WHEN the French and their many admirers speak of La France Profonde, or Deepest France, it is rural hamlets such as Le Hamel they have in mind.
Tucked into the wheat fields of Picardie, under big azure skies a few hours’ drive north of Paris, Le Hamel gathers sleepily around a 16th century church consecrated Notre Dame. The graveyard is dotted with wartime-red poppies and roses, which are carefully tended by a gardener named Christian.
It is just a few parishes away from the Somme region where Australian troops died in their thousands to liberate villages such as this during World War I. (The memorial to Australian soldiers is in nearby Villers-Bretonneux.)
Christian’s deployment of a leaf blower seems an obnoxious modern intrusion into a village, population 126, which seems otherwise preserved in cultural aspic, and is doubtless as neatly arrayed today as in 1803 when Le Hamel became a commune.
With deference, Christian points out the biggest house in town — a pile in local brick that was once the manoir of the village’s feudal leaders. Those seigneurs once lorded it over the peasantry, and the mores of history linger. In a town that dates its history and folklore back to the 11th-century Crusades, it’s almost as if the Bastille had never been stormed.
Life in Le Hamel is gentle. The tidy mairie, its town hall, deigns only to open a few hours every second Thursday to transact affairs of state. Indeed, the most pressing decision around here seems to be choosing between a ficelle picardie — a crêpe filled with local ham, cheese and mushrooms — or agneau de pré-salé, the delicious lamb reared on nearby coastal saltmarshes. Drawn from the Brussels-subsidised farmland that surrounds and sustains the town, the local gastronomie is solid, honest and comfortable, rather as les Picards themselves appear to be.
There are plenty of other communes in France that might be deemed the custodians of a traditional rural lifestyle that is fast vanishing in the wake of Brussels’s bland, one-size-fits-all Euro-isation, but few of them are as bare of immigrants as Le Hamel and its neighbours.
Local councillor Denis Dormoy can count the number of foreigners in the area: three — a Moroccan, a Romanian and an Italian. “And they are very well integrated,” Dormoy is pleased to note. The pain de campagne — as well as the residents — of this tranquil corner of La France Profonde is decidedly white bread.
Which makes Le Hamel’s latest claim to national fame somewhat confounding. When France voted last April in the first round of its presidential election, Le Hamel voted 49.58 per cent for the anti-immigrant tearaway Marine Le Pen and her Front National (FN). Aside from the eight voters of nearby Epecamps, five of whom voted FN to deliver a 62.5 per cent win for Le Pen, Le Hamel’s enthusiasm at the ballot box made it the FN’s most fervent municipality in France.
Dormoy says Le Hamel has always voted right but never to this extreme or with such gusto as at this recent poll.
This result was almost triple what the FN polled nationally and almost triple, too, what then President Nicolas Sarkozy, and what his ultimately victorious Socialist opponent François Hollande, polled here. In the 2007 elections, Marine’s more openly racist father, Jean-Marie, gathered 32.76 per cent of Le Hamel’s votes for the FN in the first round. In greater Picardie, its two million people this year voted 25.03 per cent for Le Pen, which makes it her premiere territory nationally.
These achievements were loudly trumpeted by the FN, which claimed Picardie as its own and lauded itself as an “unavoidable political force”, poised to replace Sarkozy’s Union pour un Mouvement Populaire as France’s main party of the right.
The Le Pens are infamous as the standard-bearers of the racist extremes of the French right. The ignorant old man’s long dirty-laundry list of outrages includes convictions for inciting racial hatred, and recidivist anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. That the Le Pens are Islamophobes goes without saying, despite the fact that Muslims are calculated at around 10 per cent of the French population — the EU’s biggest Islamic community. So strong has been the rhetorical poison spouted by the elder Le Pen, the octogenarian patron of the FN, that even hotheads like Dutch firebrand Geert Wilders have been appalled by him.
Since taking over leadership of the FN from her father last year, the blonde Marine has positioned herself as a struggling, single mum Everywoman, who’s more moderate than her cranky dad.
She says she wants to reduce immigration to France, as distinct to his preferred abolition of it — but she still wants France to exit Europe’s borderless Schengen treaty, a policy seen as shorthand for restricting immigration from Eastern Europe, the EU’s newest members.
So why is the FN so popular in Picardie, a region where, save for the occasional Turkish kebab house or sad little Chinese greasy spoon, about the only foreigners one sees are boozy tour groups sampling wine in the local vineyards and visitors to the war graves and trenches of the Somme battlefields?
What’s going on here?
Appropriately, the answer seems more profonde than racism. “People are very frightened,” says Dormoy. With their fears fanned by the FN, they have come to view Brussels as the cause of all things bad.
The cost of sewage treatment has risen, notes Dormoy, and Le Hamel thinks that’s Brussels’s fault, even though most locals have septic tanks. The village baker doesn’t sell his delicious baguettes door-to-door around the hamlet anymore because it no longer pays to do so — blame the EU. The postman’s job is threatened because the French state can barely afford to pay for his salary, because of its obligation to the EU — or so it is believed.
“We councillors do everything we can, but people still think it’s Europe that’s at fault,” says Dormoy.
“No-one feels responsible for anything. They feel as if they are not in charge of their own future. People work but they are at the limit of poverty. They feel very fragile.”
Unemployment in Picardie is among the highest in France; about 12 per cent compared with 10 per cent nationally.
Because few jobs are generated in the area, locals are compelled to find them elsewhere, commuting as far as Paris, 120 kilometres away. “Then it’s the cost of transport, and the work isn’t very well paid,” adds Dormoy.
Dormoy, a Socialist, worries that in places like Picardie the FN is becoming seen as the one party willing to defend la vie traditionnelle — not just French traditions, but those of a wider Western Europe perceived as fatally assailed by Brussels. “It’s not about immigration,” Dormoy insists, “there are not enough jobs here to attract immigrants.”
Apparently confirming Dormoy’s take is the profile in rural France of the CPNT Party, whose French acronym translates as Hunting, Fishing, Nature and Tradition. It too claims to be the protector of ‘the real France’ and Picardie is also its heartland. Though its leaders claim the CPNT tilts neither left nor right, in these parts its members have been known to play footsies with the FN. “They are cut from the same cloth,” sniffs Dormoy.
Le Hamel’s mayor, Jean-Jacques Adoux, denies he is a Front National member. But when asked why Le Hamel voted so strongly for the FN, he says “it’s possible that when the mayor or other locally elected officials support a candidate it has some sway.” Adoux insists he’s an independent but some of his constituents are not convinced. Says a fellow councillor, “He just wants change…in another milieu he would’ve been a communist.”
By voting for FN, a party that would like Paris to exit the euro and the EU, Le Hamel seems to take for granted the direct infusions of cash that the farmers of Picardie receive from Brussels to keep their sugarbeet, maize, barley, potato and linseed farms operating. No matter that these subsidies, enshrined in the controversial Common Agricultural Policy — and chewing up about 40 per cent of the EU budget at a time of crisis — keep places like Le Hamel alive; Adoux says the strong vote for the FN was a vote against Paris’s embrace of EU diktats.
The FN vote here, Adoux says, was to protest against the “high social charges, unemployment and unfair competition from the new EU states”.
That may be overstating matters. Councillor Dormoy points out that though he’s been a councillor for 12 years, he’s been told by locals that he shouldn’t have been elected, or even run in polls because he wasn’t born in Le Hamel. “There’s a lot of intellectual misery here,” he says. “It’s an enigma.”
All politics is local, and so it seems it is for Mayor Adoux. He told The Global Mail that he’s “just a truck driver” who’s worried about the free rein foreign drivers have on French roads. The implication being that this was why he may have encouraged the people of Le Hamel to vote for FN.
“Eastern European trucks can and do operate totally in France, paying their drivers a fraction of the wages, and flouting safety laws,” he says.
Few places in this country openly describe themselves as La France Profonde, as Picardie does. It’s a term rather like ‘The Lucky Country’, originally coined to criticise Australian entitlement but which has changed in usage and meaning. It was first — and similarly unflatteringly — aired by Parisian intellectuals to describe a not particularly attractive side of France, and referred to a God-fearing insular people resistant, even hostile, to external influences.
Now marketers deploy it to refer to that elusive ‘real’ France that tourists go in search of.
And in this forever corner of Picardie, it seems to be a little of both.