Grassroots view Juppe's resignation with disdain

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The Independent Online
Drive north-east of Paris on the old N3 road to Rheims and you plunge into Anywhere-sur-Monde. Overpasses. Underpasses. Tower blocks. Forest of bright signs saying McDonald's, Nissan, Midas, Avis. You could be in New Jersey.

One of the issues in the French parliamentary election is the country's morbid fear of globalism. Drive down the N3 and you might think the French have nothing to be scared of. They have already lost.

But wait a moment. Take any turning to left or right and you're back in France again. There are leafy streets of neat houses (pavillions), separated every mile or so by provincial shopping streets with bakers, cafes, patisseries, selling delicacies which suburban New Jersey has never dreamed of.

This is the eastern part of the department of Seine-St Denis, a quilt of middle-class, working-class and immigrant areas which is one of the key battle-grounds in the second round of the French elections on Sunday. Here, side by side, sit three of the 73 constituencies in which there will be a three-way run off between the centre-right government, the left and the far-right National Front.

All three had government MPs in the last parliament. This time the NF scored sufficiently well to maintain its candidate in the second round, splitting the right-wing vote. In two out of the three "triangular" races locally - in 50 out of the 73 across the nation - the left is cautiously expected to win. If it does, the next prime minister will probably be the Socialist leader, Lionel Jospin.

There is an especially intriguing race in the 12th district of Seine- St Denis, based on the towns of Livry-Gargan (blue collar) and Le Raincy (bourgeois). In the left corner of the electoral triangle is Alain Calmat, 57, former world figure-skating champion, and mayor of Livry-Gargan, who topped the poll with 29 per cent in the first round. In the government corner is Eric Raoult, 41, minister for urban affairs and racial integration. He is the popular mayor of Le Raincy. He scored a disappointing 27 per cent in the first round after being mocked by the NF as the "minister for Arabs". In the far-right corner is Franck Timmermans, 39, the very model of the new generation of young, educated, designer-suited FN candidates. He scored 22 per cent.

With the votes of the eliminated Communist candidates and a bus-full of fringe left and green contenders, Mr Calmat should win on Sunday. But in French politics, two and two do not automatically make four. What if a different cast of voters should turn out on Sunday? What if some of the NF supporters return to the centre to bar the way of the left? Will the departure of the unpopular Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, help the centre- right?

Mr Calmat, sitting in his large office in the mairie, is in a mood of cantankerous serenity. "Bof," he says, "Juppe makes no differences. Les electeurs s'en fichent d'Alain Juppe. [The voters don't give a stuff about Alain Juppe.] They care about their wallets. About their kids' future. About jobs. Above all, they want a government which talks to them like adults, not like children."

He agrees that the nation is in a strange mood: seeking a change and desperately fearful of change. France has "un esprit modere frondeur": an attitude of rebellious caution.

"There is no passion for Jospin but there is a lot of respect for Jospin. Momentum is the important thing in politics. I didn't think we'd do as well as we did nationally in the first round. Now I'm convinced we'll win."

A mile down the N3 is the headquarters of the RPR (Gaullist) candidate, Eric Raoult. His campaign manager Francoise Bergougniou says it has been the strangest election in her 33 years as local activist. "The landscape has fragmented," she said. "There were 22 candidates in the first round. Scores of local pressure groups trying to blackmail us." In the first round the centre-right electorate swung partly to the NF; partly it stayed at home, she said. "We can get them back. We are already getting them back now that they see the alternative is to have the Socialists in power again."

Maybe. One thing is unchanged. Popular interest in the election is as low as ever. In a bar near the mairie, the seven people propping up the counter (the lowest poll sample in history) say they voted two to the left, one NF, one for a fringe candidate and three not at all. Any change on Sunday? They shrug. A man in overalls points to his racing newspaper. The headline says: "The real question of the day. Will the euro put up the price of the quinte [the tote]?"