Josette Marziot runs a shop selling flowers and clothes in the pretty town of Donzy, east of the river Loire in the verdant, rolling, empty centre of France.
At the presidential election in 1995, she voted for Jacques Chirac. In the parliamentary elections of five years ago, she did not vote, because she was disgusted with politics.
This years Presidential election campaign formally got underway yesterday. How will Ms Marizot vote in two weeks' time? "Not for Chirac. He's had his time. He's finished," Ms Marizot, 65, said. "We need someone new, someone more dynamic, someone more honest. All these scandals. What can you say? I prefer not to think about it."
Will she, then, vote for the Socialist Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin? She shrugs. "I am not a person of the left but at least he tries. He seems honest. But we need something else, we need a completely new start.
"We were very happy here in France but now everything seems to be crazy. No one has any faith in politicians any more. They are good at making promises, but even an idiot can make a promise."
Donzy, in Burgundy, is a little town of warm and weather-beaten stones on the edge of the great wine-growing districts of Sancerre and Poilly Fumé. There are scores of similar small towns all over France. The significance of Donzy is that in the latest four national elections – in 1988, 1993, 1995, 1997 – the townspeople, les donziais, voted almost exactly the way France voted.
In the second round of the last presidential election in 1995, Donzy was the only place to vote precisely as the nation: 52.7 per cent for Mr Chirac and 47.3 per cent for Mr Jospin. In the parliamentary election, won by Mr Jospin, in 1997, the town almost exactly matched the national result in the first round and swung a fraction further to the left than France in the second round.
In important ways, Donzy is not France. It has no problem suburbs and little crime. A third of its population is retired. Its principal manufacturing industry is a thriving little factory that makes plastic drinking straws for McDonald's.
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; a constant complaint that politicians do not address the real issues – crime, high taxation, education, health, pensions – but an admission that there is little popular willingness to accept the upheaval and sacrifices that true reform might bring.
When I last came here, just before the 1997 election, there was an economic gloom and an excessive, almost passionate, pessimism about politics and France. Since then, France has enjoyed a modest economic boom, which subsided last year but now seems to be reviving. France won the World Cup in 1998 and the nation's confidence appeared to explode.
And yet hundreds of thousands of French voters are approaching the poll with the same truculence as Ms Marizot. The clouds of economic gloom have lifted but the passionate pessimism about politics, and politicians, remains.
Thierry Flandin, 46, is the centre-right local councillor for Nièvre, the département to which Donzy belongs. He is a thoughtful observer of politics in Britain as well as France. "There is a very unhealthy mood, an unusual mood, a confused mood, a specious mood," Mr Flandin said. "There is a feeling that politicians, for many years now, have spoken of great things, of lower taxes, of reforming the state, and then surrendered to every pressure group. And yet, in truth, there is a profound fear of moving forward, a sense that, if we do so, we may lose many of the things that make us French.
"What we lack, I think, is a true presidential candidate – someone with a vision and understanding of the future. Instead we have a man like Chirac, whose intentions are a mystery even to himself, or a man like Jospin, who is a manager of the day-to-day, not someone who will lead France anywhere in particular."
There is a tendency among foreign commentators – especially British commentators – to take a contradictory stance, mocking the economic and political rigidity of France and, at the same time, envying the French public services. Coming to a town such as Donzy is a reminder that, in terms of quality of life – the "douceur de vivre" (sweetness of life) advertised on the notice in the town hall square – France gets many things right.
Donzy, a town of 1,713 people, is still recognisably a community and a living social and commercial centre. It has two flower shops, a hardware shop, a jewellery shop, a newsagent, a bakery, a patisserie, two hair salons, a hotel, a restaurant, two guest houses, a pizzeria, a tobacconist, a pharmacy, an electrical goods shop, a firm of plumbers, two banks, three garages, a porcelain shop, two antique shops, a gift shop, an estate agent, a grocery, a butcher, a charcuterie and five bars. It also has two doctors, a heated indoor swimming pool and a sports centre.
What town of Donzy's size in Britain or America, where business rules, could boast all those small businesses? Or the public services? Skim the surface and you find that many of the businesses are struggling to survive, in the face of supermarket competition in larger towns; that much of their trade comes from the Parisians who have bought up scores of local houses and farmsteads and who stay at weekends; that the town is fighting an uphill battle to keep the public services.
The mayor of Donzy, Bernard Devin, 57, is a socialist and a retired teacher. "We are holding out as best we can," he said. "But the shops are going one by one. There are no takers for them any more."
Mr Devin is no ideologue. He is looking for new ways – entrepreneurial ways, not just public subsidies – to bring new life to the town. Locally, just as nationally, he finds that the people who complain about a bleak future are often the same people who oppose new ideas; that sectional interests rule. "All this is typically French," he said. "We believe in the law, but only for other people. We want change, as long as it only affects other people."
From a totally unscientific sample of people in the streets and shops of Donzy (including Ms Marizot), I gained the impression that the town was leaning, like the national polls, towards an unenthusiastic, second-round vote for Mr Jospin.
Mr Devin agreed with me; so did Mr Flandin. Both said that, in the first round, three weeks from now, there would be many abstentions and the remaining vote would scatter confusingly across the record field of minor candidates.Reuse content