Bellwether French town disenchanted with Sarkozy

Reuters News
Posted: Apr 11, 2012 8:44 AM
Bellwether French town disenchanted with Sarkozy

By Vicky Buffery

DONZY, France (Reuters) - Sheltered among the rolling hills of Burgundy, the tiny town of Donzy, famous for its Pouilly Fume wine and foie gras pate, looks far-removed from the concerns of 21st century France.

But for the past three decades its 1,700 residents have uncannily mirrored the national result in each French presidential election.

In 1981 they swung left behind Francois Mitterand, in 1995 they moved right behind Jacques Chirac. And this time, they may abandon conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy, whom they backed in 2007.

"Last time I voted for Sarkozy, for the change, but that didn't work out as planned," said bus driver Henri Martin, 59, who will not vote at all this time.

"He keeps promising a better future but...he hasn't done much these past 5 years. He's been a bad president for France."

Sarkozy is facing an uphill battle to win a second term in the two-round election on April 22 and May 6, with national opinion polls showing him trailing Socialist Francois Hollande in the second round by up to 10 points.

The global financial crisis and Europe's debt woes have helped push up unemployment and wages are stagnant, despite Sarkozy's election promise to let people "work more to earn more".

"I'd like to see him do his shopping in the supermarket and see how he likes it. Every week prices go up," Martin said.

Sarkozy's impulsive style has caused occasional rude outbursts, turning off some supporters and highlighting the contrast with the mild-mannered Hollande.

"He's calm, not overexcited, and underneath he's tough," said Gisele Mercier, 74, a former primary school teacher who voted Socialist in 2007 and plans to do the same again.


At first, it's difficult to see why bucolic Donzy has proved such a reliable political weathervane, consistently reflecting the nation's electoral results to within a point or two.

The narrow streets are largely deserted. Tractors chug along the main road, and the town mascot is elderly Therese Pradalier, who earns a living making walnut oil at the stone mill her family has owned since 1850.

Yet the town gives a good snapshot of French society.

"We've got a real social mix here -- employees, workers, business owners, the self-employed and a large agricultural community which gives a true vision of France," said deputy mayor Roger Blanchard, 59, a cereal farmer.

There's also the geographical location. Donzy lies just 200 km (125 miles) from Paris, meaning some locals commute to the capital, while city-dwellers often own second homes in the area, bringing a mix of outside views and concerns.

The Donziais share concerns that are central to the 2012 campaign. A restaurant owner is struggling with rigid labor laws and a generous welfare system that is a disincentive to work while parents watch their children abandon the countryside to look for jobs.

Then there's France's declining industry. One of Donzy's main employers, Soyez, makes plastic straws for McDonald's and Coca-Cola, exporting over 3 billion of them a year. Another makes high-quality umbrellas.

Both must cope with low-cost foreign competition, rising oil prices and a high euro-dollar exchange rate.


Like many towns, Donzy has its share of residents, who struggle to identify with any politician. A recent national survey found 32 percent of respondents plan to shun the ballot boxes.

In the local bar, questions about the election draw Gallic shrugs. One man says he'll vote but hasn't decided which way. When pushed, he struggles to remember the name of Segolene Royal, the Socialist Party candidate for whom he voted in 2007.

There's a sense among Donzy's voters that the election result could go any way, despite polls pointing to a win for Hollande.

It is hard to find people who will admit to supporting Sarkozy but several say he will have their vote.

Cecile Rebeillard, 69, a human resources consultant, reluctantly says she will back the incumbent.

Her husband, Serge, 77, who has a doctorate in economics, sums up her reservations: "It's not so much what he has done since 2007, but the way he's done it that bothers me."

Rebeillard says Hollande is too economically dangerous.

The rising star in the campaign has been the former Trotskyist Jean-Luc Melenchon, challenging the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen for third place in opinion polls.

The Donziais speculate that if he takes more votes from Hollande, Le Pen could slip through to the second round. Alternatively he could push people towards Sarkozy, for fear he might take a role in a Hollande government and drive the new president further to the left.

Melenchon has little support in Donzy.

"There are still some people out there who think the left, and the Communists are going to hold a knife to their throat and steal all their belongings," said Mercier.

(Reporting By Vicky Buffery; editing by Paul Taylor and Anna Willard)