In a small French village, Le Pen threatens Macron’s re-election

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Small town in rural France reacts to the first round election results

By Juliette Jabkhiro and Stephane Mahe

GOUZON, France – At a bar in Gouzon, a village in central France, a few locals gathered on Monday to read news of the first round of voting in the presidential election, which saw incumbent Emmanuel Macron through to face far-right challenger Marine Le Pen in a run-off.

The brasserie’s owner, William Levron, 53, was pleased with local results: though Macron came out narrowly ahead nationally, here Le Pen led with almost 31% of votes cast on Sunday. Macron gathered only 20%, while Leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon and conservative Valerie Pecresse were at 14% and 13% respectively.

“We’re satisfied because we want change, real change,” said Levron.

Gouzon, with fewer than 1,600 inhabitants and a small centre boasting a pretty Gothic church, a couple restaurants and a few boulangeries, is located in rural Creuse, a department with the country’s lowest gross domestic product.

It is one of many such small towns and villages where Macron – who won the second round here five years ago with more than 58% votes – could this time be defeated by Le Pen.

Bar owner Levron said he believed that, with Le Pen in charge, it would mean less public subsidies and lower fuel prices, which would encourage people to work more. He also said he would have to pay fewer charges, and be able to offer better salaries.

Since one of his employee retired, he said he has been unable to replace him. Waiters and cooks are also hard to find.

“We need resources, and it’s missing,” he said. “It’s not logical that we don’t find people to hire, it’s just ridiculous.”

MANY VOTERS WAVERING

Levron said he was a long time voter of Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN), formerly Front National, which pushes a nationalist and protectionist platform.

But others in Gouzon, such as Liliane Rebeix, 79, said they were considering voting for Le Pen for the first time.

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On Sunday afternoon, as she left one of the town’s two polling stations, Rebeix told Reuters she had voted for a minor right-wing candidate, Nicolas Dupont-Aignan. In the run-off on April 24 – which pollsters predict will be tight – she said she would cast her ballot for Le Pen, because she was too disappointed with Macron.

Jean-Pierre Vacher, 70, who was a conservative mayor to the village for almost 20 years, says he does not understand how RN, which he considers xenophobic, has become first choice in what was previously a heartland of the mainstream centre-right.

“Gouzon is a municipality that for 50, 60 years used to vote Gaullist, then Chirac, then Sarkozy predominantly,” he said.

“The town is doing pretty well for the area, population is up, the local economy is growing, there are no security issues. I’m puzzled.”

He added, however, that one reason could be the “healthcare desert” the area has become. “Ten years ago there were four doctors, now there’s only one,” he said.

Jeannine Alanord, 64 and a Gouzon resident, said she was also worried about the lack of healthcare – one reason she voted in the first round for Anne Hidalgo, the socialist party candidate.

Like many left-wing voters across France, including the 20% who voted for Melenchon, Alanord now faces the same choice she did five years ago – and is unsure what she will do.

“I don’t know which decision I will make,” she said. “Between plague and cholera, I’m not sure, but I will have to choose.”

Seven other people in the village told Reuters they were still hesitant who they would vote for – if at all.

“I think it’s going to be tight,” said Vacher. “I fear the outcome in two weeks.”

(Reporting by Juliette Jabkhiro and Stephane Mahe, additional reporting by Leigh Thomas; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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