French heartland voters cynical as election nears
May 19, 1997
Web posted at: 11:49 a.m. EDT (1549 GMT)
In this story:
From Correspondent Jim Bittermann
DREUX, France (CNN) -- Far from the political intrigues of
Paris, out on the flat and fertile plains that for a thousand
years have supplied this nation's daily bread, the urgent
issues that triggered France's hasty parliamentary elections
seem hardly relevant at all.
Hoping to win the hearts of his constituents village by
village, conservative candidate Gerard Hamel, an incumbent in
Prime Minister Alain Juppe's center-right coalition, drops in
at what must be some of the smallest town halls in the world,
listening patiently as voters in the Eure River Valley
describe problems no more imposing than the size of the room.
An unfair parking ticket was occupying one woman's mind, but
Hamel, an ally of President Jacques Chirac, knows -- like
politicians everywhere -- that all politics are local.
'Average voter' ignored
"The average voter thinks he is no longer listened to by the
high and mighty national leaders. It's dangerous," Hamel told
Voter disappointment -- some call it contempt -- with the
leadership class is something Hamel's left-wing opponent
detects as well.
Socialist Party candidate Brigitta Hessel believes people
still are confused about why Chirac closed down a parliament
that he controlled to force new elections beginning on
Sunday, with a second round to follow a week later, on June
"(Voters) don't know exactly what to do and they feel very
surprised to see the attitude of our president," she says.
'I'm not going to vote'
A few yards away, a visibly upset vegetable merchant proves
the point. He is angry with all political leaders, regardless
of their party.
"The right-wing is rotten and the left-wing, too," he says.
"I'm 52 years old and for the first time in my life I'm not
going to vote."
In towns big and small, a surprising number of people may do
likewise. According to one survey, fewer than one in five
French voters believes the elections are dealing with the
The national campaigns may be centered on larger questions
like France's integration into Europe.
But here in the French heartland, the campaign issues are not
so abstract. Here, people worry about declining industry and
growing unemployment, about immigration and crime.
Dreux, 55 miles (88 km) west of Paris, is the biggest town in
Hamel's district, where unemployment is running at nearly 15
percent and crime is rising. An influx of immigrants has
radically changed the size and nature of the city in a single
generation. And there is fear and suspicion.
Gain by far-right seen
Disaffected voters are proving to be ground as fertile as the
local topsoil for extremism. The candidate for the far-right
National Front -- a party which proposes to create jobs by
deporting France's 3.6 million immigrants -- stands a good
chance of beating Hamel.
"I'm not campaigning for a seat, I'm not campaigning to be a
member of the parliament," says Marie-France Stirbois. "I'm
campaigning for my ideas. And I think that people realize
With voter cynicism running so high, abstract debates over
global or even European issues will probably not win the day
in this part of France.
More likely, it seems, voters will turn to those who promise
an immediate improvement in their day-to-day lives.
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