Angry and left behind: Rural voters back French far-right in challenge for Macron

BRIARE, France: Marie-France Chouffeur, a 52-year old farm worker from a small town in central France, had never voted for the far-right before April’s presidential election, when she backed National Rally (RN) leader Marine Le Pen against incumbent Emmanuel Macron.

This month, she was one of many rural voters who helped make the anti-immigration, eurosceptic RN the second-biggest party in parliament, increasing its seats more than tenfold and denying Macron’s centrists the absolute majority that would have helped ease through his planned reforms.

Chouffeur says she was persuaded by Le Pen’s focus on the cost of living, especially as petrol prices soared, and a feeling that Macron did not care about voters like her.

“He (Macron) let us fall behind,” she said while selling vegetables at a market in Briare, a quiet town about 150 kilometres (93 miles) south of Paris.

“He only looks after the big cities – they have their trains and metros, we just have our cars.”

Like most people in rural areas, Chouffeur depends on her car, driving 64km a day to get to work. The RN’s gains among voters like her indicate Macron’s failure to heed lessons from the 2018-2019 Yellow Vest revolt, driven by eroding household budgets and a sense of abandonment by the state.

“People were angry with Macron and wanted to send a clear message,” Gilles Ivaldi, far-right specialist at the CNRS research institute, said of the RN’s record 89-seat haul, which saw it take territory such as Briare for the first time.

A REAL SPLIT

A Reuters analysis of data from national statistics office Insee shows that in the 10 constituencies where the RN got its best scores, 83.3 per cent of residents use their car to get to work.

That compares with just 46.1 per cent for the 10 constituencies where Macron’s Ensemble alliance performed best, and 40.2 per cent for the left Nupes coalition.

Certainly, rejection of immigration is still a factor for many RN voters, including Chouffeur.

But how much a car is used “is one of the multiple ways to illustrate that the RN is the party of France’s periphery – there is a real territorial split,” said Ivaldi.

In RN voting areas, more people than average still use heating oil to warm their houses and health services are less accessible, data shows, while poverty rates are higher than the national average but lower than in left-voting constituencies.

To address voters’ concerns – and stop the far-right building political capital – Macron has already promised to quickly send a proposal on the cost of living to parliament.

But despite being re-elected in April, and with the biggest group in parliament, he will need to form alliances to push through his programme in an assembly he no longer controls.

Chouffeur’s new member of parliament Mathilde Paris says that while she wants strict limits on immigration, she will mostly champion proposals to reduce taxes on fuel and improve mobile medical facilities.

“I come from a rural territory, abandoned by medical services,” the 37-year-old told Reuters.

Many rural voters still do not back the far-right. But Le Pen’s success in detoxifying its image, and discontentment with Macron’s first term, means some will not actively vote to block the RN as they might have in the past.

Selling cherries at the market in Briare, its streets lined with mostly closed shops and restaurants, Yannis Djaroun, 31, says he abstained in the election’s second round, for which his preferred – left-wing – candidate did not qualify.

“It’s always the same – vote against the far-right. I’m bored of that,” he said.