escoder and his wife Gwenaël Josset have already cut back on their vacations to stay afloat, but with inflation hitting, they are seeing their dream of getting into real estate vanish.
“We have to be very careful with our money, there is always something to pay. The car needs fixing, whatever. Otherwise, we would really only be eating potatoes at the end of the month,” Josset said. It’s not just the lack of money that irritates, it’s the feeling that life was ‘better before’ when their parents ‘ate meat every day’.
In Tonneins, it’s a common refrain — that life was indeed easier not so long ago when there was more money and a local economy driven by the tobacco industry.
“Small towns have suffered a lot, businesses have closed and people have become poorer,” said centrist senator Jean-Pierre Moga, former mayor of Tonneins.
“We still have some industry, but it doesn’t generate a lot of wealth. When local businesses started to close, the town lost its appeal and petty crime increased,” he said, adding that for a long time women stayed home to avoid the groups of young people hanging around. the streets.
Tonneins illustrates the growing inequalities between urban France and rural France. According to a 2020 study by the Association of Rural Mayors, city dwellers can expect to live two years longer than those in remote rural areas.
And as the economy collapsed, tensions grew between locals and descendants of North African immigrants. Tonneins is a town with a rich immigrant past, with workers from Italy, Spain, Eastern Europe and Morocco settling and working in agricultural jobs over the last century. But nowadays, some residents accuse young people of North African origin of becoming troublemakers for lack of prospects.
Poverty and lack of social mobility made Tonneins, and many other places like it, close fruit of Le Pen’s rural push.
“We have worked hard, crisscrossed the department, but that alone does not make things happen,” said Sébastien Delbosq, a regional adviser to the National Rally.
“What has changed is the balance sheet [of past governments], 10 years of breakdown of public services, closure of post offices, fewer police officers. Lot-et-Garonne feels abandoned, ”he added.
The results of the presidential election show that 51% of voters in cities with less than 1,000 inhabitants supported Le Pen, against 25% in cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants.
A major challenge for Macron
Since winning the election, Macron has pledged to reconcile divisions in France.
“In the poorest neighborhoods, whether in town or in the countryside, we must recreate the conditions for real equality of opportunity,” he said on Wednesday on a visit to Cergy, near Paris, adding that it was the only way to overcome the “feeling of neglect”.
During his campaign, Macron promised 50 billion euros in investments a year, financed by his pension and unemployment benefit reforms. Part of this money is intended for rural and outlying areas. His camp also argues that the government’s effort to bring down unemployment – which is at its lowest since 2008 – is the best way to boost purchasing power.
But none of these policies will have an immediate impact on localities like Tonneins. Already 5 billion euros have been invested in the renovation of the centers of small towns.
“Lots of places in the Lot-et-Garonne received money,” said Michel Lauzzana, a local MP from Macron’s La République en Marche party.
“But it doesn’t pay off right away. Investments must create momentum, it takes time. It’s like a cruise ship slowly turning around,” he said.
But time is running out. In the June legislative elections, Le Pen’s allies hope his strong showing in the presidential vote will translate into seats in the National Assembly. In Lot-et-Garonne, Le Pen won 27% of the vote, ahead of 23% for Macron and 18% for far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
“They’re not in government so they can promise the moon,” Lauzzana said, referring to analysis showing Le Pen and Mélenchon’s campaign platforms weren’t properly budgeted.
“We are working under restrictions because we are managing the country. We fight dreams with the weapons of the real world,” Lauzzana said.
But in Tonneins, Esccoder and his wife are unlikely to hear those arguments when they vote in June. With biting inflation, a new Macron term simply means less money in their pockets.