AUXERRE, France — With its magnificent 13th-century Gothic cathedral and prominent statue of Paul Bert, one of the founders of France’s secular school system, Auxerre seems to epitomize French history. Half-timbered houses line picturesque banks. The vines roll in the surrounding countryside.
“Auxerre is the typical French provincial town,” said Crescent Marault, the mayor.
So typical, in fact, that for the past 40 years the Burgundian city has always voted for the winning presidential candidate, mirroring the results nationally and making the city something of a political barometer.
Today, like much of France, Auxerre has seen a shift to the right, the result of a malaise that stems in part from difficulties in finding employment in the provincial town, and stagnating incomes for those who are employed — as well as less tangible fears about immigration and crime.
Mr Marault, the right-wing mayor, came to power in 2020 defeating the 19-year-old former socialist mayor. He said insecurity was a growing concern for his constituents.
“It’s like some people are getting intoxicated by the comments nationwide,” he said. “But frankly, we cannot consider that Auxerre is a city where there is insecurity.” The crime rate in Auxerre is higher than the national average but much lower than that of Paris.
This drift to the right has been accompanied by growing disillusionment with politics as a whole. Many people seem to have given up on the idea that political change can make a difference in their lives.
“The presidential election is a moment of polarization of media attention, but which is not reflected in people’s daily lives,” said Benoît Coquard, a sociologist specializing in the rural world. “It’s important to see this disconnect between the media bubble and what’s really going on in the lives of people who don’t care.”
Valentine Souyri, 38, a bus driver who was watching her children in a playground, said “the problem is not immigration”.
“The problem is that people who want power don’t know what it’s like to be here,” said Ms. Souyri, who never fails to vote in elections. But this time, she’s not sure.
“None of them talk about what really interests us,” she said. “I’ve been looking for an ophthalmologist for my son for a year, I haven’t had a dentist for two years. Here we have nothing, it’s a desert.
“My parents were also on minimum wage, but they were doing better,” Ms Souyri added, echoing lingering concerns in France about the breakdown in social mobility and shrinking social protections.
She once said to her son, who wanted to become a member of the National Assembly, that “you are the child of a minimum wage, you will be, your children and grandchildren will be too. Welcome in France!”
Such frustration with a perceived bleak future partly explains the shift to political extremes. In the first round of the 2020 regional elections, the far-right National Rally party was second in Auxerre, with 20% of the vote, compared to 9.3% in the first round of the 2007 presidential election.
Émilie Pauron, 37, also a bus driver in Auxerre, voted for Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Rally, in all presidential elections since 2012.
“The state has no money and there are French people in the countryside who are starving,” Ms Pauron said as she watched over her daughter – whose father is Congolese – in the same courtyard of recreation on the outskirts of the city. “And those who arrive,” she added, referring to immigrants, “we give them everything. It has to stop.
Many residents of Auxerre cite the rising cost of living as their main concern. A recent poll shows a similar sentiment at national level, with 51% of French people considering purchasing power as their main concern, well ahead of immigration.
As in many medium-sized towns in “peripheral France”, Auxerre suffered from the closure of a factory in the 1990s – in this case, the one that manufactured woodworking tools and was one of the main employers of the region. Now cut off from the main centers of population and employment, the city is experiencing the disconnection of the Parisian ruling elite that led the yellow vests movement three years ago.
Less than three months before the April election, the presidential campaign is feverishly talked about in the French media.
On the right, the polls show between 12 and 18% support for Ms. Le Pen; a far-right rival, Éric Zemmour; and Valérie Pécresse, candidate of the conservative party based in France, Les Républicains. They are fighting to overthrow President Emmanuel Macron, a centrist, who leads the polls with 24%. The left, desperately split, has no candidate with more than 10%.
In the 2007 presidential election, a majority in Auxerre voted for Nicolas Sarkozy – 31% in the first round and around 52% in the second, matching national figures.
Also in the first round of the 2012 election, Auxerre voted in the same proportions for the main candidates as at the national level. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, from the far left, gets 11%, Ms. Le Pen 17% and François Hollande, the socialist who will be elected, about 30%. In 2017, Mr. Macron came out on top at Auxerre in the first round. with 25 percent.
If Auxerre is any indicator, he seems curiously detached in this election. For many people, the vote seems to be as distant and unimportant as Paris and the elites who live there.
Learn more about the French presidential election
The campaign begins. French citizens will go to the polls in April to begin electing a president. Here is an overview of the candidates:
Guy Roux, 83, a former manager who brought glory to Auxerre football club in the 1990s, guiding it to its only French league title, said he understood the locals who aspired at the time before local businesses are shut down by global economic competition.
“When Zemmour talks about deindustrialization, he describes it well,” Mr. Roux said of the far-right polemicist who shook up the campaign with his anti-immigrant apocalyptic vision of a declining France.
“And Auxerre is in the heart of the matter,” added Mr. Roux. “He’s a bit right, but he’s exaggerating.”
However, not everyone is sold on Mr. Zemmour’s nostalgic vision of 1950s France.
“Given his ideas and his mentality, I think he is not of our time,” said Doumbia Yacou, 39, who works in security.
“Of course, we are interested in politics. But when I look at Zemmour, it’s immigration, always immigration, ”says Kader Djemaa, 51, father of three unemployed children, in a cafe in the city center.
“But nothing changes for us here, for the people,” he said.
“We’re not following anything at all in the election because we’re not interested,” said Cindie Bourgeois, 38, queuing outside a bakery one recent afternoon.
She and her husband did not recall voting in a recent presidential election and did not intend to do so this time.
“It’s not even a topic at home,” Ms. Bourgeois said of the election.
In interviews, locals expressed concerns such as frustration with loud urban rodeos in the central square – a product of Saturday night boredom, with the local nightclub closed due to Covid restrictions. They worried about rising gas prices, especially as many shop at a mall on the outskirts of town, and the future of their children, in a town where few find jobs.
Brigitte Dutoit, 64, born and raised in Auxerre, has been running a high-end lingerie boutique in the city center for 27 years. She usually votes right, but this time it’s different.
“I don’t even think I’m going to vote, or if I do it will be blank,” she said, adding that she felt the voice of the people had never been heard.
In 2017, she gave her vote to Mr. Macron, hoping for a change. But like many here, she doesn’t feel like her life has improved over the past five years. The government’s handling of the Covid crisis disappointed her even more. “They lied to us a lot,” she said.
“I like doing my civic duty but I’m disgusted,” she added. “Really, really disgusted.”