“They’re all corrupt”. “They’ve too long taken us for a ride.” “We can’t believe them any more”. So say voters as soon as they are asked about politicians here. Disgust has run high since a series of financial scandals started dogging two of the presidential candidates: François Fillon and Marine Le Pen...By Natalie Nougayrède

Campaign posters of the 11 candidates who run in the 2017 French presidential election. Campaign posters, French presidential election. Photograph: Jean-Paul Pelissier/Reuters

France goes to the polls on Sunday in a presidential election shaped by economic insecurity, cultural paranoia and terrorism. Natalie Nougayrède travels to the south-west and tries to make sense of the most important vote of her lifetime

The quiet, lovely medieval towns and soft, rolling hills covered with orchards and vineyards of south-west France are an unlikely setting for a citizens’ uprising. Yet just days before the presidential election, conversations with the inhabitants of this once leftwing region, stretching from the city of Toulouse to the rural settings of the Tarn-et-Garonne, offer a glimpse into France’s mood of rage and confusion. Popular resentment, fears and frustrations set the stage for a major political upheaval, almost 60 years after De Gaulle founded the country’s Fifth Republic.
France is a republican quasi-monarchy. Its institutions are centred on the president. But what is at stake in this vote isn’t just the choice of a personality, nor only an economic or political programme. The very essence of France’s democracy hangs in the balance, as well as the survival of the 60-year-old European project. Much of what is at work resembles the trends that produced Brexit in Britain and Trump in the US – not least the disgruntlement of those who feel they have lost out to globalisation. But there are also specific, distinct elements of a collective French identity crisis.
In the town of Moissac, a doctor in her 50s describes the mood this way: “We are experiencing a huge evolution, and it might well become a revolution. It would only take a spark.” “People are fed up and disorientated,” says a shopkeeper in Montauban, a town 30 miles north of Toulouse. “Many don’t yet know how they’ll vote, but be sure they will want to kick some bums. Things can’t go on like this”.
The French are notorious for complaining, and for their divisiveness. “How is it possible to govern a country that produces 246 varieties of cheese?” De Gaulle once asked. Brooding is a national sport. Surveys have shown the French are more pessimistic than Iraqis or Afghans . It’s hard to square this with the living standards of the world’s fifth largest economy, a country of high social protection and well-developed infrastructure, which has known 70 years of peace. But these are difficult, mind-boggling times. If comments from people in France’s south-west are anything to go by, then populist, extremist and even conspiratorial views are likely to define much of what will happen on Sunday and beyond.
Scandals have upended this campaign and have added to the voters’ rejection of the political class. The French hark after change, but many are also nostalgic for “life the way it once was”. Confusion is rife, not least because once solid references have come undone, and the trauma of terrorism has rattled the national mindset.
“They’re all corrupt”. “They’ve too long taken us for a ride.” “We can’t believe them any more”. So say voters as soon as they are asked about politicians here. Disgust has run high since a series of financial scandals started dogging two of the presidential candidates: François Fillon, the mainstream rightwing contender, who paid his family members large amounts of parliamentary funds, and Marine Le Pen, the far-right leader, whose party stands accused of misusing EU money.
But what is striking is that angry voters hardly make any distinction between the candidates: the entire political class gets lumped into one single bag of opprobrium. “They’re busy buying themselves beautiful suits and, meanwhile, I know people here who sleep in their car because they can’t find a job or affordable housing,” says a cafe owner in Montauban’s working-class neighbourhood.
Christophe Sanz, a supporter of centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron.
Lies and corruption have taken their toll on French politics before – in the 1980s, Francois Mitterrand’s presidency was tainted by controversies over party funding, and scandals also erupted around Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy. Yet the toxic combination today is that low political morality sits alongside a widespread perception of national decline. Demagogues peddling fake promises have thrived on this.
“We used to cherish values like patriotism,” a 40-year-old ticket salesman at Toulouse airport tells me. “I’m from the Bearn [another part of the south-west], with a modest background. My father toiled the land, and then he set up a small agricultural equipment business. Everyone worked hard and there was pride, and pride in our country. Now, all of that has gone to the rubbish heap”.
He’s “not scared of a Le Pen win”, he says. “Things need to be shaken up – many of my friends say likewise. We’ve tried the right, we’ve tried the left – now we might as well try her out.” His girlfriend works for the municipal social services, and as he mentions this a tinge of anti-Arab or anti-Muslim sentiment creeps in: “The things she sees! People coming to claim benefits for their kid who spends 11 months of the year in Tunisia. It’s simple – if you work in social services, that means you once voted for the left, but now you vote for Le Pen.”
For decades, the left-right divide defined how voters behaved. Now, it has been blurred. With the fragmentation of France’s postwar parties, many people seem ready to cast a ballot not according to once well-identified, ideological affinities, but in search of who – or what – will best express a sense of revolt.
A cigarette salesman in Montauban, in his 30s, says he is thinking of switching from Le Pen to Jean-Luc Mélanchon, the leftwing firebrand who has been rising in polls recently. The salesman struggles to explain why. “They say Le Pen has said something controversial recently,” he says. “I’m not sure what” – a possible reference to the outcry that followed Le Pen’s recent statement about France not being responsible for the deportation of Jews under the Vichy regime.
It’s not that the past is entirely forgotten. Instead, it gets manipulated – and that is far from anodyne in a country where history and notions of grandeur frame the national psyche. Many yearn for a long-lost era, one they glorify. In conversations, memories of the 1960s and 70s – the years before mass unemployment became permanent – are often recalled. From the 1980s onwards, the unemployment rate never fell below 7%; today it stands at 10% nationally and 24% among 18- 24-year-olds. The remembered golden age was the era of the so-called “glorious three decades” of France’s postwar rebuilding and development. That was also a time, people say, when France’s voice was heard loudly on the world stage.
More than 58% of the population now own a smartphone, and many families have become used to low-cost travel and holidays in the sun, but a majority says day-to-day life has gone from bad to worse. Seeking scapegoats, whether among the rich, the “establishment” (including the media) or among foreigners, has become commonplace.
There is more to this than just economics. “We used to pay more attention to one another,” says a woman pushing a pram on the cobblestones of Montauban’s old central square. “We helped friends out when they were in trouble. Now we’re all on the internet and people are insufferable. They want everything instantly, as if in a click.”

In a recent book on French political rage, political analyst Brice Teinturier highlights a statistic he believes is “decisive in understanding French society” today: the number of people who say they are “increasingly inspired by the values of the past” has grown from 34% in 2006 to 47% in 2014. This has underpinned the campaign of François Fillon, who has given sweeping speeches paying homage to France’s Catholic roots, including one last week in the symbolic city of Puy-en-Velay, from where the first crusade was launched in the 11th century.
It is also found in Marine Le Pen’s vision of a “national preference”. And although it may seem paradoxical, there is no less awkward nostalgia in Mélenchon’s calls to uphold radical secularism, of the sort the Third Republic introduced in the early 20th century, and that the communists also promoted.
Montauban’s mosque opened a decade ago, not far from the railway station. It’s a nondescript house, its bottom floor converted into a prayer room. There is not enough space, so prayer mats have been laid out outside in the courtyard. In this rural region, the Muslim minority are mostly families of Moroccans who came to work as fruit pickers in the 1950s and 60s. One a warm afternoon, a few old men sit in the shade and tell me with sad voices how hard it is to get the mayor’s permission to build another new, and this time, proper mosque.
France’s colonial history in the Arab world sets it apart from other European countries that had empires. For one thing, it means the echoes of Middle Eastern chaos resonate here in a different, more acute way. That in 2015 the socialist government declared the country “at war” after a series of terrorist attacks, whose perpetrators were mostly born and bred in France, hasn’t helped.
The first of these assaults was in 2012, when a young Franco-Algerian gunned down soldiers in Montauban, and then Jewish children in Toulouse. The Muslim population became the focus of intense police attention. Niqabs can occasionally be seen on the streets of Montauban, mostly worn by young people. They appeared a few years ago. Local authorities ascribe this to the penetration of radical Salafi Islam among a narrow, but apparently growing, minority.
When I asked a shopkeeper for directions to the mosque, he frowned disapprovingly, but nonetheless showed me the way. It is striking that most voters, when you ask about immigration, don’t mention local Muslims but refugees from afar. This is a surprise, considering how few refugees France has taken in, certainly compared with Germany. “Of course,” says a pensioner, “Syrians suffer and need to be helped, but it’s not normal that refugees are immediately given comfortable housing, whereas some locals are kept on waiting lists.”
He then names three local towns where he believes refugees have settled. After a quick check, it turns out none of them has had any arrivals.
In a local bookshop, I find a history of the Tarn-et-Garonne. It describes how, in the summer of 1940, when Belgium and half of France were invaded by Nazi troops, tens of thousands of refugees flooded the area. The population of some towns and villages more than doubled. People coped.
Today, some do remember that past. In the village of Sainte-Thècle Montesquieu, an 86-year-old farmer recalls how, in his childhood, members of the resistance hid in the forests and planted bombs on railway tracks to disrupt Nazi convoys. His whole family, including the grandchildren, cares deeply about salvaging the European project, and say they will vote accordingly tomorrow.
The Moissac doctor says the same. She and her friends will cast a ballot for the young centrist Emmanuel Macron – “because Europe is important” and because he wants to reform the country’s economy and educational system “like Scandinavian countries have done”.
Macron’s optimism contrasts with the gloom and anger on which other candidates want to capitalise. But the doctor quickly adds, with a smile, that her views are those of a “bobo” (“bourgeois-bohème”, or educated and privileged liberal). They don’t reflect the majority. In the 2015 regional elections, Le Pen’s party polled 35% in this part of the country.
This is France’s 10th presidential election since direct universal suffrage was introduced in 1962. Never has there been a vote that so deeply questioned the nation’s complex definition of what binds, or ought to bind, its citizens together. “People just don’t know what to think any more,” a crew member from Toulouse tells me on the plane back to Paris, “and many don’t know how to vote.”