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The roots of anger in rural France

Jérémie Gallon is managing director at McLarty Associates, an adjunct professor at Sciences Po and a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. His latest book is “Henry Kissinger, l’Européen.”

I grew up in Cosne d’Allier, a village located in Auvergne, a rural region in the heart of France. During my childhood, I remember people were proud that support for the far right in our town was weak, as what was then called the National Front struggled to break the 5 percent threshold. Those days are over.

In the first round of the French presidential election on April 10, the far right won 33 percent of the vote here. That means, including those who cast their ballots for the far left, 60 percent of the voters in my village chose an extremist, populist candidate.

This pattern was repeated in village after village across France. But why is French society being driven by the explosive mix of anger and anxiety on which populists thrive?

From an international perspective, it may appear hard to explain the rancor — even hatred — that many French people feel toward President Emmanuel Macron. For those who have experienced the chaos of Donald Trump’s presidency in the United States, or suffer daily from the demagoguery and scandals that pepper British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s erratic rule, the French president can appear an almost model leader.  

Despite the crises he faced during his first term, this dynamic, pro-European president — committed to the fight against climate change — enhanced France’s leadership on the global stage. He implemented structural reforms that strengthened the economy, and entrepreneurial dynamism has never been stronger. Even with the war in Ukraine, inflation remains lower in France than in its neighbors, and its growth prospects remain comparatively stronger.

To hide behind standard explanations of ignorance and bigotry is both inaccurate and lazy. As a child of Cosne d’Allier, I know that its inhabitants are neither racist nor nostalgic for a France turned in on itself. On the contrary, many are driven by values and ethics that would be a source of inspiration.

What we need to do instead is understand the lived experience of French voters outside of the small Parisian elite. The Auvergne, for example, is a region that has suffered deeply over the last few decades — factories have closed, one after the other, and farmers work hard for a modest and dwindling income.

As with those who voted for Trump in 2016, and again in 2020, many feel that social mobility is broken, and that — no matter what they do — neither their lives, nor the lives of their children, are likely to improve. And this is not just a feeling. Data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development estimates that it now takes six generations — or 180 years — for the descendant of a French family in the bottom 10 percent of the income scale to reach the national average. In Denmark or Finland, it takes “only” two generations.

Declining purchasing power is also a daily fear for many. On the fifth of each month, once the electricity and gas bills and the rent have been paid, many bank accounts are already empty. In my village, farmers who have worked all their lives find themselves with pensions of a few hundred euros a month. And after paying for petrol and childcare, some of those who get up at 5 a.m. every day to work at the nearby slaughterhouse have less in their account than those who have stayed at home all day. 

Many rural dwellers feel — in common with those from poor urban suburbs — that the state has not done enough to help. On the contrary, they feel they have been abandoned by the government. Despite the activism of local politicians and residents, public services are gradually dying out. Post offices, police stations and tax offices tend to go first; then the schools close, taking with them the last shops and the village café.

And through all this, power remains in the hands of the same groups, the same civil servants that have ruled France for decades. There is a sense that change — almost any change — must surely be better.

If reelected on April 24, Macron will have to reform France even more than he has done in the past five years. This is the only way to avoid a social explosion of even greater magnitude than the Yellow Jacket movement. It is the only way to build a more fluid and fair French society. And it is the only way to breathe real hope back into the streets of my village, and thousands of others like it.

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