WIT’S HIS palm-fringed beaches, a sliver of coastal towns, inland vineyards and year-round sun, the South of France in some ways resembles southern California French-style. The Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region (PACA) hosts nearly 200,000 students and a technological center in Sophia Antipolis, near Nice. Dependent on the car, it claims outside Marseille one of the biggest cases of urban commercial sprawl in France. Cosmetic surgeons are numerous. Superyachts fill marinas. The region even gives way every year to Hollywood in Cannes. American stars favor multi-million euro castles in the neighborhood.
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Politically, however, the south of France could hardly be more different from liberal California. It is not a destination for young people looking for an alternative lifestyle or a counter culture. With a few exceptions, notably Marseille, almost all of the coastal and interior fringe leans to the right, or to the hard right. Most small towns and villages, as well as seven of its ten largest cities, including Nice, Cannes and Aix-en-Provence, are ruled by center-right mayors. The tenth, Fréjus, is held by the far-right National Rally of Marine Le Pen (the HE, formerly National Front). In the first round of the 2017 presidential election, PACA was the only region in mainland France that placed Emmanuel Macron behind Ms Le Pen and François Fillon, the center-right Republican candidate.
This right-wing trend has specific historical roots. When Algeria gained independence from France in 1962, nearly 700,000 black feet (French settlers) got off the ship in Marseille and other southern ports, furious with Charles de Gaulle for ceding the territory. At the same time, immigrants from the Maghreb, recruited to work on construction sites or in factories, are starting to settle in the region. Xenophobic nationalism was a powerful force used by Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the National Front, to gain support. He got his best scores at the start of PACA, obtaining 19% in the elections to the European Parliament in 1984. Ten years later, the first three town halls of the party – Toulon, Orange and Marignane – were all in the region.
Over time, explains Vincent Martigny of the University of Nice, this has “oriented the dominant right in the region towards a harsher position than elsewhere in France”. Both the right and the far right have put immigration and security at the forefront. Politicians rail against illegal migrants and the leaky border with Italy. Indeed, Ms. Le Pen recruited Thierry Mariani, former Republican deputy of the center-right of Provence, as a candidate for PACA in the regional elections in June. He lost in a second round against the Republicans.
A second reason for the right-wing vote is demographic. The southern climate has long attracted retirees. The over 65s are proportionally more numerous in the region than in France as a whole, both well frequented balls the games bear witness to this. The relationship between private nursing homes and public nursing homes PACA is double the national average. Les Senioriales, a secure bungalow residence for “seniors” in the village of Les Mées, offers a swimming pool and cardio-training for what the industry describes as papy-boomers. Those over 65 vote more and tend to favor the right.
Inequality is another factor, argues Christèle Lagier, political scientist at the University of Avignon. After Paris, the region has the largest income gap in the country between the richest 10% and the poorest. Real estate prices are high. Philippe Aldrin, a political scientist at Sciences Po-Aix, says the decline in industrial employment, which previously organized workers into unions, and the rise in jobs in services such as retirement homes and supermarkets have loosened ties with the left parties. the HE can thrive primarily on anti-immigrant sentiment in the south, and industrial decline in the north. Yet in PACA it also attracts voters who think traditional parties have let them down. ” HE voters are not a constant stock ”, says Ms. Lagier:“ There are a lot of voters here who hesitate between Republicans and HE. «
This hesitation can be summed up in Brignoles, a small town stretching out in the middle of the Mediterranean pine forest between the motorway and the coast. With its narrow medieval streets and terracotta-tiled roofs, its Provencal air is partly of the faded variety. The last nearby bauxite mine, once a job provider, closed in 1989. In the main street, “For Sale” signs are stuck to a barricaded hairdresser, a shoe store and bakery. Dull supermarkets can be found along its ring road. The city’s population of immigrant origin is mostly found in low-rise dwellings on the outskirts of the city.
However, at the same time, in the shade of the hundred-year-old plane trees and next to a fountain, the terraces of the cafes in the main square come alive. Newly pedestrianized streets have been cleaned up and softer street lighting has been installed. The city is hosting a jazz festival this summer and yoga classes in a public park. It is said that even George Clooney bought a castle nearby.
Historically, Brignoles voted left, electing a Communist mayor in 2008. Eight years ago, he made headlines when the National Front won a local by-election, raising the specter of a shift towards the far right. However, in the municipal elections last year, Brignoles challenged the image that has been attached to him since then and supported Didier Brémond, the outgoing center-right mayor, with 79% of the vote. the HE did not even present a candidate.
Catherine Delzers, the center-right candidate who lost in Brignoles to the National Front in 2013, attributes this triumph to the fact that the mayor is “listening to the people.” The mayor himself is generous about the motivations of his fellow citizens, arguing that the far-right vote in the past was one of the “ Fed up (fatigue) ”rather than a true extremist feeling. Continuing to improve the life of the city, says Mr. Brémond, a local businessman, has proved to be the best way to retaliate: “Brignoles had lost his footing; today we are bringing it back to life.
Other cities in the region have evolved as well, but in different ways. The south of France is filled with not only aging preservatives who drink pastis. Aix-en-Provence, which has a lot of students, has an embryonic tech scene. Marseille, a daring multicultural city, has recently attracted a young and artistic population fleeing the high rents in Paris and elsewhere. Last year, a Green Left candidate replaced his longtime Republican mayor. Yes telework (work from home) survives, it could also attract young sun seekers and possibly change regional policy. Until then, lifestyles in the south of France may seem Californian, but the politics of the region will remain closer to that of Florida, which is just as sunny and rich in retirees. ■
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the title “California dreaming”