Behind the Dordogne’s right turn

Martin Walker is a former Guardian journalist turned best-selling novelist who has been based in the Dordogne for more than 20 years. 

Some weeks ago, Patrick Barde, an energetic young winemaker at Château Le Raz, described the glum mood preceding Sunday’s shock victory for the far-right National Rally party (RN) in the Bergerac vineyards of France. 

“Normally, in the vineyards, we expect one bad year in five,” he told me. This time, “we have just had five [bad] years with one good year, and this sixth year looks grim as well. And now the Ukraine war has hit us with a shortage of bottles.”

He was right. After the April frosts, which killed off many of his young grape buds this spring, a devastating hailstorm hit the region last week — so heavy that it smashed greenhouses and speckled car roofs across the Bergerac with little dents, it also wrecked vineyard after vineyard. For many, there will be no harvest this autumn.

And now, the resulting political verdict is in. Marine Le Pen’s far-right party has won its first National Assembly seat in the Dordogne region — a bastion of center-left votes since 1871 — and it was no fluke. 

Even for the one seat that President Emmanuel Macron’s alliance won in the north of the region, the vote went three ways — 36 percent for the Ensemble alliance, 34 percent for the NUPES left-green coalition, and 30 percent for Le Pen’s RN. 

One reason for this is that rural voters feel left behind and neglected by Paris elites, whether in terms of local wages, job prospects, regional investment or the number of available healthcare professionals. 

In 2015, French demographer Hervé Le Bras had produced a startling analysis of politics and rural life, which concluded that “the further you are from a railway station, the more likely you are to vote from the Front National.” And the rise in petrol and diesel prices in a region ill-served by public transport, coupled with the surge in food prices over the last month, has only added to the region’s economic woes. The Ukraine war has also raised the cost of heating and swelled the mood of rural discontent that had launched the Yellow Jackets protests across France. 

Born in 2018 as a rural protest movement against increased fuel prices, at their peak, the Yellow Jackets were said to number some 3 million people. Their demonstrations, some of which turned violent, forced Macron to back down from his plans to raise fuel taxes on environmental grounds. But what had equally enraged rural drivers was his decision to impose lower speed limits on all country roads, which sharply increased commuting times for rural dwellers.

But despite the shocked tones of newscasters at the success of Le Pen’s record tally of seats in the National Assembly, the most dramatic feature of this year’s election was half the population’s refusal to vote. 

And that startlingly low turnout of 50 percent is even worse than it looks. 

In my village, and across much of rural France, one in eight of the voters who turned up, cast a blank or spoiled ballot. They did their civic duty by showing up, but still refused to vote. And across France, more than 1.7 million voters did the same.

Behind the Dordogne’s right turn
Marine Le Pen’s far-right party has won its first National Assembly seat in the Dordogne region | Gabriel Kuchta/Getty Images

However, put the dismaying fact that more than half of French voters declined to cast a vote to one side, and the overall figures don’t actually look that disastrous for democracy. Macron’s coalition won 8 million votes; NUPES, the left-green alliance, won 6.5 million votes and Le Pen’s RN won 3.6 million votes — less than a quarter of the combined votes of the two main winners. 

France is not turning fascist. 

But voters are glum. They are disappointed in Macron’s modest record in office, disillusioned with conventional politics, and rural voters, in particular, wanted to send a message to Paris. 

All the money and investment seems to go to Paris and the big cities. For example, in the Dordogne, we have 134 doctors for every 100,000 inhabitants, compared to 248 doctors per 100,000 people in Paris. And from 2010 to 2021, the number of doctors in the Dordogne fell by 20 percent. The shortage of dentists is even worse.

The same goes for transportation. You can now easily commute the 584 kilometers to Paris from Bordeaux in just two hours, but it takes me more than that to travel the 160 kilometers to Bordeaux from my village — even without counting the 10-kilometer trek to the nearest station. Many of my friends are more than 50 kilometers from any station at all.

Still, the Dordogne remains a delightful place to live, which also explains part of Sunday’s vote. The population of the Dordogne has been rising — from about 370,000 in 1975 to 415,000 today — and most of the newcomers are elderly retirees from the north and east of France, where the vote for Le Pen has always been higher.  

The newcomers brought their politics with them, and they brought along a new problem as well — one in seven of the population is now over the age of 75. And one feature the elderly have in common across Europe and North America is that they are much more likely to vote than the young. In France, on Sunday, while two-thirds of the over-60s voted, only one-third of the under-35s did. 

The reasons for Sunday’s result are manifold, and upon closer inspection, not all that surprising. However, I suspect that one lasting lesson of the vote could be that France’s rural young voters realize casting their ballot is a powerful way to get political attention — even if they have to vote for an extremist party to do it.