‘We want our peace’: why is France’s far-right support such a rural affair?

Flanked by fields of corn and tree-lined ponds, the regular rumbling of planes in the distance is the only hint of Colombier-Saugnieu’s proximity to the bustling metropolis of Lyon.

But in recent days journalists from the city have begun traipsing out to the tiny commune, population 2,500, in hopes of better understanding a dynamic seemingly at play in the country’s snap parliamentary elections: the sharp divide when it comes to voters in rural and urban areas.

In Colombier-Saugnieu, 54% of voters cast their ballot for the far-right, anti-immigrant National Rally (RN) party – the highest in the eastern central French department of Rhône. Around 17 miles away in central Lyon, the RN was conspicuously absent when it came to the top two choices in the city’s four voting districts.

In Colombier-Saugnieu, as she swept leaves off the pavement outside the stately home that has long belonged to her family, 77-year-old Jaqueline explained why support for Marine Le Pen’s party had soared from 36% in 2022’s first round of elections to 54% this time round.

“Frankly, I’m backing the RN. I hope they come in and things change a bit,” she said. “I want things to go back to the way they were, with a little more security, more dialogue and less violence.”

She was swift to acknowledge, however, that crime, violence and lack of dialogue weren’t particularly hot-button issues in Colombier-Saugnieu. “In the village, at the moment, everything is fine. But when you see the news, we absorb it, you realise that it’s going badly everywhere.”

Perhaps she and others in the commune were not looking for change, she conceded, but had voted for RN out of fear of what could come. “We want things to stay the way they are. We want our peace.”

Lyon has a multicultural population and residents are not afraid of migrants. Photograph: Bagdassarian Alexandre/The Observer

Four weeks after France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, launched the country into snap parliamentary elections, polls suggest that the RN will fall short of an absolute majority. The far-right party, however, which has promised to slash immigration, bar dual nationals from certain state jobs and work towards banning headscarves in public places, is still expected to become the biggest force in the National Assembly.

It’s a political transformation that appears to owe much to those who live outside the country’s cities. In Sunday’s first-round ballot, on average, voters in the country’s 23 metropolises mostly turned their backs on the far-right, with, on average, the leftwing New Popular Front (NFP) alliance earning more than double the support for the RN.

Now, as the country gears up to vote in the second, decisive round, some in Lyon are worried that those prepared to propel the far-right to power were being driven largely by misconceptions.

“People in the countryside are afraid of situations that they aren’t living but that they saw on TV,” said Mathieu, 33. “So the fantasy of the right and far-right – I’m talking about Macron to Le Pen – is to make people fantasise by saying ‘look what’s happening’. Except that we in cities are living what’s happening and we’re not afraid.” He pointed to the rich diversity of Lyon, home to people from all around the world. “I see migration every day, it’s not something to be afraid of,” he said. “The parties on the left tend to resonate with us more because we see poverty, we see situations that are not the result of immigration at all, but rather the result of public policies.”

Still, some media had found ratings by choosing to focus incessantly on issues concerning security and immigration, effectively amplifying the message espoused by Le Pen and her party, he said. “And since then, we’ve seen a complete banalisation of what was previously inconceivable for us.”

His sentiments were echoed by Melanie, 36, standing outside an office building finishing a cigarette.

Mélanie, who lives in Lyon, says reporting ramps up levels of crime in cities. Photograph: Bagdassarian Alexandre/The Observer

Constant news reporting on crime had created a false sense that France’s cities were being consumed by a “climate of insecurity”, she said. “We live here, we know that we’re not going to be assaulted every day. But those outside the cities watch the news and every day they see stories about assaults and think ‘ooh là là, it’s horrible in the city’.”

As he strolled with his bull mastiff Sherlock along a tree-lined alleyway in Colombier-Saugnieu, Bernie, 65, had little doubt that the time had come for a far-right government. “People don’t necessarily want the far-right. They want security, less immigration and more purchasing power,” he said. “The only ones capable of providing this is the so-called extreme-right.”

The RN, launched in the early 1970s as the National Front, once included in its ranks former members of a Waffen-SS military unit under Nazi command during the second world war.

Rife with antisemitic, homophobic and racist views, the party was widely regarded as a danger to democracy that needed to be kept out of mainstream politics. While Le Pen has spent much of the past decade working to soften the party’s image, its core message remains one of deep hostility to immigration, with promises to cut welfare benefits and medical insurance for migrants.

In Colombier-Saugnieu, Bernie brushed off any suggestion that France, whose birthrate is declining, needed migrants to help sustain its social welfare state. “When they say ‘there aren’t enough workers in France’, I don’t know. It’s hard to verify.”

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Instead the 65-year-old son of Italian immigrants took aim at those who were migrating to France. “I’m not against them coming here, it’s not a problem. But you can see they have no intention of integrating into our way of life,” he said.

People demonstrate against French far-right party RN in Lyon on 30 June. Photograph: Jeff Pachoud/AFP/Getty Images

When asked if he had ever tried to speak to any migrants to find out about their intentions, he said that he hadn’t. “No, I never had the chance.”

In front of the bakery in Colombier-Saugnieu, one resident shook his head as he attempted to explain why more than half the commune had cast their ballots for RN days earlier.

“I really don’t understand it,” he said, noting that he had always voted for the centre or the mainstream rightwing party. “There are a lot of people who don’t like foreigners, or rather, so-called foreigners. It’s like before, when elderly people in the village had their guard up against those from the outside.”

Where exactly this intense rejection for foreigners had come from was hard to say, he added. “There are very few foreigners here. Very few. People just don’t like what’s new.”

Bernie, resident of the village Colombier-Saugnieu, with his dog Sherlock. Bernie thinks only the extreme right can sort society’s issues. Photograph: Bagdassarian Alexandre/The Observer

While media have been quick to seize on the political divide between urban and rural areas, much of the voting discrepancy can be attributed to the kinds of people who live in both areas rather than geography, said Mathieu Gallard, research director for pollster Ipsos in France. “In the countryside, generally speaking, you tend to have more older citizens, more people from the working class, more people with just a high school diploma, for example.”

At the University of Lyon, political science professor Stéphane Cadiou cautioned against generalising when it comes to rural areas and cities. “It’s just not that simple,” he said. “There are senior executives who live in the countryside, but they don’t vote RN… So you can’t say that the countryside votes RN. This idea of one, generalised countryside doesn’t exist in France.”

The same nuance needs to be applied to cities, he said. “In Nice, a big city, they didn’t vote in the same way as Lyon.” The southern city of Nice, along with nearby Toulon, ran counter to most cities, with the far-right gathering the most votes across the board in last Sunday’s first round ballot.

The wide difference lies in Nice’s social fabric, said Cadiou. “In Nice, there are very few industrial jobs, very few jobs that require higher education. It’s mainly small service-sector jobs,” he said. “And you also have a right that very quickly cultivated links with the far-right. So all of this created a porosity that makes it a favourable breeding ground for the extreme right.”

Regardless of whether voters live in the countryside or in cities, the one unifying issue was the cost of living, said Gallard. “People are afraid for their own economic and social situation,” he said. “Basically, the left says that you can fight social inequalities and have a better level of life by fighting the wealthiest, and the far-right says it will be done by fighting immigrants.”

He pointed to these entrenched positions to explain polling data that suggested the far-right was in a stronger position heading into Sunday’ssecond-round ballot. “I think many people actually think that it would be easier to fight against immigration than to have a fair fight against big corporations and wealthy people.”

The Guardian

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