Provincial life begins where Paris ends. Beyond the provincial town is the green belt and beyond that the deeper countryside. The nation’s ailing villages, hundreds of them, stipple the hinterlands. I live in a sparsely populated rural area sustained by a firm that produces industrial valves and pumps (for ships, waste, petroleum, nuclear reactors and desalination plants). It has four branches in China. There are goats on the hillside just above the company premises, cattle in the meadows below.
Even so, it’s a long time since my nearest village, St Michel de Rivière in Dordogne, had a school, a congregation or a bakery. In our neighbourhood, the 24 per cent vote for Marine Le Pen in round one came from struggling hamlets like ours on the periphery of a small, functioning town.
Across the river, about thirty metres away, in Ségolène Royal’s region, the picture is starker. There is no manufacturing in the commune of La Barde, only pasture and stand upon stand of dogged-looking vines. This is not wine country: the grapes go for Cognac, but the luxury market for Cognac has taken a beating from single malts.
In La Barde in 2007, Le Pen père did well in round one, but Sarkozy led comfortably with Royal close behind. Sarkozy walked the second round. This year in round one, the voters of La Barde punished Sarkozy (18.4 per cent) and flattered Hollande (30.6 per cent), but Le Pen fille was way ahead with 35 per cent, about double her national share of the vote. Thirty-five per cent in La Barde amounts to roughly 100 voters. The commune is an irrelevance in national terms, with fewer than 450 inhabitants. (Fans of The Archers believe Ambridge has more than that.) In 2010 in La Barde there were five births.
But the vote for the far right articulates the last phase in the long decline of peasant livelihoods here and elsewhere in France. It is a brutal, exasperated, dissident vote, expressing fear of live burial: rising contributions to the public coffers and dwindling returns. The mayor regards it chiefly as a protest against the retreat of local government and the state. The closest county office, where you’d go to sort out a building permit or argue a tax bill, used to be a 15-minute drive. Now the nearest administrative centre is 100 km away. The school, the mayor told me, shut in 1982.
He wasn’t surprised the FN candidate did well. The dark days in La Barde began in the 1980s as young adults turned their backs on the land – dairy farming as well as vines – and left for the cities. Family farms went under, land holdings were broken up and sold in little plots at bargain rates. Most of the buyers were townspeople who built bungalows and started commuting back to their jobs or planning their retirement. There is now one large working farm and one building contractor in the commune.
The profitable mixed woodland on the plateau behind the village has been ravaged by freak weather – a ferocious hurricane in 1999 – and hardwood diseases linked to climate change. Small farmers have largely disappeared. No cafés, no bakery, no corner shop, no informal public life. The undistinguished church stands reproachfully at the top of the village. Beside it is the beautiful town hall, formerly the school, exquisitely turned-out, sublimely inert at most times of day in most weathers. It is the last vestige of the Republic in a community that ‘Republican values’ can no longer afford to service, whoever wins on Sunday.