Why is the rural idyll I call home voting for Marine Le Pen?

John Lichfield reports from his own Normandy village, where the locals' embrace of the far right in the first round of the French election was replicated in similar communities across the country

Outside our village hall, the 10 metal election boards stand empty. The faces of the politicians have been torn off by the wind. A few metres away is a rough, communal field which turns one weekend each July into a joyous festival of sausage grilling and pony jumping. Beyond is a breathtaking panorama of the forests and hills of the Suisse Normande – "Norman Switzerland".

Our commune, Culey-le-Patry, is a pretty, hilltop village, surrounded by a gaggle of hamlets, overlooking the beautiful valley of the river Orne. It looks to British eyes, more like a sort of Norman Herefordshire.

The population is 360. There are 268 registered voters. Culey-le-Patry is scarcely going to shape the direction of French politics. And yet...

On Sunday, 22 April, this commune – my weekend and summer home for the past 14 years; my lungful of air; my root into the soul of rural France – became part of a French revolution. In common with thousands of similar villages in La France Profonde, it gave an unusually large vote to the National Front (NF) candidate Marine Le Pen in the first round of the presidential election. In some Norman and Breton villages, more than a third of the voters went for Ms Le Pen's smiling version of her father's snarling anti-European, anti-immigrant, ultra-nationalism.

Here in Culey-le-Patry, the votes given to the leading candidates were as follows: President Nicolas Sarkozy 27.27 per cent (60 votes); Marine Le Pen 24.09 per cent (53 votes); François Hollande (Socialist) 21.36 per cent (47 votes). In other words, if it were up to the people of Culey, the two-candidate second round of the election this coming Sunday would be fought between President Sarkozy and Ms Le Pen, not Mr Hollande and Mr Sarkozy.

Culey is a peaceful, friendly, welcoming sort of place. There is no virtually no crime. Whenever I drive down to the shops in the valley, I leave the front door unlocked. The only non-white people who live in Culey are an adopted, 40-something Pacific islander and a young Frenchman of Pakistani origin. The only "immigrants" are me and my family and a charming British couple who run a bed and breakfast. Why on earth would so many people here vote for the far right?

"It's complicated," said Catherine Lorquin, 47, a thoughtful and tough-minded member of the Culey village council. "It's very complicated. Don't say it's all about xenophobia and immigration because that would not be correct. If an Arab family moved to Culey, they would be treated like everyone else. No one would scrawl graffiti on their house. This is partly anger against Sarkozy and a rejection of Hollande. But it is also a call for protection. People here feel that everything is changing in ways they can no longer control."

Her mother, Henriette Lorquin, born in Culey 87 years ago, chipped in: "The local jobs we once had are gone or in small, new factories owned by foreign companies. The small farms have gone."

Catherine added: "And there is a creep of new housing developments south from Caen, which is good in some ways but also makes people feel their villages are being taken away from them."

Both Catherine and Henriette voted for Mr Sarkozy last Sunday. Catherine says the majority of the "new" Le Pen voters were ex-Sarkozy supporters disappointed by the President's performance and personal behaviour in office. Most – but not all – will go back to him in the second round next weekend.

"My impression is that the older people have stayed with Sarkozy," Catherine said. "It is the people in their late 40s and 50s and some of the young who have gone over to Marine [Le Pen]. The price of petrol and diesel doesn't help. For families in Culey on limited incomes, the cost of driving to work in Caen [40 kilometres to the north] has become crippling."

The surge in the rural vote for Ms Le Pen last week is distinct from the increased far-right vote in the industrial, and ex-industrial, regions in the east and north. There, many of the NF voters are from families which have traditionally voted to the left. This Sunday, if they vote at all, it may be for the Socialist front-runner and overwhelming favourite, Mr Hollande. In the big cities and large towns, the NF vote fell in the first round. It was as if France had divided between the outward-looking and urban and the traditional and introspective – on both the right and left.

The surge in rural support for the NF is a disturbing phenomenon for mainstream politicians in France. It offers, literally, open spaces to Ms Le Pen's long-term project to broaden and rename the NF. She hopes to start, if Mr Sarkozy is defeated this Sunday, by annexing part of his fractious, centre-right party. In other words, villages like Culey are potentially crucial to Ms Le Pen's plan to carry the hard right, in the years ahead, beyond protest and into power.

I asked a moderate, Sarkozy-supporting parliamentarian from another part of the west what was driving rural voters towards the NF. "It's a mixture of distress and nostalgia," he said. "A belief that the NF speaks for an older France that they are more comfortable with."

Despite Ms Le Pen's efforts to make her party more respectable, it was difficult to find a person in Culey this week who admitted to voting NF. "I did vote Frontiste for the first time," said a man I know slightly, a retired farm worker. "Someone has to shake their cage in Paris. We can't eat the landscape. This place has to have a life of its own, not just weekenders and people commuting to Caen." Could I quote him by name? No. I went to see Michel Pain, 76, a retired postal worker who lives in a mobile home on the edge of our hamlet.

Yes, he said, he usually voted "Frontiste". "In a place like this, it is not about immigrants. Not only that anyway. It's a cry of rage against the politicians who have lied to us for years. Look at our national debt. We are going to end up like Greece or Spain.

"And people ask where all that state money is going. It's not coming to little places like this so it must be going on welfare, including welfare for immigrants."

Mr Pain made an admission, however. This year, he switched his vote to Nicolas Sarkozy.

The mayor of Culey, Claude Dubois, 78, says the NF vote, though a "protest", will not necessarily all return to Mr Sarkozy's UMP party in future elections. "Marine Le Pen will progress in places like this. Rural people are very attached to their little plot of earth. Where they live is their identity," he said. "Marine's language – talking of soil, the nation and preference for the French – goes down well here. And she is not her father. She does not make execrable remarks denying the facts of the Second World War."

As an independent mayor, Mr Dubois declined to reveal for whom he voted last Sunday.

As I left the village hall, I noticed that fresh, new posters for Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande had been pasted on the election notice boards. How long before the wind tears them off again?

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