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TONNEINS, France — Tonneins should be an idyllic place to live. Full of history and charm, the small town perches above the River Garonne in southwest France and is surrounded by gently rolling countryside. Sounds like an expat’s dream.
And yet, more than half the town’s voters backed the populist, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in last weekend’s presidential election.
Despite the area’s natural beauty, the signs of decline and decay are everywhere. Youths hang around the main square, there are entire streets with boarded-up shops and, overlooking the river, an empty bandstand recalls better times.
“It’s a sad town,” said an elderly woman sitting on a bench with a couple of friends. “There used to be a butcher, a baker, a grocery store, there’s nothing left now,” chimed in another.
“There’s nothing for the youngsters, mine have all left for big cities, Strasbourg, Paris, Lille…” added a third.
Tonneins is like thousands of provincial towns across France, once rural gems that are falling into disrepair, sore reminders of a waning France. And they have become easy prey for Le Pen, who in Sunday’s election made big gains across the country.
The far-right leader has extended her grip beyond strongholds in northeastern and southern France and pushed west into areas that traditionally voted center left. The Lot-et-Garonne constituency, which includes Tonneins, voted for the Socialist François Hollande in 2012 and centrist Emmanuel Macron in 2017, but swung behind Le Pen this time around.
Though Macron won reelection with 58 percent of the overall vote, the far-right National Rally has never been so strong, with Le Pen gaining 9 percentage points on her second-round result against Macron five years ago.
Now in his second term, the pressure is on Macron, who is seen as a president for the bigger globalized cities, to focus his energies on voters who feel left behind or cast aside, including those from rural towns and villages. With parliamentary elections looming in June, Macron’s La République en Marche party has to claw back support in places like the Lot-et-Garonne if it wants to keep control of the National Assembly.
But turning around places like Tonneins is no easy task.
Here, the main concerns are over the rising cost of living, security and immigration — three issues that play to the strengths of Le Pen’s National Rally. Ahead of the presidential election, Le Pen shunned big towns and ran a grassroots campaign focused on boosting purchasing power with eye-catching promises to cut VAT on basic products.
In Tonneins, her words found an echo. Kevin Escoder, a 24-year-old self-employed landscape gardener, voted for Le Pen because he wanted “change” and supported her policies on pensions and inflation.
“[My wife and I] both have full-time jobs, but salaries are much lower in the countryside and we’re struggling to make ends meet,” said Escoder.
Escoder and his wife Gwenaël Josset have already cut back on holidays to keep afloat, but with inflation hitting, they are seeing their dreams of getting on the property ladder vanish.
“We have to be very careful with our money, there’s always something that needs paying for. The car needs fixing, whatever. Or else we really would just be eating potatoes at the end of the month,” said Josset. It’s not just the lack of money that chafes, it’s the sense that life was “better before” when their parents “ate meat every day.”
In Tonneins, it’s a common refrain — that life was indeed easier not so long ago when there was more money and a local economy driven by the tobacco industry.
“Small towns have suffered a lot, shops have closed and people have become poorer,” said centrist Senator Jean-Pierre Moga, a former mayor of Tonneins.
“We still have some industry, but it doesn’t generate much wealth. When local shops started to close, the town lost its attractiveness and petty crime increased,” he said, adding that for a long time, women would stay home to avoid groups of youths loitering in the streets.
Tonneins illustrates the growing inequalities between urban and rural France. According to a 2020 study by the rural mayors’ association, city dwellers can expect to live two years longer than those in remote rural areas.
And as the economy has slumped, tensions have increased between locals and the descendants of North African immigrants. Tonneins is a town with a rich immigrant past, with workers from Italy, Spain, Eastern Europe and Morocco settling and taking up farming jobs over the past century. But nowadays, some residents accuse the youth of North African descent of becoming troublemakers because of a lack of prospects.
The poverty and lack of social mobility have made Tonneins, and many more places like it, low-hanging fruit for Le Pen’s rural push.
“We worked hard, crisscrossed the department, but that alone doesn’t move things,” said Sébastien Delbosq, a regional councilor from the National Rally.
“What changed is the track record [of past governments], 10 years of breaking public services, of post offices closing, of fewer police officers. The Lot-et-Garonne feels abandoned,” he added.
The results of the presidential election show that 51 percent of voters in towns with fewer than 1,000 inhabitants backed Le Pen, compared with 25 percent in towns with a population of over 100,000.
A tall order for Macron
Since winning the election, Macron has pledged to reconcile divisions in France.
“In the poorest neighborhoods, whether it’s in towns or in the countryside, we must re-create the conditions for a real equality of chances,” he said on a visit to Cergy, near Paris, on Wednesday, adding this was the only way to overcome the “feeling of neglect.”
During his campaign, Macron promised €50 billion of investment per year, financed by his reforms of pensions and job-seeker allowances. Some of this money is earmarked for rural and peripheral areas. His camp also argues that the government’s effort to bring down unemployment — which is at its lowest since 2008 — is the best way to boost buying power.
But none of these policies will have an immediate impact on places like Tonneins. Already €5 billion has been invested in renovating the centers of small towns.
“Lots of places in the Lot-et-Garonne received money,” said Michel Lauzzana, a local MP from Macron’s La République en Marche party.
“But it doesn’t pay off straight away. Investments need to create a dynamic, it takes time. It’s like a cruise ship that slowly turns around,” he said.
Except time is running out. In June’s parliamentary elections, Le Pen’s allies hope that her strong showing in the presidential vote will translate into seats in the National Assembly. In the Lot-et-Garonne, Le Pen won 27 percent of the vote, ahead of Macron’s 23 percent and 18 percent for far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
“They are not in government so they can promise the moon,” said Lauzzana, referring to analysis showing that Le Pen’s and Mélenchon’s campaign platforms were not properly budgeted.
“We work under restrictions because we are managing the country. We are fighting dreams with the weapons of the real world,” said Lauzzana.
But in Tonneins, it’s unlikely that Escoder and his wife will hear those arguments when they cast their votes in June. With inflation biting, a new Macron mandate just means less money in their pockets.