10 Feb 2017 16:51 IST

Scandal deepens election uncertainty in France

Chartres is a fertile ground for centre-right challenger Francois Fillon

Chartres has in past decades been a bellwether for France’s presidential elections, but ahead of this spring’s poll the signal from this white-collar city appears to be blurred by a scandal that has fed into a wave of anti-establishment feeling.

In at least the past four elections, the affluent city famous for its towering thirteenth century gothic cathedral has voted in close alignment with the final national result.

Lying in the Beauce plain 90 km (56 miles) southwest of Paris, Chartres counts perfume makers including Guerlain and Danish pharmaceutical firm Novo Nordisk as local companies. It should be a fertile ground for centre-right challenger Francois Fillon.

The 62-year-old former prime minister’s clean-cut, clean-living image had held appeal in Chartres, run for over 15 years by a conservative mayor.

But embarrassing revelations that his family for years benefited from large parliamentary salaries have hurt that image.

In a Reuters poll of 100 people in Chartres city centre, more than half said their vote was undecided. The survey intends to provide a snapshot of views in a single location and is not intended to reflect nationwide opinions.

For many in Chartres, the scandal was a factor behind their indecision.

“We are living at a time when the word integrity is becoming meaningless for our politicians. We’ve had some blatant examples in the past week”, 86-year-old Maurice Beauzac said.

Marie-Francoise Lagente, 77, retired, said: “There are some factors that mean you will always be a foreigner if you leave your country. I love to travel but I don’t believe we can accept everybody coming to our country.”

Cathy Dos Santos, 21, unemployed, holding a blackboard with the word “Honnetete” (honesty), said: “Being honest means voting according to your own feelings and not letting others tell you what you should do.”

Stephane Dominois, 46, holding a blackboard with the word “Logement” (housing), said: “Everybody has the right to live but when it comes to housing, French people must have priority.”

Julien Ambrosio, 27, a salesman, holding a blackboard with the word “Confiance” (confidence), said: “We must be able to trust our politicians but that’s more and more difficult with what’s going on at the moment.”

Bruno Grausem, 44, a sales representative, holding a blackboard with the phrase “Pouvoir d’achat” (purchasing power), said: “I would love people to be able to buy something from me without having to ask me a thousand questions.”

Malika Etchekopar-Etchart, 38, unemployed, holding a blackboard with the word “Chomage” (unemployment), said: “It’s more and more difficult to find a job. A few years back, it was a lot easier.”

Kevin Ndongala, 22, a student, said: “I hear many candidates saying we have too many public sector workers in France but that’s not true. We need them all.”

Mehdi Belhabassi, 21, a shop assistant, holding a blackboard with the word “Unite” (unity), said: “It’s important for us to live together in peace and respect each other. No matter where we come from, we’re all French and we’re all equal.”

Marie-Laure Mathonnat, 54, a public sector worker, holding a blackboard with the word “Ecologie” (ecology), said: “I have always voted but this time, really, I don’t think I’ll go I’m fed up with politics. I don’t believe in it anymore.”

Jean-Claude P, 68, retired, holding a blackboard with the word “Paix” (peace), said: “I dream of a politician who would give us work and peace. Peace in the world, that’s the most important thing.”

Jacques Gioanetti, 68, retired, holding a blackboard with the word “Honnetete” (honesty), said: “In politics today, it’s one for all, all rotten. Promises are made but never kept.”

Christophe Rouze, 58, an actor, holding a blackboard with the word “Integrite” (Integrity), said: “Politicians ask us to trust them but we feel like the fall guys in a big farce.”

Patricia Breard, 53, a nurse, holding a blackboard with the words “Avenir des jeunes” (future for young people), said: “Today, I wouldn’t want to have kids. I’d be too worried about their future.”

Jean-Louis Lachevre, 66, holding a blackboard with the word “Integrite” (Integrity), said: “Our politicians are more or less all the same. There aren’t many with clean hands.”

Francois Dore, 83, retired, holding a blackboard with the word “Sante” (health), said: “I have a toothache and I couldn’t find a dentist.”

Jean-Luc Pfister, 57, a social worker, holding a blackboard with the word “Solidarite” (solidarity), said: “We need more of that. The gap between the super rich and the rest of us is far too wide.”

Nathalie Reperant, 45, an insurance company employee, holding a blackboard with the word “Chomage” (unemployment), said: “Without a job and money, you’re on your way to hell.”

Francoise Fichet, 69, retired, holding a blackboard with the word “Chomage” (unemployment), said: “I don’t hear anything extraordinary from our politicians even if some of their proposals do make sense.”

Nicolas Leroy, 29, a commercial employee, holding a blackboard with the phrase “Baisse du chomage” (lowering unemployment), said: “The most important thing in our society is jobs. If you have one you’re all right. If you don’t, you’re in deep trouble.”

Richard Martinez, 40, holding a blackboard with the word “Emploi” (employment), said: “The social climate is getting more and more difficult, even in developed countries in the western world.”

Bruno Sauvage, 52, unemployed, said: “Politicians give us lessons but they’d better look at themselves in the mirror.”

Fillon looked a shoo-in for the Elysee palace before the scandal surfaced two weeks ago, campaigning on a free-market platform to reduce regulation and haul down the stubbornly high unemployment rate.

Now opinion polls suggest he will crash out in the first round. So too will the candidate of the ruling Socialist Party, Benoit Hamon, the surveys indicate, as mainstream parties battle against a rising tide of populism across Europe.

The favourites to reach the runoff vote on May 7 are the far-right National Front party’s leader, Marine Le Pen, and independent challenger Emmanuel Macron who has yet to release a full manifesto.

Among those polled by Reuters in Chartres, 25 percent said unemployment was their number one concern, while 19 percent named a lack of integrity, or honesty, as their main worry.

The high level of uncertainty in Chartres underlines how wide open the presidential race remains. It also points to the disaffection many voters feel towards the political elite.

“People are becoming less and less interested in politics,” said Sebastien Renault, a 35-year-old florist. “It’s a world of sharks out there, one eating the other.”

It is a sentiment that will worry the main political parties, especially in a place where unemployment runs almost two points below the national average of nearly 10 percent, and a median annual salary of 30,000 euros places it in the top 10 for cities of its small size.

“Like France, Chartres is fed up with the traditional political system but it’s not only linked with the recent affairs,” said Mayor Jean-Pierre Gorges.

“It’s just that the situation in this country has been deteriorating for the past 40 years. Almost everybody has somebody in his family who is out of work.”

France’s outgoing president, Francois Hollande, was elected in 2012 on a promise to create jobs, winning the hearts of socialists by declaring banks to be his “main enemy” and pledging extra taxes for millionaires.

But he later launched reforms -- including cutting corporate taxes and legislation to make it easier for companies to hire and fire -- that traditional socialists viewed as a betrayal of left-wing values.

Now it is the anti-European Union Le Pen who rails against free-trade who is pitching herself as the true defender of French workers’ interests.

Against this backdrop, some in the National Front are optimistic the party will get a boost from the Fillon scandal.

“I think all of this clearly plays in Marine’s favour,” said Aleksandar Nikolic, the youthful head of the National Front’s regional branch.

Nikolic expressed surprise that immigration and security ranked low among the concerns of those polled by Reuters.

“When we ask the people here what their main concerns are, security and immigration clearly come first,” he said.

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