DIJON, France — At Le Carillon, a cozy spot for a coq au vin as France prepares to vote in a critical election, the heated political debates that have always characterized past campaigns have died down, as if the country were numb.
In other election seasons, the restaurant is buzzing for months with arguments about candidates and problems. This time, said the owner, Martine Worner-Bablon, ‘no one is talking about politics. I don’t know, people’s minds are elsewhere. No trust in politicians. At least they talk about the war.”
In this strange atmosphere, overshadowed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, President Emmanuel Macron, a centrist, is slightly ahead of Marine Le Pen, a far-right nationalist, according to the latest polls. But his comfortable lead of more than 10 percentage points has evaporated in the past month as his rejection of the debate and not participating in the election angered voters.
“What amazes me is that the President of the French Republic does not think of the French first,” said Ms Le Pen, whose new lenient demeanor masks a tough anti-immigrant program, last month. It was a comment that came through well as Mr Macron spent most of his time thinking about how to end a European war.
With the vote spread over two rounds starting Sunday, many people still undecided and an expected abstention rate of up to 30 percent, the outcome of the election is highly uncertain. During her last campaign, in 2017, Ms Le Pen chose to appear in the Kremlin with President Vladimir V. Putin, who said with a grin that he “didn’t want to influence events in any way” as she swore on sanctions. to be lifted against Russia “pretty soon” if chosen.
The possibility of France swinging towards an anti-NATO, pro-Russia, xenophobic and nationalist position in the event of a Le Pen victory poses a potential shock as great as Britain’s vote for Brexit in 2016 or the election the same year of Donald J. Trump in the United States.
At what President Biden has repeatedly called an “inflection point” in the global confrontation between autocracy and democracy, a France under Ms. Le Pen would push the needle exactly in the direction the United States opposes.
Everything seems calm in Dijon for the time being. Quiet and immaculate, the center a succession of churches and palaces, the capital of Burgundy is as much a symbol as “la douce France”, the sweet land of gastronomic delights that finds its way into the hearts of many people. But Dijon, a city of 155,000, has its turbulent underside, in the image of a country where beauty and combativeness and magnificence and malaise are often uncomfortable bedfellows.
Questions about the location of bomb shelters for nuclear bombs are increasing among Le Carillon guests. Emmanuel Bichot, a centre-right councilor, does not like the mood in the country. “There’s a lot of frustration, aggression, tension,” he said. “People get angry very quickly. This has not been an election about programs. I don’t hear anyone discussing it.”
Learn more about the French presidential elections
The run-up to the first round of the elections was dominated by issues of security, immigration and national identity.
He paused to think about this puzzle. “It comes down to Macron’s Machiavellian manipulations against Le Pen’s resilience.” This is the third time that Mrs. Le Pen, the leader of the National Rally, formerly the National Front, is running for president. The two leaders in the first round of voting will advance to a second round on April 24.
A fundamental development contributed to the fractured, incoherent nature of the elections. Macron’s deft occupation of the political center, destroying first the center-left Socialist Party and then the center-right Republicans, effectively destroyed two pillars of post-war French democracy.
What remained was the president against the extremes, either on the right in the form of Mrs. Le Pen or on the left in the form of Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Together, Ms Le Pen, far-right upstart Éric Zemmour and Mr Mélenchon will secure some 50 percent of the vote, the latest poll by the Ifop-Fiducial group shows.
“This is a country that no longer has the political structures that correspond to what constitutes a democracy,” François Hollande, Macron’s socialist predecessor as president, said in an interview in Paris last month. “And I believe, if you look across Europe, it’s only in France that political parties have collapsed so far.”
Reflecting on his own allegiance to the center left, he said: “The left is completely blown up, divided and the most responsible part of it is gone.”
At the same time, Macron’s own party, La République en Marche, has turned out to be a largely empty vessel.
In this vacuum, the campaign is often sunk in candidates screeching at each other, while an exalted leader believes his presidential status should be enough to win the day.
However, that attitude underestimates the French restlessness. Less than two decades ago, a French president has won a second term. Regicides are a thing of the past, but political beheadings at five-year intervals are not.
At the same time, immigration, security and soaring cost of living have fused into an ugly concoction. Many French people feel left out of the economic growth Macron has brought to the country and are concerned about the violence they see in their neighbourhoods.
Referring to several Islamic terrorist attacks in France, Irène Fornal, a retired state pension fund director who settled in Café de l’Industrie in Dijon, said: “After Charlie Hebdo, after Bataclan, after the murder of Samuel Paty, evil was personified. by the immigrant stranger, and the country split.”
Dijon, like many cities in France, has its projects, deprived areas of inconspicuous high-rise buildings where immigrants, often Muslims from North Africa, and their descendants predominate, and the drug trade leads to violence between rival gangs.
“Insecurity pollutes people’s lives,” said François Rebsamen, the city’s longtime mayor and a lifelong socialist who has joined the Macron campaign, given the collapse of his own party. “In these areas, tranquility is elusive.”
Two years ago, in the Les Grésilles neighborhood of Dijon, street fighting broke out between Chechens and North Africans for five days after a 16-year-old Chechen boy was attacked by drug dealers from the Maghreb. In another depressed area called Fontaine d’Ouche, some shops are still boarded up after drive-by shootings late last year.
Mathieu Depoil — who heads a social center in Fontaine d’Ouche that seeks to improve people’s lives through sports, carpentry, gardening and other activities — said the area’s approximately 7,000 residents, mostly immigrants, with a 25 percent poverty rate, high unemployment and many single-parent families.
“People complain to me that when they say where they live they’re told, ‘Oh, you live with savages,'” he added.
A mock election he recently staged with a debate on the 12 official presidential candidates drew only a handful of people. “I’m not sure if people will vote,” he said. “They are disillusioned, feeling alone and isolated after Covid-19. They have lost all faith in collective solutions.”
We were taking a walk around the neighbourhood, visited by Mr Macron late last month when he finally woke up and realized he had to leave Paris and heard the concerns of people struggling to make ends meet. The posters of him that were hastily put up are now gone.
Instead, the bespectacled face of Mr Mélenchon, the far-left candidate, adorns many walls with the slogan, “Another world is possible.”
Who is running for the presidency of France?
The campaign begins. French citizens will go to the polls in April to elect a president. Here is an overview of the candidates:
In this one, meanwhile, yellowish apartment blocks, some rising to 10 or 12 floors, surround a gloomy square with a halal butcher. A Sudanese family, an Eritrean refugee, and an unemployed Italian named Giovanni Oddone tell similar stories of stopping by with odd jobs. They are far from needy – the French state is generous – but they do seem adrift.
“People don’t feel involved in the election because they don’t feel understood,” said Mr Oddone.
A Moroccan woman named Hafida El-Bakkouri, wearing a headscarf, joined a group of women who played a version of dominoes. She said she buys a bag of flour for 50 cents to bake three baguettes for about the price of one at the bakery. “We’ll work it out,” she said.
Asked how she felt about Ms Le Pen, who has vowed to ban the use of headscarves in public and fine women wearing them, Ms El-Bakkouri said: “The most important thing is that they get delinquents out of the country. I can vote for her. Why not?”
This is an opaque election full of potential surprises.
Back in the other world of the center of Dijon, the mayor’s office is housed in the Palace of the Dukes, approached through the beautiful meeting room of the Place de la Libération or the Liberation Square. UNESCO has registered the city center as a World Heritage Site.
Mr Rebsamen, who has ruled the city for 21 years from here, is concerned. “There has been no real Macron campaign,” he said. “They are planning a rally and think two tweets are enough to draw a crowd. I would estimate Le Pen’s odds at 15 percent, meaning it’s possible she could win. We have to be very careful about high abstentions.”
He had joined the Macron campaign and had abandoned the socialists because “France needs someone who can represent the country with dignity, and because, as the philosopher Raymond Aron put it, the choice in politics ‘between the preferable and the odious.”
As for security, in making people feel that he really cares about their lives, the president had failed, said Mr Rebsamen, who was once the Social Affairs Minister. The letter to the French people that launched Macron’s campaign too late warning them to work harder had failed. His election slogan, ‘Avec Vous’ or ‘With you’, was belied by an impression of staged detachment.
“But now that he’s woken up, he needs this sense of urgency,” the mayor said. “I tell him to get out of his comfort zone!”
Mr Macron has taken to attacking Ms Le Pen hard for her attachment to Mr Putin – which she tries to downplay. He praises the “brotherhood” and reminds voters of how he guided the country through the loneliness and economic hardship of the pandemic.
“Crisis has forged me and my energy is intact,” he told Le Figaro in an interview this week.
Whether the French will hear him in sufficient numbers is unclear. Mr Macron, through apparent distraction, or perhaps sheer boredom at the idea of a new campaign, has allowed Ms Le Pen to slip into the zone of possible surprises that once seemed unimaginable.