“There’s not many in this village. Front National? I don’t think so. Maybe a few.” Paul and Sylvie*, on 500-euro bikes, neat young couple in their 30s, are leaning against the outer rail of Dirk’s cafe, in the centre of the village we’ll call Sauceney.* He in a beard clipped back, bebe strapped to front, she in Ray-Bans and deep Atlantic blue top, the colour deep and shimmering in the sun. They’re waiting with others outside the bakery, just across the narrow laneway, a small shop that takes only four or five at a time. On a Saturday morning, it’s the town hang, two or three distinct groups meeting and commingling. Saturday morning, as three or four or five mornings a week, people buy a loaf here that lasts a day, maybe two. Bread thick-crusted, soft inside, there’s no need for wrapping; you just dig your fingers into it and walk or ride a few blocks home. People on bikes, loaf under their arm. They really goddamn do that here.
Leaning over the rail from the decking of Dirk’s cafe, I’m talking to the locals the day before the first round election. Locals, of a fashion; Paul and Sylvie live in Paris, Paul’s from here, Sylvie married in, and they come back many weekends — “of course”. Behind me, Dirk, the cafe’s owner and chef and waiter, is hustling around cleaning up cups. Not many, because not many people come here. Tall, thin, with a three-day growth, he’s Flemish-Germanish, a blow-in, looks askance at the dozen or so people gathered outside, chatting away. Gives me a look as if to say”wat can you do?”.
“Are you being a little loyal?” I say. “The Front National is pretty strong in the countryside.” “‘Well OK, there’s a few … but this is strong PS [Parti Socialiste].” “There’s that [something],” says Sylvie, the mysterious word, I’m pretty sure translating to something like “nutjob”. “Oh yeah-” “Is that Silvatore?” I say. A slight, very slight, frown pinches Paul’s face, the thought “how do you know a name?” fleeting across it. “Yes, that’s him.” Presently they turn to two new arrivals, with a greeting that has a slight note of relief in it.
Still they’ve exchanged few words with a group of older people, in conservative knitwear, crisp shirts beneath. Or a third group, shorter, heavier, in cheaper jeans, chain store tops, who come and go more quickly, barely stopping. The bakery staff are like that, a father and teenage daughter, the latter obese, acned, an air of permanent mild harassment, the dad sporting that uniform of the poor, a limb brace, in this case a cast on the leg. The last bakery in a village that once had three, it gives them a living, a seven-days-a-week scuttling around, for two- and three-euro transactions. It’s not onerous, but it looks relentless. The place has the air of quiet defeat, empty racks, no posters on the wall. People hang outside not merely because of the size. “I know they’re up against it, but they could sweep. Or wash the walls of mould once in a while,” someone had remarked. People come, people go, all late morning. No one, so far as my eavesdropping picks up, talks politics. No one stops in Dirk’s cafe either. In view up the street, at Valerie’s Brasserie de la Mairie, it’s rammed. They have plastic chairs, no outside deck, stale croissants under a plastic cover, blaring TV on a corner ceiling rack. Dirk has better coffee, piping hot food, a wood-furnished sundeck. But Valerie is a local and Dirk, Dirk is drowning in debt. He squints up the road at the noise. When I leave five euros for a three-euro tab, he looks more grateful than someone from the prosperous north should. “Thanks, man.” It’s polling day, when the whole country is about to say what it feels the future of France should be, and Sauceney is about to find out whether it’s interested in the future at all.
Sauceney, six converging streets of honey stone terraced houses, a line of shops, a church, small chateau and lake behind, is part of what they call La France Profonde, deep France, villages and hamlets and communes distant from any metropolitan focus, and more self-sufficient than you would find elsewhere. Situated in the Morvan National forest — it’s a measure of the “profundity” that French national forests are criss-crossed with villages — Sauceney has a population of 400 and supports three groceries and general stores, a chemist, hardware store, the bakery, butcher and three of four other shops, three bars and restaurants, a post office, a cinema of sorts, a fine wines and provender depot and a school. And of course there is a mayor. In Britain, a village of this size would be lucky to have a pub and a general store, maybe a newsagents/hardware/everything. In the US, the entire centre would be boarded up and a petrol station out of town would serve the whole community. But France keeps its countryside alive, and working, through EU and state subsidies to farmers, to communities, to small shops, to communes, districts, regions.
For decades, since the countryside started to lose its self-sufficiency, such a policy has been supported by all major parties — and part of the true economic right-wing radicalism of Francois Fillon has been his promise to have a hack at them, to sort out which subsidies are essential and which are “waste”, a single word his frequent refrain. Heresy! But it’s a measure of how confident the Republican Party were that they would be facing Le Pen that they would even gesture at such a process. In part, it’s to do with the curious process by which nations can swaddle people in a way they can’t think outside of. Many of Fillon’s supporters, pensioners his core demographic, don’t really understand what he means by being called a “Thatcherite”. They believe it would mean a crackdown on welfare cheats, waste, a cull of the public service, consumer efficiencies from market forces. Much of La France Profonde complains about its recent withering — through the whole weekend in Sauceney people would count off what used to be there “eight bars, five restaurants”, etc — but no one from there could imagine a place that would be, like many in the Anglo-Saxon world, simply unviable as a community.
Marine Le Pen and the Front National aren’t taking the Fillon line, or anything like it. They’re promising to rebuild France and “protect the culture”, and that means a continuation of rural and regional support, even without EU agricultural subsidies. Fillon’s numbers add up; that’s his selling point. The FN’s don’t even begin to. That, in a sense, is theirs. They promise the sort of financial discipline Fillon is offering with none of the pain, everything to everyone. They combine notions that everyone will get a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work with the sort of eye-watering subsidies that has every cow in the country costing taxpayers a few thousand euros to chew grass, a statistic beloved by The Economist, which has been trotting it out, with rising values, for 40 years.
Put like that, it sounds absurd. But the cows belong to farmers, in quite small herds — “They come in here every winter,” said my host, banging the side of the barn, “and they stay for three months'” — and the farms feed life into the village and the countryside. The French countryside is still intensely worked, inhabited, tractors running on small fields, vegetables being thrown into trucks. French villages often look uglier than their English counterparts, with metal sheds, petrol bowsers, vehicle hoists, half-retired machinery strewn around. Curious until you remember that the embalmed often look better in death than they looked in their overworked middle age. The Cotswolds are all antiques and tea shops. Here, everyone’s too busy to clean up.
Once all countryside was living; France is one of the last places in the “advanced” world where it still is. It feels alive in the little streets of the little villages, in the fields between, in the crowded little tabacs, the bakeries with walls warm to the touch, with the food, the flavour that explodes in your mouth. You go away from France and you forget food has flavour, and you come back again, and there it is, taste impossible to put in words, which is the point of taste, the tomatoiness of a tomato co-existing with the clear creaminess of a local soft cheese, the, well, breadiness of bread. Five times a day you’re reminded that when you leave you will go back to eating starch and kapok — and worse, that two weeks later, you will have forgot what you’re missing, but not that you are missing it. Food good because the ingredients are is equality: un sandwich est un sandwich. It’s something the locals want to hang onto, a good thing, one of the best.
There are other things, less so. La France Profonde has a deep resistance to the outside, to the region next door, to the commune next door. In the Morvan and the Nievre, it runs very deep. “This is peasant country,” I’m told. “It was poor, when the rest of the country was rising, southern Italian poor. They got their first indoor bathroom in the ’60s; not the poor, the well-off here.” Poor, marginal land at the edge of Burgundy, such areas lived for centuries by a rhythm of ceaseless work through eight months of the year and a stuporous hibernation through the winter, family and animals huddled indoors, snoozing 16 hours a day in firesmokefartthick air. Records show people looked forward to this, rather than spring and summer, of endless planting, tending, harvest, all taxed to the hilt. Centuries-long poverty creates a certain sense of life, of bare life; deep resistance to the blandishments of any idea of happiness, or even of lightness. It is life as endurance, a commitment to life itself, close to the ground, and it hallows that ground.
“They have no curiosity, they’re not the slightest bit interested in anything from the outside, no new taste, no new flavour, nothing,” says Max, one my hosts, a Canadian who has spent his life studying the revolt of the oppressed, waving his arm around as we take a long turn around the village. Fifteen years here have made him partly French — when we stop to help a woman fix her hosepipe, he grapples with it without removing the baguette he is carrying from under his arm — and peasant-hard to their hardness. His cry seems as much a tribute to their truculence as an exasperation with its self-defeating turning away from, well, everything that would help them. “Intermarriage, they have a high rate of intellectual disability,” he says, and after a day or two one notices more than the usual number of people being led around, quietly coaxed, settled on seat benches with a lemonade, while the others talk. There is no longer a presse (newsagents), in the village; the tabac sells the paper of the “centre”, and even there, the copies lie unsold. Inward-turned, and within, turned away from each other, the French countryside is the ground for the Front National, delivering a 30-40% vote.
The objection, the passion, is above all against migrants, any migrants. They will give the usual reasons, terroristes, etc, but who would blow up Sauceney? They have never wanted migrants, never wanted Europe. Ten kilometres or so over, a distance some would not cross for years on end, a handful of Turkic migrants were taken in by a network of people, mothers with young children. “They were told, ‘don’t take the mothers to the mothers’ group, it will make things worse’. It took two years to get some kids along to their birthday parties,” says Carla, my other host, equally politically battle-hardened, antipodean student activist become village chatelaine.
“Even the most progressive people …” someone continued. “In the shop yesterday, two people, both Parti Socialiste — I know they’re socialists — were talking about the kids. ‘Oh but aren’t they ugly?’ one said.” She shrugs. “These things run deep.” “So will they vote FN?” “No, no, this is is still PS territory.” Parts of it used to be Parti Communiste territory. The Morvan was a centre of resistance in 1943-44, of the “maquis”, named for the thick forest canopy-covering (in the south) they would hide under. Brutal struggles with no prisoners taken, death and the dark forest. Cemeteries are dotted through, Morvannais and Brits alike, after the Resistance was reinforced with parachute commandos, after D-Day, to tie down German forces. Standing before the lines of white crosses, on a late afternoon visit, amid the hills and hills and hills, rolling trees, thin in late spring, I thought of what it would be like to die here, aged 20, or 18, or 16, desperate struggle against 17-, 16-year-old German boys, desperate themselves, in the last winter of a decided war. “The Brits had to inform them that they couldn’t torture captured Germans to death,” said Max drily. “Less an anti-fascist struggle than … well, it was about … here.”
“Is the Front National big here?” I asked a dinner party that night, in another village, each course the best meal I’d had since the last course, over a basket of cheeses, all local, all different to those in the village we’d come from.
“No, no, It’s PS.”
Then a name tumbles out. “There’s Richard.”
“Yes, I think he is.”
“And Chris …”
“Yes, I don’t talk to him anymore-“
A few more names, then:
“Well, of course Salvatore-“
Names keep coming up. The poll the next day. And no one really knows, except that the PS will do better than elsewhere.
‘Ooooooooo misericordia’. In the pulpit of Sauceney’s 19th-century church, large, towering too big over the village, the curved nave-back outer wall, turned towards village life, a parishioner was singing a capella, hands raised in supplication. Twenty parishioners, 15 older bourgeois, by the clothes, designer jeans, the grey-white knit tops, stylish eyewear, coiffed hair, two Franco-Africans, the only black faces I’d seen in the region, only three or four in “village middle”, cheaper tops, skirts, all older women. There’s a service here once every three weeks, on a three-village circuit, some local, some follow the mass. I’d bought a baguette, seen Richard and Sylvie again, nodded, nothing — what’s the protocol?– nipped into the church with it, which got a sharp look. Bread to church. Ah, the one place you can’t. Simple service, no organ, the altar’s amplified, the pulpit not. Misericordia (“merciful things”) is the theme of the month, according to a kitsch poster beside the altar, showing Jesus, heart being pierced by an enormous rainbow. Without a microphone, the priest’s homily fades into the backstone somewhat, but it’s something about God being open-hearted, and openness being a manner of mercy, and the implication is pretty clear. “He’s a good man,” Max had said. Came down the aisle to shake hands, red and gold and white cassock waving, ratty sandals beneath.
An hour earlier, I’d come up through the village past the school, where the polling bureau was. No one handing out anything. Strict rules against that. Only a poster wall, one each for each of the 11 candidates — four contenders, the Socialist charging towards nearby Verdun, and six jokers. In Paris, these have become an opportunity for obscene, situationist and plainly inexplicable defacement, mixing quotes from Baudrillard with dick ‘n’ balls going into mouths, each set worthy of a master’s degree thesis; here, they are pristine. There was no one clearly political in the street, no handholds for a vox pop. La Brasserie De La Mairie was open, full. I sneaked a look down the road, to check Dirk wouldn’t see me, loyalty already.
I dived in, took a place at the bar, ordered a coffee. Valerie — Valerie? short woman, pink streaks through her hair — was pleasant enough. “You’re open today? Because of the election?” “Yes, it’s rammed in the street.” There were about 10 people in the street. “I-” she was gone, serving 30 people, selling lotto tickets. I turned to the 50-something man next to me, in a shabby jacket. “So are you voting? What do you think of the election?” He looked at me for a few seconds, stunned, like the giant Chupa-Chup display had just spoken, then he turned to his right. I could have jumped a couple of tables. In the US, I would have ended been invited back for next Thanksgiving by a neo-Nazi family named Cletus. Here, visions of L’Homme Wicker floated in my head. This was a closed space, backs outward, people turned to their families, turned to the bar, away from the polls, away from the church.
But there’d been no other way. The groups in the village moved through shared spaces with little interaction. The difference was written in their bodies, short, heavy peasants, tall bourgeois and foreigners, chain store and designer, the home haircut and the coiffure. The people I’d been with for days had their interactions, but they were also exiles — two women who had left the village and married men from “out”, brought them back, and found themselves ejected from crystal lattice of kith and kin, the arrangements. Bourgeois outcasts, they make common cause with the Flemish diaspora, the Anglosphere crowd. Inside and outside it all at the same.
Walking back from the La Brasserie, I went up the road towered over by a large coaching house. Three storeys, the size of four small houses, the place was falling down as it was being built back up. Half the windows in one part had make-do board over them, but every door and window corner had been restored to square, brick-and-plaster filled. It was a tradie’s job on his own house, no question of it, done with love and no skimping.
This was Salvatore’s house.
Salvatore was who everyone talked of. Salvatore was a mason, a plasterer, a roofer. Salvatore was FN and proud of it. Salvatore had “identitaires” — FN thugs — to stay. Salvatore had bought two, three houses, more. Salvatore was this, that. Salvatore everywhere and nowhere
“His dad was an Italian prisoner. Totally illiterate. Couldn’t read a bank note,” Max had said. “Salvatore changed his name to something French. Plus francais que les francais” he had roared with laughter.
I looked around the house. There was no sign of life, and it wasn’t fully clear which the inhabited part was. I knocked on a door with window glass in it. No answer. Turning round and continuing on a very little bit, there was a man, sharp looking, a little tanned. He asked me who I was looking for, and I told him. “That’s not you, is it?” I said, a little jaunty now. No, it wasn’t. “Well, uh, what do you think of the election? The Front National?” “Ca, ca se passera,” he said. That will pass. “I’m for Macron.” In stories of this type, that was Salvatore. But it almost certainly wasn’t. “Salvatore’s hard, wiry, dark.” “He does all his own work.” Salvatore was everywhere and nowhere in the village, the spirit of its other, the dark side that would not face itself.
Had I met an FNiste, then, in all that visit? Perhaps, for the night I arrived we had gone to the social centre in another village a ways over. Social centres are halfway between a members’ club and a private dinner, a place with an actual bar, but potluck food, people taking turns to cater. There are expats and bourgeois; the locals are missing, save for Arthaud, a vast man, close to the ground, and an old PCFer, a serious activist, the rule-proving exception. There’s talk of the migrants, or some of them; a couple have turned out to be, well, chancers, hoping for asylum in Paris, and shipped out here by the government. Messy situation, but for most, Paris is worth a mess. The Morvan isn’t, and they’re cutting up rough. No one’s judging, but the situation is becoming impossible, ooooooo misericordia.
The talk’s sprightly, the three courses come and go, carafes of cheap wine, red, white and rose refilled, politics and people, France, Britain, Germany, books, movies, everyone surefooted on this terrain. But there was also Robert, a younger man, softly spoken in a tracksuit top and cheap glasses. He was neighbours to an Irish couple, who’d brought him along. Part-time in poultry, not all the work he needed, from what and how he said it, it was obvious he was lonely. He seemed grateful to be out somewhere. Were there many FN supporters that he knew? Were there any at work? “Well, there’s a few.” “What are they thinking?” said the Irishman. “Well, uh, I guess they want to feel safe,” he said. “They want things to be as they’ve been. They want to be amongst themselves.” Amongst themselves. “Entre eux.” The clumsy English does not capture the compactness of the French, its implicit claim to logic, to a sense of necessity. Among ourselves, between ourselves, in the process of ourselves. Where else could we be? In the streets of a village, a village among dozens of hamlets and villages, in the forest deep, with 2000-year-old names, Paris, of a Monday morning Paul and Sylvie on the TGV, as the slumberous village wakes, as the misted-windowed bakery opens for business, as the Brasserie puts its plastic tables out, a trip and a world away.
Sauceney was expected to buck the national trend, and give a halfway decent vote to the Parti Socialiste. It didn’t. The vote shadowed the national trend almost exactly, with Macron taking 25% and Melenchon 19%, and Le Pen in the middle at 21%. Loyalty sliced no baguettes — the PS were down around 7%, near their national average.
With thanks to “Max” and “Carla”
*Names of people and, necessarily, places have been changed.