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”.