The South West of France has always been a stronghold of the Parti Socialiste (PS). It still is, but the Communist Party, once strong in mining areas in the Cévennes, has virtually disappeared in the last ten years; the Greens (various flavours) continue to be a significant but not growing minority; and the main right party, the UMP (which contraversially changed its name this year to Les Republicains) is on the whole in second or third place.
What has changed in the last few years is the alarming and sudden support for the Front National (FN). So far only a few communes have an FN majority – mainly in the Rhone area. But the proportion of people voting FN has rised dramatically.
On my last trip to the hospital in Montpellier I was chatting with my driver, Paul, initially about racism. He comes from a traditional Cévenol family: the family mas is now divided into different houses for his parents, grandparents and uncles and aunts. But he has lived in Montpellier where he socialised in a very mixed culture, with lots of maghrébin (North African in origin) friends.
We talked of the burka and I was surprised to find almost the first Frenchman who agrees with me, that banning the burka encourages the maghrébin sense of isolation and non-inclusion, and that there are other, more positive ways of tackling problems of islamic extremism.
I asked if this was an opinion shared by his family. Oh no, he said. He was particularly angry about his grandfather, who dislikes all foreigners, particularly muslems, with no apparent reason, as he did not even fight in Algeria. His parents are almost as bad, he said, and so he avoids talking about politics with his family. He knows his grandfather voted FN last time and suspects his parents did too.
There is this curious contradiction: the Cévenols pride themselves on being a ‘terre de refuge’, receiving and hiding huguenots, Jews, other resistance groups, and later, ‘soixante-huitards’ from the 1960s – and at the same time many are peasants who have not ventured out of the Cévennes for generations and who don’t like the idea of others moving onto ‘their’ land. If ‘vous n’êtes pas d’ici’ that can mean not only that you might be foreign, or Parisian – it could even mean you are from the Midi but not the Cévennes. But the nearer home, the better.
It takes a little while to realise that local politics, and in particular the election of a mayor, is about finding a way to look after the interests of ‘les enfants du pays’. I have always thought it ironic, since many of the so-called locals are in fact the descendants of economic refugees from more impoverished areas of the Massif Centrale.
At any rate, their reactions are those of an intensely conservative rural people, and not like the reactions of the urban right, who feel more directly threatened and in competition with foreigners.