Ahead of the country’s presidential election, we take a roadtrip across southern France to detect whether the far-right will oust Macron.
As names of France’s administrative regions go, Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur captures the imagination more than most. It summons images of palm-lined beaches, quaint Provençal villages and the glamour of Saint-Tropez and Cannes. But the region known to political pollsters by its acronym Paca has one of France’s starkest income disparities and unique demographics that have long made it (with a few exceptions, notably Marseille) tilt right or far-right when it comes to politics. In the first round of France’s 2017 presidential election, Paca stood out as the only region where Emmanuel Macron trailed behind both Marine Le Pen, leader of the Rassemblement National (RN), the party formerly known as the Front National (FN), and François Fillon of the conservative Les Républicains (LR).
Paca’s history and distinctive political flavour make it the perfect place to begin a monocle roadtrip to look at this unpredictable election, which takes place on 10 April, with a run-off expected on 24 April, and could see the French electorate shift markedly right. The centrist Macron, whose approval rating sits at about 40 per cent as monocle goes to print, is seeking a second term but no incumbent has pulled that off since Jacques Chirac in 2002. Le Pen appears well placed for another run-off against Macron after losing to him five years ago, when last-minute tactical voting kept her out of power. The combined extreme right is polling at historic highs and the rise of polemicist Éric Zemmour, who has called for “immigration zero” and a ban on foreign names, has thrown a wrench into the contest.
Polls place Zemmour, a TV pundit of North African Jewish descent with convictions for inciting racial hatred, not so far behind Macron and within striking distance of Le Pen. Few believe that he could make it to the Élysée Palace but the effect of his often incendiary rhetoric is already being felt in the wider public conversation, with other presidential candidates, including Le Pen and LR’s Valérie Pécresse, co-opting some of his dangerous style of messaging.
Marseille to Vallauris
France’s second city, Marseille, which is Paca’s main population centre and my adopted hometown, is a good starting point for this trip through the south, not least because political dynamics here are more textured than in the rest of the region. Since 2020, the city hall has been dominated by a Green-left coalition, following the retirement after 25 years in the post of the previous mayor, an octogenarian from LR called Jean-Claude Gaudin. Among the region’s parliamentarians is hard-left presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon of La France Insoumise (lfi), who, at the time of writing, is polling at about 11 per cent in the first round.
In 2017, Macron won about 65 per cent of Marseille’s vote in the second round. Le Pen has some support here but it’s not a solid base. A senator for her party defected to the Zemmour camp in February. In my quartier, RN posters tend to be defaced or torn down soon after they go up.
I discuss the political mood with Marseille-born director Robert Guédiguian, whose films depicting the city’s working class have brought him international acclaim. He is in town prepping for his next project. The son of an Armenian migrant father, he is a lifelong leftist who deplores the French left’s current disarray and resents what he calls “Macronism”. As we stroll along Marseille’s Vieux-Port area, I raise the prospect of either a Macron-Pécresse or a Macron-Le Pen run-off. Guédiguian grimaces and uses a French expression referring to the choice between “the plague and cholera”. It’s a no-win choice that we will hear discussed frequently once we hit the road.
Before leaving Marseille, I talk to Isabelle Wesselingh, the Agence France-Presse (afp) bureau chief for southeast France. She was born and raised in Arles, one of Paca’s cultural hubs. There is much debate within the French media about how to cover this election, given the emergence of Zemmour, who some have dubbed a French Donald Trump. Zemmour has a fractious relationship with the press. After he was heckled by protesters during a visit to Marseille in January, an afp photographer captured him on camera giving the middle finger. The image went viral.
“Polemics and divisive language are taking a bigger space in the public debate, perhaps amplified by social-media algorithms,” says Wesselingh over coffee at her home. “There is a lot being said about identity and immigration but the main concerns that we hear in the field relate to growing difficulties with low salaries, small pensions and the disappearance of public services.”
Joined by photographer William Keo, we set off in our car from Marseille’s crowded downtown streets towards the road heading east along the Mediterranean. In an hour we reach Toulon; with a population of about 180,000, it is Paca’s third-largest city. We park and walk along its waterfront, where we meet septuagenarian Paul Torra, who is arranging merchandise at his souvenir shop, La Cigale.
Torra, who stocks an impressive collection of antique maritime paraphernalia, declares that he is so fed up with France’s political class that he won’t be voting. “They’re all the same to me,” he says. “My politics are on the right but I don’t like Pécresse.” He finds LR’s candidate unconvincing and questions her suitability for the presidency. “People like me feel that no one speaks to us,” he says.
Home to France’s largest naval base, Toulon is where the then FN won a landmark mayoral victory in 1995. A Lonely Planet guide cited this as a “good reason to avoid this unfortunate city”. The current mayor, conservative Hubert Falco, wrested control from the far-right in 2001 and has since served as a bulwark against it. One of several prominent figures of the mainstream right in the southern region who back Macron, Falco is credited with overseeing an urban-renewal programme that has helped the city to improve its image and attract investment.
We planned our itinerary to coincide with Le Pen’s arrival here for a press conference about her defence strategy. Her campaign team has chosen as its venue a bright yellow boat on the bay, ringed with French navy vessels. We join the media scrum onboard and Le Pen, in a trouser suit, arrives after stopping for selfies with passers-by.
Later, against the backdrop of warships, the RN leader laughs when I ask her if she fears Zemmour politically. She takes a drag on her vape, looks at me and says, “Not at all,” before going on to argue that divisions and defections (Zemmour has peeled away some of her former party stalwarts) are part of the rough and tumble of politics.
monocle drives an hour east from Toulon’s waterfront to Fréjus, a seaside town nestled between Saint-Tropez and Cannes. It became a symbol of the RN’s local-election breakthroughs in 2014 when the then 26-year-old David Rachline was elected the party’s youngest-ever mayor, a post that he still holds. There is a typical southern mix of pieds-noirs, or French colonialists who left Algeria after it won independence in 1962, and Muslims with North African roots, plus retirees, including former military. Relations between residents can be testy.
Riots erupted here in 2009 after a young Muslim man died in a road accident while being pursued by police. Several legal battles have also overshadowed the construction of the al-Fath mosque; despite Paca’s large Muslim population, this is one of the few purpose-built mosques in the region. Rachline was among the Côte d’Azur mayors to outlaw the full-body swimwear known as the “burkini” in 2016, before the ban was lifted, following a national court ruling. Though rights groups blasted the ban, it was popular among many voters here.
I meet 33-year-old Walid Afras, who helps to run the mosque, as he finishes Friday afternoon prayers. Born in Morocco, he was a baby when he moved with his parents to France. Without naming Zemmour, Afras acknowledges that the rhetoric of this presidential election cycle is worrying. “In my view the main priority is how we all live together,” he says. Zemmour has been playing on anxieties about Muslim radicals that have been brought to the fore again by the ongoing trial of men accused of taking part in the November 2015 Paris terrorist attacks (see issue 151).
We hit the road again and drive a few kilometres to the Bar Tabac de la Mairie, around the corner from Fréjus town hall, its 19th-century façade resplendent in the sunshine. Owner Yves Grandamme, a cheerful man in his late fifties, serves pastis to his regulars. Grandamme wants Macron to be re-elected but several of his customers belong to the far-right. Among them is Christian Macario, a retiree who plans to vote for Zemmour but says that he supports the RN at a municipal level. “Immigration is the big problem,” he says, while speaking proudly of his Italian heritage. The proportion of immigrants in France, at 13 per cent, is lower than in many European countries.
That evening we drive north and then east to the town of Vallauris, where Le Pen is holding a rally. Despite what she claimed to me earlier in the day, it’s evident that the RN leader is unsettled by the Zemmour effect. In recent years she has focused more on economic issues but her 50-minute speech in Vallauris is mostly a rant against migrants. “France, land of immigration – c’est fini,” she says. It is punctuated by chants and cheers from hundreds of loyalists. There’s a lot of talk from both Le Pen and her supporters about the French no longer recognising their country, echoing the Zemmour campaign’s key themes.
A merchandise stand sells champagne labelled “Marine Présidente 2022” for €30 a bottle and T-shirts with a slogan exhorting the French to “wake up”. Outside, the atmosphere is tense. Police move in when Molotov cocktails are thrown from a housing complex nextdoor. The following day’s French media reports on the rally note that Le Pen is going back to basics, a reference to an earlier, more explicitly xenophobic version of the party, which her father founded as FN in 1972. Here in Paca, where Le Pen père exploited the often uneasy coexistence between pieds noirs and North African migrants to build his original base, his daughter doesn’t want to lose ground to Zemmour.
Cannes to Nice
It’s a busy Saturday morning at the Forville covered market in Cannes, a 15-minute jaunt west of Vallauris, and the political views of those streaming through its terracotta-coloured arches are as varied as the regional produce on offer. Shoppers load their baskets with bottles of Provençal olive oil, cheese and bunches of yellow mimosa. Many traders complain about the effect of the pandemic; some are critical of Macron’s measures to control it. Several of their customers predict that the presidential election will yet again be a Macron-Le Pen contest; most say that they will vote for the incumbent, if only to keep the far-right out. Others remain undecided. “I voted for Macron last time but I’m not sure this year,” says Serge, a Cannes-born man in his fifties who declines to supply his surname. “I have never liked the extreme right but I’m worried about the direction in which France is going,” he says.
When Zemmour visited Forville in January, he said that he was giving voice to the “silent France”. Among those who were unhappy to see him at the market was 43-year-old hotel chef Momo Boulad, who now banters with customers queuing for the Moroccan specialities that he sells here at weekends, including pigeon pastilla and honey-drenched baklava. “Zemmour seems to have so much hate in him and that’s a real shame,” he says. “There are many foreigners who are glad to live in France. Look around this market: it’s a mix of several nationalities, from Lebanese and Ivorian to Chinese and Italian. The important thing is that everyone respects each other.”
At the next stall, 58-year-old baker Cathy Borries, who voted for Le Pen in the 2017 election, pauses between taking orders for her homemade quiche to criticise Zemmour. “He’s an extremist,” she says. “I’m afraid of him. Immigration is an issue, yes, but there are many other challenges, like the state of our education system and the future of our pensions.” The views of Borries and others like her suggest that the question of why so many French have lurched towards the far-right goes beyond immigration, even if Zemmour’s rhetoric conflates it with other concerns, particularly economic ones.
Later we head east along the A8 motorway, winding past the international airport before reaching Nice. We don’t see any campaign posters on the way but arrive in Paca’s second-largest city as it prepares for the second day of its annual carnival. A highlight is les grosses têtes – giant, colourful papier-mâché puppets that parade through the streets. As it’s an election year, they include presidential contenders; Zemmour makes an appearance this time.
Many residents are angry because authorities have erected large metal barriers along the parade route and introduced a steeply priced ticketing system as part of pandemic-related crowd-control measures. Frustrations over this transformation of a Niçoise tradition quickly become political, with many criticising the city’s mayor, Christian Estrosi, who left LR to become a Macron ally and often warns about the threat of the far-right.
Despite Le Pen’s attempts to gain support by linking insecurity to immigration, Macron won in Nice with about 60 per cent of the vote in 2017, a year after 86 people were killed when a Tunisian migrant ploughed a truck into Bastille Day revellers on the city’s Promenade des Anglais. I discuss the pre-election atmosphere with Feïza Ben Mohamed, a 36-year-old activist who has campaigned against anti-Muslim prejudice in the southern region and regularly appears on French television. She lost a friend, a fellow Muslim Niçoise, in the attack. Ben Mohamed notes that five years since Le Pen’s defeat, the themes of this election are “much more radical”, particularly when it comes to the fraught questions of identity that underpin France’s political debate over immigration. Zemmour harps on constantly about what he perceives as French identity and has called Islam “incompatible with the principles” of the country. “The identity bloc is very powerful and there are a lot of tensions, especially on the issue of migrants,” says Ben Mohamed.
We walk along the Promenade des Anglais as the sun dips below the Mediterranean. In the gardens of the Villa Masséna, evening strollers pay their respects at a memorial to those who died in the 2016 terror attack. Faded photographs of the dead surround the sombre marble-and-granite edifice that is engraved with their names. They include many names of Italian, Arab and Russian origin, a testament to the city’s diversity. Nearby, a retired couple, who declined to be identified, say that they voted for Macron last time and will do so again this year. “We have many criticisms of Macron but there’s no other choice if the other candidate is Le Pen,” they say. Their main concerns are the economy and security; they add that they trust Le Pen with neither and say that she lacks experience.
Antibes to Arles
monocle hits the road again in the morning, looping back westwards along the sea, before stopping at the coastal town of Antibes for lunch. Macron won affluent Antibes, known for its handsome marina, by 59 per cent in 2017. It’s one of the Paca towns that demonstrate that the far-right vote is not always an economically deprived one. Zemmour, who visited in January, is trying to eat into Le Pen’s base here, engaging with its population of well-heeled retirees who, as is the case elsewhere in France, are more likely to turn out to vote.
Then we drive for several hours across the rolling hills of interior Provence until we reach Istres, a town next to Étang de Berre, one of Europe’s largest lagoons. On the way, we pass economically stagnant hamlets that seem several worlds apart from the Côte d’Azur. It has started to rain, making their neglected buildings and neon-lit fast-food outlets look particularly bleak.
With its plane trees and cobbled medieval streets, however, downtown Istres is postcard pretty, even if frustrations are building here too. In December residents took to the streets to protest about the dwindling number of doctors and thrust the town into a national debate over so-called “medical deserts”. If there’s one issue that unites French voters across the political spectrum, it’s the future of the country’s much-vaunted yet increasingly pressured healthcare system.
Magali Gast and her partner, Anthony, both in their thirties, are supporters of Mélenchon, even though they bemoan the general state of the French left. I meet them in their home, a converted mill in the old town. Fierce critics of what they call Macron’s neoliberal agenda, they also worry about the far-right’s scapegoating of minorities. “Blaming foreigners for all of our problems helps [the right] win support,” says Gast. “It’s a very dangerous form of populism.” If it comes to a Macron-Le Pen run-off, they say that they will abstain.
We part ways with Magali and Anthony and drive 45 minutes northwest of Istres. We arrive in Arles just in time to catch Pécresse’s first major campaign rally on the hotel TV. The head of the Paris region won LR’s nomination on a platform that she described as “one-third Margaret Thatcher and two-thirds Angela Merkel”. But despite initial speculation that she could prove to be a serious rival to Macron by swaying centrists who voted for him last time, she has struggled to energise conservative voters.
It is notable how few people whom we meet on our roadtrip mention Pécresse’s name. Current polls suggest that she is unlikely to make it to the second round. Her campaign-rally speeches and delivery do not help her cause; they are widely panned even by LR figures. In particular, her ambiguous reference to the “great replacement” – a conspiracy theory that is key to Zemmour’s campaign and that claims that a white, Christian majority in France is being replaced by non-white migrants – has raised eyebrows, even if Pécresse later insisted that her intention had been to refute it.
Arles to Aix-en-Provence
Visiting Arles in February reminds you of how much it, like so many other places across the Paca region, relies on seasonal trade. During the summer months, this Unesco World Heritage city thrums with visitors drawn by its cultural foundations and events such as the Rencontres d’Arles photography festival. At this time of year, however, its streets are eerily quiet.
Patrick de Carolis, Arles’s well-coiffed mayor, is well aware of the challenges. Before he was elected as an independent in 2020, De Carolis was president of public-service broadcaster France Télévisions. He wants Arles to move beyond seasonal dependency by developing an “economic ecosystem” around the cultural and creative industries. The 68-year-old also talks about “de-seasonalising” the city’s events calendar.
Joblessness in Arles has dropped from 15 per cent in 2018 to just under 10 per cent, still higher than the national rate of 8 per cent, the lowest in 15 years. The far-right is trying to expand here. France might have recorded its highest growth in half a century (7 per cent) last year but such numbers mean little in communities where unemployment remains high. The rising cost of living helped to spark the gilets jaunes protests across France in 2018 and is likely to haunt Macron’s bid for a second term. Yet his rivals have presented no big ideas to tackle what national polls show to be the most important issue for voters (immigration and national identity come further down the list of priorities).
As in Istres, residents of Arles complain about a shortage of doctors. Macron’s margin against Le Pen was slim here in 2017: he won 56 per cent of the vote. “The residents of Arles, like the French in general, know perfectly well what is at stake in this election,” says De Carolis, a somewhat upbeat take on Macron’s prospects of keeping the far-right at bay.
We drive across the foothills of Les Alpilles, before reaching Aix-en-Provence, one of France’s wealthiest towns, half an hour later. In January, its centre-right mayor, Sophie Joissains, declared her support for Pécresse. Aix gave Macron a resounding 74 per cent of the vote against Le Pen in 2017. Pro-Zemmour activists sometimes canvass the weekend market but residents say that he has little chance of upending long-standing political allegiances.
“The right is so well established in Aix, it has left little room for the far-right,” says Nicolas Mazet, the affable owner of Gallifet, a contemporary-art space and restaurant housed in an 18th-century townhouse in the historic Mazarin district. “The quality of life here is excellent and residents live a relatively untroubled existence. There is a sense politically that business as usual is fine.” It’s a town that is expected to go to Macron once again.
Beyond what some call the “Aix bubble”, Pécresse clearly now believes that tougher rhetoric, particularly relating to security, chimes with prospective voters in the wider region. During a visit to the nearby town of Salon-de-Provence earlier this year, she vowed to “bring out the Kärcher” and “clean the neighbourhoods”. It’s a reference to a brand of high-pressure washers, though she did not specify which areas that she had in mind when it came to going after “thugs, criminals and dealers”. The crime rate in Salon-de-Provence is not considered particularly high. Another sign of l’effet Zemmour?
Having arrived back in Marseille from Aix the evening before, we have a full day in this boisterous port city, which is one of the country’s most diverse as a result of centuries of immigration. When financial newspaper Les Echos analysed Macron’s enthusiasm for Marseille, referring to a €3.6bn regeneration plan that he announced during an unprecedented three-day visit in September, it concluded that the president was seeking to make the city a “laboratoire de la Macronie”.
Philippe Stéfanini, the bespectacled chief executive of economic development agency Provence Promotion, greets us at his office with a view of the redeveloped Marseille quartier known as Euroméditerranée. He says that there is a feeling of momentum following Macron’s investment push. “This is the ideal playground to experiment with new ideas,” he says. “There is a need to respond to local challenges of living together better and deploying innovation for a more sustainable and inclusive future.”
We wind through Marseille’s busy streets, parking near the 17th-century city hall to meet Olivia Fortin, a deputy mayor who helped to spearhead Printemps Marseille, the city’s governing Green-left alliance. No fan of Macron, she is part of the campaign behind Christiane Taubira, a former justice minister seeking to be the left’s presidential candidate at the time (she has since dropped out). Fortin believes that the Printemps Marseille experience, anchored in grass-roots activism and wider civil-society efforts, can be a template for broader coalition-building in national politics, particularly among the atomised left, even as this presidential race is shaping up to be a contest between the centre, right, far-right and even-further-right.
Next we head to the city’s hardscrabble quartiers nord to meet social entrepreneur Naïm Zriouel, co-founder of educational project L’Épopée. Some neighbourhoods in Marseille have struggled with high unemployment and drug-related crime, and media portrayals can give the impression that many of the anxieties driving this election converge here. But Zriouel sees a great deal to be optimistic about; indeed, as he points out, the far-right is polling relatively poorly in this diverse city.
After a busy day and hundreds of kilometres travelled across Paca, I get home and check in with Christèle Lagier, a political scientist at the University of Avignon. The latest polls show that Macron is the favourite and since the roadtrip he has been given high marks for his response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The crisis has also put Le Pen’s relationship with Moscow under the spotlight; not only did her party take a loan from a Russian-based bank but she also backed the Kremlin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.
I tell Lagier that at every stop along our five-day trip across Paca, we met people who said that they were so disillusioned with the presidential candidates on offer (or politics more generally) that they were not planning to vote.
Lagier is not surprised. Over the past decade, fewer and fewer French people have been turning out to vote in national, regional and municipal ballots. “Abstention remains the big unknown in this election,” she says. “That makes any forecast very risky.”
Runners and riders
La République En Marche!
Macron, who served under the Socialist François Hollande as economy minister, vowed to be “neither right nor left” before becoming president. His push to liberalise the economy has faced stiff resistance from unions. His prospects of winning remain bright, despite his reputation of being the president of the rich.
Marine Le Pen
Rassemblement National (RN)
Le Pen has spent years trying to “detoxify” the racist image of the RN, founded by her father as FN in 1972, by focusing on “economic nationalism”. She trails Macron in the polls. With some of her base defecting to Éric Zemmour, she is talking tougher on immigration and crime.
A far-right TV pundit with convictions for inciting racial hatred, Zemmour rose to second place in the polls late last year. But that support has since dipped. The son of North African Jews, he made his name with anti-immigration diatribes and his 2014 book Le Suicide français is a bestseller.
Les Républicains (LR)
The president of the Île-de-France region served as budget minister under Nicolas Sarkozy. Socially conservative but economically liberal, she has taken a hard line on immigration and public spending. Her chances depend on preventing conservatives from drifting to the far-right.
La France Insoumise (LFI)
Mélenchon founded lfi after defecting from the Socialists. He has campaigned for a shorter working week, lower retirement age and higher minimum wage. In 2017 he polled at almost 20 per cent but with France’s left increasingly divided, his chances of reaching the second round look slim.
Europe Ecologie Les Verts (EELV)
Jadot is the leader of France’s Greens and a member of the European Parliament. Like Macron he refuses to be categorised as left or right, calling himself a “pragmatic environmentalist”. He hopes to build national momentum from eelv’s local-election success two years ago. It remains a tall order.
Images: Reuters, Getty Images