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Discontent grows in rural France

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Last month, Sophie-Laurence Roy, a conservative Parisian lawyer whose roots are in Burgundy, decided to cross the political divide of postwar France and join the nationalist, far-right political movement that seemed poised to dominate Sunday’s parliamentary elections.

“I realised that I would be guilty for the rest of my life if I didn’t serve this great movement for change, the National Rally,” she said over a plate of sausage in a café in Chablis, a town in northern Burgundy known for its fine white wines. “Now is the time.”

So on June 9, Ms. Roy, 68, abandoned her long-standing center-right political family, the Republicans, which traces its beliefs to the war hero Charles de Gaulle, and threw her support behind the far-right party led by Marine Le Pen, whose quasi-fascist roots are in the Vichy collaborationist regime that Mr. de Gaulle fought to liberate France.

How can she bridge such a divide? “My problem is not the past, but tomorrow,” said a dismissive Ms. Roy, who is now the National Rally candidate in the largest constituency in the Yonne department, which includes Chablis. “People are suffering.”

About 9.3 million people Support for the National Rally in the first round of voting The turnout for last weekend’s election was more than double the 4.2 million who voted in the first round of the 2022 parliamentary elections. They were spread across most of France and included workers and retirees, young and old, women and men. They were fed up with the status quo and came together to work for change.

Now Ms. Marine Le Pen’s party — a party that has softened its image and toned down its message but still retains its anti-immigrant and eurosceptic core — looks set to become France’s largest party after the second round of voting, even if it now looks unlikely to win an outright majority.

It is not enough to say that the taboo against voting for the far right has disappeared; it has collapsed amid the wave of support for the National Rally.

Tensions have risen across the country as a result, with the Interior Ministry announcing that 30,000 police officers would be deployed on Sunday “to prevent the risk of disorder”.

Residents of this sparsely populated region of France – the Yonne department in northwest Burgundy, with only about 335,000 inhabitants – describe what is happening in their communities as “desertification”, a void of services and life.

Schools closed. Train stations closed. Post offices closed. Doctors and dentists left. Cafes and small convenience stores closed, replaced by large malls. People had to travel farther for services, jobs and food. Many people drove older cars but were encouraged to switch to electric cars, which were far out of their reach.

Meanwhile, gas and electricity bills have soared since the war in Ukraine, leading some people to turn off their heating last winter. They feel invisible, just trying to get by; they watched on television as President Emmanuel Macron explained Abstract policies such as Europe’s “strategic autonomy”. It’s none of their business.

A national rally ensued, saying the focus was on people, not ideas, and that the purchasing power of the people was above all else.

“My party is rooted in this territory and is not trying to give moral lessons to the world like our president is trying to do,” Roy said.

The widespread sense of unease is not always easy to understand. The beautiful rolling hills of the Yonne, the rows of Chablis vines on the cliffs above the Seran River, the golden wheat fields in the afternoon sun, do not give the impression of unrest. Yet there is more discontent brewing in France than meets the eye.

Like most French towns and villages, Chablis has a monument in its main square to commemorate the war dead. The inscription reads “The Glorious Dead of Chablis” and below it are 13 men killed in the German War of 1870-71, 76 killed in World War I, 4 killed in World War II, 2 killed in the Indochina War and 1 killed in the Algerian War.

Above the monument fly the French flag and the blue-gold European Union flag, symbolizing the determination to end the war through European integration, which eliminated borders and gave France an ideological framework and moral foundation from 1945 onwards.

That framework and foundation is now shaky.

The National Rally wants to return power to the nation. It wants to tighten open borders within the European Union to slow immigration. And it is prepared to mythologize national greatness, less dramatic than the hysterical businessmen who plunged the continent into war in the 20th century, but no less dazzling and no less intent on scapegoating.

Such demands have fertile ground. “There is a sense of being forgotten in our French heartland,” said André Villiers, a centrist allied to Macron’s party and Mr Roy’s opponent in Sunday’s runoff. “What you see in the National Rally is anger and alienation.”

Villiers, 69, a member of the National Assembly since 2017, sat in a cafe in the scenic town of Vézelay, about 30 miles south of Chablis.

Nearby is the 1,000-year-old Vézelay Abbey, said to house the relics of Mary Magdalene and long a site of pilgrimage associated with miracles. Given how the first round of voting went in his constituency, Villiers may need one.

“Macron is at his lowest point in life,” he said. “People want him to go, his life is over, but that doesn’t help.”

In the first round of voting, Villiers received 29.3% of the votes, while Roy received 44.5%. The left-wing candidate, who has now withdrawn from the race and urged his supporters to use the ballots to prevent the National Rally from winning, received 19.5%. Roy is the favorite, although the result is likely to be close.

In Avallon, near Vézelay, I met Pascal Tissier, 64, who recently retired from his job as a travelling salesman. He voted for Villiers in the first round, “but now I’m inclined to vote for the National Rally because something is happening that has been brewing for a long time.”

“What?” I asked.

“A few months ago, I turned off the heating in my house because the bills were no longer payable,” he said. “Bus services were cancelled. I had to travel 45 minutes to Tonnerre because the tax office was closed. The reason is simple: people feel slighted by Macron.”

Life has become harder in other ways, too. His father, 90, lives alone in Rouvray, 12 miles away. Every two days, Mr. Tissier brings him food because the only remaining food store near his father closed a few months ago. The local doctor retired this year.

“The government doesn’t care about any of this,” Tissier said. “It’s just bizarre.”

Into this nationwide vacuum emerged the National Rally, a party that claims to have left its xenophobic, bigoted past behind it, but from time to time, including in the Yonne, old ideas reappear like the gloved arm of Dr. Strangelove.

Last week, Daniel Grenon, the incumbent MP and National Rally candidate in another Yonne constituency, declared that “North Africans are not fit for high office.” He was apparently referring to French citizens of North African descent or dual nationality. The Yonne Socialist Party secretary immediately sued him for inciting hatred and discrimination.

Jordan Bardella, a 28-year-old leader of the National Alliance campaign and a polished, well-mannered man who has tried to steer the party away from overt bigotry, said in a television interview that Glennon’s comments were “despicable.” Asked if he would continue to support the candidate, Bardella said he would no longer be with the National Alliance group in the National Assembly if Glennon was re-elected.

Roger Chudeau, another National Rally lawmaker and candidate, angered Le Pen last week when he said former Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, a French-Moroccan dual citizen, had “ruined secondary education” and that the ministerial post should go to “a French-French person, that’s the final word.”

“I am shocked by my colleague Trudeau,” Le Pen said. However, the argument that immigration undermines French characteristics remains a core message of Le Pen’s party.

Mr. Villiers believes the National Alliance threat to the Republic remains real. “We are very close to the bomb,” he said. “We know how this started and how it will end. I will fight to the end.”

He called Ms Roy’s switch from Fianna Fáil to the National Alliance a “serious moral betrayal”.

In Chablis, a city where wine producers rely heavily on exports for revenue, the momentum of the national rally worries some. “Closing the border is not an option for us,” said Damien Leclerc, director general of La Chablisienne, a large wine cooperative that exported 62% of its $67 million in sales last year.

Winemakers rely on outsiders in other ways, too. “We need immigrant workers to do all the manual labor,” Mr. Leclerc said. “We need them to weed, prune the vines, put up trellises, jobs that the French don’t normally want to do.”

I found Ridial Diamé, a 38-year-old Senegalese laborer, in a vineyard on a steep hillside in Chablis, just before lunch. It was midday, and he had been working since early in the morning, mainly weeding at an estate called Domaine Goulley, which does not use chemical sprays. A Muslim with a wife and two children in Senegal, he had previously worked in Spain and was now on a temporary contract in Chablis.

“It’s a pretty good job,” he said. “I work 35 hours a week for about $13 an hour; we have three days off. I’m trying to stay as long as I can.”

What does he think of the National Alliance’s anti-immigration policies?

“It’s funny,” he said. “The French didn’t want to do the work, so we did it. And then they said they didn’t want us!”

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