So long Sarkozy: Inside the tiny town that will topple the French president

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The tiny town of Donzy is France's political weathervane. And things aren't looking good for Sarkozy, finds John Lichfield.

In Donzy people say "bonjour" to strangers on the main street. That is not customary in Paris or Lyon or Toulouse. It seldom happens anywhere in France. Donzy (pop 1,700) is a pretty town of warm and weatherbeaten stones in low wooded hills, just east of the great bend in the river Loire. To the west are the celebrated, white wine vineyards of Pouilly Fumé. A little to the east is the wild plateau of the Morvan. The town's principal industry is a small factory which makes plastic straws for McDonald's and toothpicks for British Airways. The town's main employer is a retirement home.

Donzy, in western Burgundy, is, arguably, not part of early 21st-century France. It has low unemployment, little crime, no immigrants, no problem suburbs, no traffic lights. And little municipal debt.

In one important respect, however, Donzy IS France.

In all eight, key national elections, presidential and parliamentary, since 1981, the people of Donzy, "les Donziais", have voted almost exactly the way that the people of France have voted. Donzy is France's unlikely weathervane; its conscience, its crystal ball, in British terms its 'Basildon', in American terms its 'Peoria'.

French electors, who go to the polls again on 22 April and 6 May, are the most skittish in Europe. In the past 30 years, France has repeated its previous political hunch only twice. Since 1981, the country has voted left, right, right, left, right, left, right and then, right again. Even in 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy campaigned as an outsider-insider, decrying the record of his predecessor, and one-time mentor, Jacques Chirac.

Through all those zigs and zags, Donzy has shifted its politics in the same perverse pattern as the nation, often producing percentages uncannily close to the national vote. In 2007, in the first round, the 1,200 voters of Donzy arranged the 12 candidates, the big-hitters and the no-hopers alike, in the same order of preference as the national electorate. That was equivalent to predicting the finishing place of every horse in the Grand National.

Cécile Rebeillard, aged 76, is a statistician and human relations expert who happens to live on Donzy's main street, the Rue Notre-Dame. "It is a curious phenomenon and difficult to explain," she says. "All that I can say is that we have a little of everything in Donzy: retired people, farmers, small factories, professional people. Donzy, quite by accident, is a kind of France in miniature, even if life sometimes seems to be frozen about 50 years ago."

Frederic Caudray, aged 43, is a gold-medal winning producer of foie gras in a hamlet on the edge of Donzy. He is a rural entrepreneur rather than a farmer, an urban and urbane man, a thinker and a joker.

"We are not a bunch of yokels," he says. "We watch the TV like everyone else. The small factories give us a small proletariat. The farming grants from Brussels give us a cultured, European outlook. Our retired 'Parigots' [slang for Parisians] bring us useful tales of urban life, of alleged violence and marauding immigrants..."

The bizarre, political chemistry of Donzy adds up, he suggests, to a cross-section of France, which is more accurate than those used by the French polling companies. The voting population of Donzy is almost exactly the same size as a typical polling sample. Given that the town's main export is 5,000,000,000 plastic drinking straws a year, the town might be described as a giant straw poll.

"In 2007, I thought that Donzy's record would be at risk in the first round," Caudray says. "How would we find people willing to vote for every one of that crowd of candidates? But I was wrong. There was even one person who voted for Gérard Schivardi [the most obscure of three Trotskyist in the 2007 race]. A single vote in Donzy was almost enough to match his national support (0.38 per cent)."

Voilà, the mystery, and magic, of Donzy.

When I first visited Donzy in 1997, the town's reputation as a political oracle, a French Delphi, was in its infancy. Donzy's renown has since spread around the globe.

"Last time around I was interviewed by Al Jazeera," said a young man in a bar-tabac, as if meeting a mere British journalist was a disappointment.

Journalistic tourism, like all tourism, may eventually ruin the thing that it loves by making les Donziais eager to shock or conform. For now, you can still learn more about the political mood of France in a few days in Donzy than from a dozen opinion polls.

How is Donzy leaning in this spring's presidential election? We will come to that in detail later. Suffice to say that, two months before the first round, President Sarkozy should be scared – and probably very scared.

The Nièvre département (county) councillor for Donzy and surrounding villages is Thierry Flandin, aged 57 (independent centre-right). I have talked to Mr Flandin on each of my four previous visits and have found him to be a prescient commentator on both local and national politics.

We met over lunch in a village inn (the excellent Auberge du Nivernais at Couloutre) and consumed the local Donzy speciality, Jambon soupiquet: ham with cream and shallots and white wine.

"People don't complain so much about what Sarkozy has done," Flandin says. "They complain about him. There is something in Sarkozy's character that offends people, a kind of abruptness, a rudeness, an arrogance, his bling-bling tendencies. France likes to give itself to a leader as if to a lover. To be seduced, permanently. It doesn't like to be taken. It doesn't like to be raped."

I tease Flandin by quoting something that he said to me when we first met in 1997. "We know in our hearts that ... France needs to become less taxed, less bureaucratic, less state-controlled," he said then. "But there is also a fear that we may lose the things that make us French. And every time we look around, we find that the crucial step has still to be taken..."

Fifteen years later, he agrees, little has changed. All those frenetic changes of government have, perhaps, been as much about evading change as embracing it.

In this respect, Donzy typifies the ambivalence, or perversity, of the national mood: a desire for change, matched by a terror of change; an apparently unswerving and conservative surface, below which many things are not quite as they appear; a constant complaint that politicians do not address the real issues – unemployment, competitiveness, debt – but an admission that there is little popular willingness to think those issues through.

There is a tendency among foreign commentators to suggest that France has got everything wrong. Coming to a town like Donzy is a reminder that, in terms of quality of life, or 'art de vivre', the French still have many things right and many things to lose.

Donzy, a town of 1,713 people, is still recognisably a community and a living social and commercial centre. When I first visited in 1997, it had three bakeries, a butcher, two grocers, a patisserie, a pharmacy, a newsagent, two clothes shops, two flower shops, two hardware shops, two antique shops, a gift shop, a newspaper shop, an estate agent, two garages, several bars, two hotels, two restaurants and a pizzeria. It also had two doctors, six vets, a heated indoor swimming pool and a sports centre.

Fifteen years on, almost all the businesses and services are still there but some are struggling. There is now only one bakery. Two or three shops are boarded up. There are three estate agents instead of one, selling local homes to Parisian weekenders at prices between€64,000 and 297,000 euros.

"We are holding out in Donzy, just about holding our own, but things are changing," says Flandin. "The big shops and malls in Cosne, 15 minutes away, are slowly draining the life from our shops. But our biggest worry is keeping our two doctors. One is due to retire soon. If a small town like Donzy loses its doctors, then everything else crumbles."

In the Middle Ages, Donzy was the capital of an important barony. In the 17th century, it mined and smelted iron ore. On the outskirts of the town, there are the ruins of an 11th-century abbey. Vieux Donzy, below the château, has half-timbered 12th and 13th century houses.

A poetic panel in the town hall square says: "Donzy combines the charm of the remarkable vestiges of its history with the attractions of a modern economy... Two small rivers encircle and divide the town and then scatter through a countryside dotted with small waterfalls and old mills, generating a perfect vision of a certain 'douceur de vivre' [sweetness of life]."

Successive French governments have also been trying to square the "attractions of a modern economy" with the "remarkable vestiges" of French history and to preserve a certain "douceur de vivre".

Paul Jacob, the mayor of Donzy (independent centre-right) takes up the theme. "We know in that to preserve what we have in Donzy we also have to change," he tells me. "But how do you change while preserving the precious things which give you your identity? That is our challenge here and in France, too."

I go along to see Gerard Soyez, aged 76 and the patriarch of Soyez Frères SA, Donzy's most successful industry. (The town also has a small factory which makes designer umbrellas.)

Like Donzy, Soyez Freres provides a paradigm of some of the main issues in the 2012 campaign: industrial competitiveness, innovation and the survival of "le made-in-France". The company began in 1832 in the Paris suburbs, converting goose feathers into toothpicks, shuttle-cocks and decorations for women's hats.

The company, employing 70 people, is now one of the leading manufacturers of plastic straws in Europe: supplying all McDonald's outlets in France and half of those in the UK. It exports straws and toothpicks across Europe and North Africa.

Gerard Soyez, the great grandson of the founder, has a remarkable view from his office window of the river Nohain winding and rushing between the factory buildings. "Like Venice," I say. "Yes, but no gondolas," says his secretary with a shy smile.

Soyez attributes his success to the fact that the company built its own machines based on American technology (still a secret design) and to "luck".

"We have held our own until now but Asia is worrying me," he confesses. "They are very clever people, the Asians. They are moving steadily into our markets."

The high burden of social charges, or payroll taxes, on French industry is a dominant campaign issue. Soyez says that pay-roll taxes are not nearly as destructive as the 35-hour week (introduced by the last Socialist government in 1997-2002).

"What an idiocy," Soyez says. "Every country but France seems to know that to succeed, you have to work. When I was a young man we worked a 45-hour week. No one dropped dead as far as I can remember. But what can you do?"

And if the moderate Socialist candidate François Hollande were to become president? Mr Soyez whistles through his teeth and throws up his arms. "What can you do?" he says.

Donzy, Donzy, magic mirror of modern Gaul, who is the strongest candidate of them all? Frederic Caudray, the ebullient, award-winning foie gras producer, can point to almost any house or shop in Donzy and give you an opinion on how his neighbours will vote. "The strongest single feeling I get is that, above all, they can't stand the idea of another five years of Sarkozy," he announces.

Thierry Flandin, the local county councillor, recently re-elected with over 60 per cent of the Donzy vote, believes: "There is a kind of resignation, rather than positive hope for what comes next. An anger. A rejection of politics, a contrariness, and a great deal of anti-Sarkozy feeling."

Flandin says there is no great enthusiasm for François Hollande. But nor is there the gut aversion that many voters felt for previous Socialist candidates, Ségolène Royal or Lionel Jospin. "I don't rule out surprises before 22 April," he says. "Support for Marine Le Pen [National Front, far right] is disturbingly high, mostly among working people. You feel, that, compared to her father, she has widened the NF electorate. Most of all, she has feminised it."

"And the [François] Bayrou [centrist] vote could boom if people on the centre and right think that he is the only way to stop Hollande. If Bayrou was to get into the [two candidate] second round, it could be very, very complicated for Hollande, very complicated."

Serge Rebeillard, aged 77, who has Donzy roots, became a senior economist in Paris and has now retired to a splendid house on the town's main street. "If you talk to people in the bar-tabac, there is a strong, almost violent current of opinion against Sarkozy," he says.

Why? "That's difficult to say, except that people have the impression that he has been president for himself, and his friends, rather than a president for France. There is no strong current of opinion in favour of Hollande, just a feeling of being anti-Sarkozy. It's as if they are saying: 'What Sarkozy proposes may be necessary – ie, control the deficits – but we would rather that Hollande did it than Sarkozy'." Rebeillard is voting Hollande.

Jean-Paul, aged 60, a retired heating worker, puts it another way: "If you are bitten by a dog or bitten by a bitch, you are still bitten". On the whole, he says, he prefers to be bitten by Hollande, because he believes that he would be "fairer to ordinary people".

Thierry, a young man I encountered in a bar-tabac, said: "Many young people here are voting for Marine Le Pen. Or if not for her, then not at all. She is the only one who speaks for France, rather than for Brussels or for big money. Last time I voted for Sarkozy. This time, I will probably vote for Marine."

He preferred not to give his second name. Marine Le Pen claims to have made the NF more respectable but a far-right vote is still regarded as a badge of shame.

Paul Jacob, the mayor of Donzy (and a Sarkozy voter), sees it another way: "We have one hamlet which votes solidly National Front. There are no immigrants or crime out there, mostly old people and farmers. Whenever I run into someone from that hamlet I say, 'Were you one of those who voted Le Pen?'. I haven't identified one yet."

The Bayrou centrist vote is even more elusive. Many people in Donzy speak to me, in theory, of a potentially high score for François Bayrou in the first round. Several people point to Bayrou as their second choice. It is almost impossible to find an actual Bayrou supporter.

In summary... France is still waiting for its big bang: for the reforms that would allow it to preserve the best of France and compete in the modern world. Nicolas Sarkozy had a chance to do it. But he has muffed it. Rejection of Sarkozy may be just another way for France to change in order to avoid change but personal animosity to the president runs deep.

Thierry Flandin is right to warn of possible surprises in the next two months. But almost everyone I met said that, if the vote was held now, François Hollande would comfortably top the first round poll. There is a chance that Marine Le Pen would come second, ahead of Sarkozy. Either way, as it stands, in the two-candidate, second round, François Hollande would be elected the President of the Republic of Donzy.

FOR NICOLAS SARKOZY

Andre Minier, 66, retired primary school headmaster

"I voted for Sarkozy last time and I will vote for him again. Yes, he has made mistakes. He has not been a perfect president. But he has, at least, tried to change things in the right direction. His reform of the pensions system, for instance, was long overdue. He is the only candidate who has the courage to talk to the French people honestly about our debt and tell them what must be done. He is the only candidate who can work successfully with Germany to save the euro. I have often been disappointed with him, because of his personal behaviour, not his policies. He seemed, at first, to lack the maturity to be president. He didn't seem to understand the dignity and reserve that the office demanded. Now, I think, that has changed. He has grown into the office. Whoever becomes president will have a difficult five years but I believe Sarkozy will be much stronger in a second term."

FOR MARINE LE PEN, NATIONAL FRONT

Paul Perier, 75, retired photographer and salesman

"I have always voted for Jean-Marie Le Pen and now I will vote for Marine [his daughter]. If she doesn't reach the second round, I will vote blank. I could never bring myself to vote for any of the others. All of them would betray France, as all of our governments have done since De Gaulle betrayed French Algeria after I voted for him in 1958.

Sarkozy? Do you know how much he has cost this country? Under him, in five years, our national debt has increased by 500bn euros. And remember that is 500bn euros, not 500bn francs. In francs, that would be more than 3,000bn. In old francs – personally, I still think in old francs [pre-1960] – it would be 300,000bn.

And Marine is the only candidate who will do something about the immigrants who come here to sponge on our welfare system. Don't get me wrong. I have Arab friends. I have black friends. Some of them work. Others come here just to draw benefits. Who can blame them? I would do exactly the same. I don't blame the immigrants. I blame our politicians."

FOR FRANCOIS HOLLANDE, SOCIALIST

Frederic Coudray, 43, Producer of foie gras

"I am a one-man swing vote. Sometimes I have voted for the centre-right or the centre and sometimes I have voted left. I always seem to end up voting for candidates beginning with a B – Barre in 1988, Balladur in 1995 and Bayrou in 2002 and 2007. Then, last time, for Ségolène Royal in the second round because I couldn't stomach voting for Sarkozy. I guessed exactly what kind of president he would be.

This time, unless he goes off the rails, I will vote for François Hollande. He is a decent man, a sensible man. And I like the glint of malicious humour in his eyes. Yes, he is campaigning a little to the left, but that's because he feels he has to. In government he will forget all that and do what is needed to put the country's finances right as fairly as he can."

FOR FRANCOIS BAYROU, MOUVEMENT DEMOCRATE [centrist]

Cecile Rebeillard, 69, human relations consultant

"Last time I voted for Sarkozy but this time I am considering switching to François Bayrou. Everywhere around me I hear that Sarkozy has been a terrible president. I'm not so sure that I agree but it seems that he has no hope of winning. Above all, I don't want to see a president Hollande. I've nothing against Hollande personally. He seems like a very honest and likeable man but I don't trust the people around him. I think he will be forced to pursue the kind of Socialist policies that would do a lot of damage to the country.

In truth, whoever comes to power, will probably be forced to follow much the same course. None of us can understand the differences between their rival programmes with all this talk of billions here and billions there. I just think that Bayrou would do what is necessary without offending too many people. So why not Bayrou?"

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