Why France won't vote for Europe

John Lichfield visits Maubeuge, a key seat in parliamentary elections
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The Independent Online
The Mayor of Maubeuge is struggling patiently to explain a paradox. Yes, his town is one of the key, swing constituencies in the French parliamentary elections. Yes, its position, on the Belgian border, within 100 miles of five EU countries, means that its future prosperity lies with Europe not just with France. But, no, his constituents - he is the sitting, centre-right MP - have little enthusiasm for the election campaign. And, no, they have no interest in the European questions on which the election was supposedly called by President Chirac.

Blinkered apathy? Doubtless, that would be the Parisian viewpoint. Jean- Claude Decagny, 58, comes up with a more poetic phrase: "Their valley is their whole life."

"Me, I am fiercely European. Anyone who thinks about the future of France, and especially of Maub-euge, has to be European. But, to be quite honest with you, Europe is not something which voters think about or care about, even here, 70 kilometres from Brussels. They care about jobs. Europe means jobs. But they will not make the connection."

What else do they care about? The local impact of immigration; local crime rates; and the fact that the motorway and TGV line pass 30 miles to the west, leaving Maubeuge in a kind of transport limbo.

All politics are local; and geography is history. The story of Maubeuge is a history of collisions between these two truisms. Precisely 57 years ago today, the town, which lay across the route of the invading German army, was flattened by the Luftwaffe. In the 1980s, the heavy-metal industries of the Sambre valley were devastated by obsolescence and international competition. Maubeuge recovered, in pleasant, concrete anonymity, from the first calamity but is still paying, with 22 per cent unemployment, for the second.

Maubeuge is, in Peter Snow terms, a key marginal, a naturally left-wing seat which went to the centre-right in 1993 as part of a nationwide revulsion against Mitterandism. But no swingometer could help much here. The cleverest chess-playing computer would have trouble in sorting out the mish-mash of local and national arguments on 25 May between 13 candidates, including a powerful National Front challenger, two rival Socialists and 10 left-wingers.

The mayor, Mr Decagny, is running with as little reference as possible to the unpopular coalition to which he belongs in Paris. The Socialists are divided between official and unofficial candidates, because local activists refused to accept the official choice, Jacqueline Bard. She was imposed, they say, by dubious means, to achieve the national target of a 30 per cent female field of candidates. (Her opponents say the problem is not that she is a woman, but that she is an outsider). The unofficial Socialist, Umberto Battist, is the former MP. He is still on the national committe of the party and vice President of the regional council. It was precidely this kind of Socialist disarray which Mr Chirac hoped to provoke with an early poll.

The outcome in Maubeuge depends on whether Mr Battist makes it into the second round on 1 June. To do so, he has to score 12.5 per cent: not of those voting, but of those eligible to vote. On a low turnout, he might need 20 per cent of the actual votes cast. If Mr Battist fails to qualify, the mayor will certainly win the second round against the Front National on 1 June; if he succeeds, the seat will be a three-way toss-up. It could go to the far-right; to Mr Decagny again, or to Mr Battist.

In short, the politics of Maubeuge is a mess, but a fascinating mess and an instructive mess. The results of scores of other seats - and an election which could throw out political calculations across Europe - depend on similarly local, abstruse, opinion poll-defying calculations.

It was supposed to be quite clear. France (according to President Chirac) had to choose between the bold direction taken by the government (shrinking the state; entering the single currency) and confusions of the left (renegotiating Maastricht; spending money to create jobs).

In fact, Europe - and the euro - have hardly played a part in the campaign so far. One would have expected the single currency, at least, to be an issue in Maubeuge, where four in 10 of people using the local supermarkets are Belgian; where petrol stations hardly exist because everyone fills up in the next country; where the local discotheques have been put out of business by the cheap (and livelier) ones over the border in Mons. (Maubeuge must be the only place in the world where Mons is a by-word for a fun-time).

Phillipe Szymczak, 34, who runs a hardware business in Maubeuge, says the euro is a non-issue: "There is no great enthusiasm for the single currency, but no great opposition either. If people think about it at all, there is a kind of fatalism, an acceptance that the euro is probably the right thing for a medium-sized country like France. But also some anxiety about loss of control and sovereignty."

The most common complaint from the people of Maubeuge is that they are a forgotten town, at the scrag-end of a department which is itself the scrag-end of France. This seems to be an absurdly pessimistic and old- fashioned reading of the atlas. Turn the page, and you see that Maubeuge is at the heart of the most prosperous part of the European Union.

Mr Battist says this argument may be correct, in the long term. But like the government's arguments about EMU, it is too abstract to have much meaning in real campaign politics. "Twenty years, 10 years from now, Europe will bring us prosperity. That means something to the clever people in offices in Paris. I believe it myself. But it means nothing to a man who is unemployed. He wants to know how he is going to make ends meet next week, not in 10 years' time. It's no use showing the atlas of Europe to him."