As I step off the train in Roquefort, southern France, I sniff the air appreciatively. It’s so good to be out of the Paris bubble, meeting some authentic French people to answer the biggest question in European politics: why did so many people vote for Emmanuel Macron? Was it a lack of economic anxiety, or a lack of racism?
Either way, their concerns deserve to be heard. Some might find them unpalatable, but history has taught us that repressing such views only makes them more virulent. It might not be pleasant to hear them, it might offend our sensibilities, but we have to share our towns and cities with pragmatic centrists, so we must strive to understand them. Too often, during this French presidential cycle, an out-of-touch media elite has failed to understand these people, connected to the political process, broadly trusting of the mainstream media, and what has driven them to vote for a liberal, globalising ex-banker who wants to deregulate the economy.
Arriving at the nearest patisserie, I ask the owner, Claude, if she knows where I might find some Macron voters to talk to. “They are probably at work right now,” she says. “Or picking up their kids. Are you sure that it’s not Le Pen voters you want to meet? That’s what the journalists usually say.”
Just down the street I run into Joséphine. “Are you angry?” I ask.
“Yes, I am fuming!”
“I suppose you are deeply resentful of immigrants and their effects on wages – or perhaps seized by an intense yet vague sense of national decline?”
She stares at me.
“No. My bicycle has been stolen.”
I try a local bar. Three older men sit around a table outside, smoking and drinking that horrible French spirit which goes cloudy when you add water, like TCP does.
“Excuse me, gentlemen,” I say. “I’m here from a British magazine to discover why this populist surge has swept France.”
One of them, Jean-Luc, pauses for a long moment. “I would say that perhaps France has some experience of what happens when a country elects a right-wing authoritarian who likes to blame everything on people from a religious minority.” He leans in. “My father was in the maquis.”
On his left, Antoine takes up the tale. “The thing is, the political class don’t listen to people like us. People call us extremists, but we just want someone who will make sure that the lights stay on and not do something stupid, like take us out of the European union. Beyond that -“, he shrugs, “I am relatively happy. This is a great time to be alive, isn’t it? I still have all my teeth. There is no war.”
The final man, François, chips in. “I remember the “good old days”. Merde! Did you know our service stations only gave up those toilets where it’s two footplates and a hole about 15 years ago?” He shakes his head. “I would like a little more globalisation, frankly.”
The waiter brings over more drinks. Tahar is in his 20s and a Muslim. He has a simple explanation for Macron’s triumph. “These Le Pen voters are trapped in a exurban nativist bubble. They are out of touch with the needs and values of real French people, like me.” He is right. There are deep forces at work here, which have caused the triumph of innumerable centrists around the western world over the past few decades. Only a blinkered fool would try to deny this uncomfortable truth. Perhaps, I begin to wonder with prickling unease, it is just as legitimate an electoral strategy to appeal to young people, ethnic minorities and social liberals as it is to go for the votes of nativist whites? I shake my head to clear it. No. Saying that would be like saying that there is no hierarchy of citizenhood, and that every voter is of equal value.
Finally, in the bookshop, I do find someone who is angry. “We are tired of our traditional culture being mocked and derided,” says Pierre, angrily setting aside his Proust omnibus. “Does Marine Le Pen not understand that being French is all about being insouciant, not shouting endlessly about how terrible it is when women wear veils? The only article of clothing a Frenchman should be against is the sock with the sandal.” He shudders. “We are not . . . Germans.”
However, walking around town, I also notice a disturbing phenomenon. A lot of people simply don’t want to talk to me about their political views. These are the Shy Macronists, living proof that our media climate is hostile to those with a pragmatic, centrist outlook. They know their opinions are unfashionable, and the casual insults thrown at them are exactly what drove so many to vote for the 39-year-old. “Do not use my name,” says one young man, looking nervously down the street. “Here in France you cannot speak openly about your love of the European Union. Politicians are scared of tackling the subject, even though we know this is what many people in the country think. It is – how you say? – political correctness gone mad.”
Outside, I run into a rare Le Pen voter, stepping out of his battered Renault. Why did his candidate lose, I ask him. “I blame the mainstream media. All the way through this campaign they have reported fairly, exposing Fillon’s strange financial dealings, giving due weight to the charges against Le Pen and, finally, refusing to go stark raving insane over an extremely mundane dump of Macron’s emails on the eve of polling day.” He jabs his finger in my direction, nearly dislodging the bottle of Panaché I bought at the Monoprix. “And also I blame the other candidates! What kind of rightwing politicians are these, who throw their weight behind a centrist in the final round? They should have pandered to her more, in order to prop up their own bases. And I blame the system! Why do we not have something like the electoral college, where the votes of a thousand angry white people in a few towns have a wildly disproportionate effect on the result. It is abominable.”
Walking back to the train, I reflect how strange it is that I should run into a series of broad French stereotypes who confirmed my pre-existing views. Still, I shrug, pulling out a Gauloise, putting on my beret and adjusting the string of onions around my neck, you just have to go where the story takes you.
*with thanks to Jessica Elgot and @CatalinMU