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French heartland voters cynical as election nears

skyline May 19, 1997
Web posted at: 11:49 a.m. EDT (1549 GMT)

In this story:

From Correspondent Jim Bittermann

DREUX, France (CNN) -- Far from the political intrigues of Paris, out on the flat and fertile plains that for a thousand years have supplied this nation's daily bread, the urgent issues that triggered France's hasty parliamentary elections seem hardly relevant at all.

Hoping to win the hearts of his constituents village by village, conservative candidate Gerard Hamel, an incumbent in Prime Minister Alain Juppe's center-right coalition, drops in at what must be some of the smallest town halls in the world, listening patiently as voters in the Eure River Valley describe problems no more imposing than the size of the room.

An unfair parking ticket was occupying one woman's mind, but Hamel, an ally of President Jacques Chirac, knows -- like politicians everywhere -- that all politics are local.

'Average voter' ignored


"The average voter thinks he is no longer listened to by the high and mighty national leaders. It's dangerous," Hamel told CNN.

Voter disappointment -- some call it contempt -- with the leadership class is something Hamel's left-wing opponent detects as well.

Socialist Party candidate Brigitta Hessel believes people still are confused about why Chirac closed down a parliament that he controlled to force new elections beginning on Sunday, with a second round to follow a week later, on June 1.

"(Voters) don't know exactly what to do and they feel very surprised to see the attitude of our president," she says.

'I'm not going to vote'

A few yards away, a visibly upset vegetable merchant proves the point. He is angry with all political leaders, regardless of their party.

"The right-wing is rotten and the left-wing, too," he says. "I'm 52 years old and for the first time in my life I'm not going to vote."

In towns big and small, a surprising number of people may do likewise. According to one survey, fewer than one in five French voters believes the elections are dealing with the important issues.

The national campaigns may be centered on larger questions like France's integration into Europe.

But here in the French heartland, the campaign issues are not so abstract. Here, people worry about declining industry and growing unemployment, about immigration and crime.

Dreux, 55 miles (88 km) west of Paris, is the biggest town in Hamel's district, where unemployment is running at nearly 15 percent and crime is rising. An influx of immigrants has radically changed the size and nature of the city in a single generation. And there is fear and suspicion.

Gain by far-right seen


Disaffected voters are proving to be ground as fertile as the local topsoil for extremism. The candidate for the far-right National Front -- a party which proposes to create jobs by deporting France's 3.6 million immigrants -- stands a good chance of beating Hamel.

"I'm not campaigning for a seat, I'm not campaigning to be a member of the parliament," says Marie-France Stirbois. "I'm campaigning for my ideas. And I think that people realize that."

With voter cynicism running so high, abstract debates over global or even European issues will probably not win the day in this part of France.

More likely, it seems, voters will turn to those who promise an immediate improvement in their day-to-day lives.


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