If you want to gauge the mood in France, ask Donzy

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Donzy is a picture-book small town in "la France profonde" (Deep France). It has medieval buildings the colour of mature cheese; it is criss-crossed by branches of the river Nohain; it is surrounded by the rolling hills of western Burgundy, just east of the big bend in the river Loire.

Donzy is a picture-book small town in "la France profonde" (Deep France). It has medieval buildings the colour of mature cheese; it is criss-crossed by branches of the river Nohain; it is surrounded by the rolling hills of western Burgundy, just east of the big bend in the river Loire.

Donzy could be a thousand small towns in France but it has two important claims to fame. First, it has a small factory which makes straws for McDonald's. Second, the way Donzy votes, France tends to vote. In all but one of the past five see-saw national elections "Les Donziais" have voted almost exactly in the same changing left-right pattern as the nation. There was a slight blip in 2002, when Donzy narrowly refused to put the far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen in second place in the first round of the presidential election. On the third stage of The Independent's Tour de France before the EU constitution referendum on Sunday, we have left the industrial, outer suburbs of Paris and driven 100 miles south to Donzy (pop 1,713).

According to the latest volley of national polls yesterday, giving 52 to 54 per cent for the "non", French voters are likely to reject the constitution on Sunday, plunging the EU - and France - into political crisis. And Donzy? "Many people are agonising over their decision. They want to vote 'non'," says Thierry Flandrin, 49, who represents Donzy and its surrounds on the local council. "They feel that Europe is an issue which has been confiscated by the political elite in France for too long, that it has gone too far too fast. But, in the end, I have a feeling that many of these people, even many of those on the left, will vote 'oui', because they fear that a 'non' might have disastrous consequences for France and for French politics."

I have spoken to M. Flandrin - an independent politician of the centre-right - before the last two national elections in France and he has accurately gauged the national mood, based on the mood in Donzy. This time he has an "intuition" that the national opinion polls may be proved wrong but admits that the local and national mood are difficult to psychoanalyse accurately. As in 2002, he says, there is a "mood of revolt, an unhealthy mood, an unusual mood, a fractious mood, in some ways a dishonest mood."

In important ways, Donzy is not France. In other ways, Donzy represents the mood in France perfectly. There is a desire for change, matched by a terror of change; an apparently unvarying and conservative surface, below which many things are not quite as they appear. Coming to a town like Donzy, in the département of Nièvre, is a reminder that, in terms of quality of life, France gets many things right. Donzy is still recognisably a community and a living social and commercial centre. It has all the trappings: two florists, a hardware store, a jeweller's, butcher's, baker's, patisserie, hotel, restaurant, pizzeria and several bars. It also has four antique shops - and in the eight years that I have been coming to Donzy, however, more local shops are being replaced by antique shops catering to the tourists and weekend visitors.

Like Donzy, France has many things that it, rightly, wants to hold on to. But in other ways, France feels itself to be failing, and under threat. How can it square that circle?

France, M. Flandrin says, realises some sort of Big Bang is needed to reduce the public sector, push the country forward and kick-start its economy. At the same time, there is a profound fear of any change, which might destroy "many of the things which make us French". On this occasion, he says, the fear of change has been projected on to an "unreadable" European constitution.

The mood, according to M. Flandrin, feeds on contempt for national politicians and a genuine sense of threat from the enlarged 25-nation Europe. "Before, France always seemed dominant. Now, they look at the population numbers in the bigger EU and see that may no longer be the case."

But M. Flandrin believes that the national mood of revolutionary conservatism and a determination to challenge the political status quo to stop anything from changing is not rooted in the despair of French have-nots. It is encouraged by a dozen "corporatist interests", especially in the public sector and "cynical politicians, interested only in their own advancement".

Tomorrow: The South

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