France’s identity crisis: ‘People just don’t know what to think any more’

Natalie Nougayrède writes: The quiet, lovely medieval towns and soft, rolling hills covered with orchards and vineyards of south-west France are an unlikely setting for a citizens’ uprising. Yet just days before the presidential election, conversations with the inhabitants of this once leftwing region, stretching from the city of Toulouse to the rural settings of the Tarn-et-Garonne, offer a glimpse into France’s mood of rage and confusion. Popular resentment, fears and frustrations set the stage for a major political upheaval, almost 60 years after De Gaulle founded the country’s Fifth Republic.

France is a republican quasi-monarchy. Its institutions are centred on the president. But what is at stake in this vote isn’t just the choice of a personality, nor only an economic or political programme. The very essence of France’s democracy hangs in the balance, as well as the survival of the 60-year-old European project. Much of what is at work resembles the trends that produced Brexit in Britain and Trump in the US – not least the disgruntlement of those who feel they have lost out to globalisation. But there are also specific, distinct elements of a collective French identity crisis.

In the town of Moissac, a doctor in her 50s describes the mood this way: “We are experiencing a huge evolution, and it might well become a revolution. It would only take a spark.” “People are fed up and disorientated,” says a shopkeeper in Montauban, a town 30 miles north of Toulouse. “Many don’t yet know how they’ll vote, but be sure they will want to kick some bums. Things can’t go on like this”.

The French are notorious for complaining, and for their divisiveness. “How is it possible to govern a country that produces 246 varieties of cheese?” De Gaulle once asked. Brooding is a national sport. Surveys have shown the French are more pessimistic than Iraqis or Afghans . It’s hard to square this with the living standards of the world’s fifth largest economy, a country of high social protection and well-developed infrastructure, which has known 70 years of peace. But these are difficult, mind-boggling times. If comments from people in France’s south-west are anything to go by, then populist, extremist and even conspiratorial views are likely to define much of what will happen on Sunday and beyond. [Continue reading…]

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