National Front prospers in de Gaulle’s hometown
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The tiny French village of Colombey-les-deux-Églises, the home and final resting place of former president Charles de Gaulle, is now a bastion of support for the far-right National Front – a fact that divides opinion among the town’s residents.
In his “War Memoirs”, written in the 1950s, de Gaulle makes a heartfelt tribute to the town 150 miles south-east of Paris that he came to call home after moving there in the 1930s. Colombey-les-deux-Églises, he said, is a “peaceful village of little wealth where, for millennia, neither the soul nor the place has changed”.
The father of the French Fifth Republic could not have foreseen that 65 years later Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front (FN) might yet “change the soul” of his beloved town. In Sunday’s first round of voting in the French regional elections, the FN, represented in the region by its vice-president Florian Philippot, garnered 42.7 percent of votes in Colombey-les-deux-Églises, more than any other party.
The party’s success, the first for the FN in the town, is a divisive issue for Colombey-les-deux-Églises’s residents, not least because of the village’s proud association with a man who did so much to shape modern French politics and values.
‘We should take care of French people first’
“I am horrified by the results”, says Valérie, owner of the village shop,” La Belle France” (Beautiful France), located just a stone’s throw away from de Gaulle’s tomb. “He must be turning in his grave,” she says in hushed tones from behind the till.
Valérie does not want to divulge who she voted for. “I’m a shopkeeper, I don’t want to fall out with my customers,” she says. But it quickly becomes clear that her political views lean more to the left, views that make her – and her husband – an endangered species in Colombey-les-deux-Églises.
President François Hollande’s Socialists took just 3.9 percent of the vote in the town on Sunday, putting it behind not just the FN, but the centre-right Les Républicains (39.1 percent) and the right-wing France Arise (8.7 percent).
"My vote will never go to the FN. But as you noticed, we’re not really fans of the government around here," she laughs.
A man lingering in the background looking slightly uncomfortable then pipes up. “I voted for the FN,” he says quietly, an admission that seems to take Valérie by surprise. The man is Pierre, a 26-year-old chef, who says he voted for the far-right party because “I want us to take our country back”.
Like many other FN voters, Pierre has fears of France losing its national identity. The topics of immigration and Islam crop up frequently as he talks. “I want us to restore security, to stop helping migrants, to stop handing out benefits. We should take care of French people first and then others,” he says, adding that he is “no racist”.
“But building mosques instead of churches? No.”
Valérie keeps quiet as Pierre is speaking, but there is a palpable sense of tension in the small local shop.
"We shouldn’t talk politics ... and anyway, we still like them [the National Front voters],” Valérie says afterwards by way of an olive branch to Pierre. “And they have the right to vote the way they want.”
‘The Gaullists here are all dead here’
Cyril, another Colombey-les-deux-Églises inhabitant buying some groceries in “La Belle France”, also helps to break the tension.
“It doesn’t surprise me much that the FN is doing well,” he says. “I voted for the [Les Républicains], but after the attacks [in Paris], it was a foregone conclusion that Philippot would also get a good result here.”
If the patrons of “La Belle France” are relatively open when it comes to talking politics, they are more reticent to discuss the town’s most famous former resident. They say they have “had enough” of journalists coming to the town “always asking” about de Gaulle.
“He died 45 years ago. We don’t have much to do with him,” says Cyril. “The Gaullists here are all dead here,” shouts Valérie’s husband from the back of the shop. Nevertheless, the reference to the former president soon sparks a new debate. The Gaullists are perhaps "all dead" but the legacy of the former president is still hotly contested in Colombey-les-deux-Églises.
“De Gaulle defended France. Maybe he wouldn’t have liked the FN’s score in the election but he would have accepted it,” says Pierre, while smiling at Valérie.
“Nonsense. De Gaulle took ideas from the right, from the left, but certainly not those sorts of ideas,” she replies, returning the smile.
“De Gaulle had great social ideas, like La Grande-Motte [A seaside town built at the behest of de Gaulle to generate tourism in France’s Languedoc-Roussillon region],” adds her husband.
‘France has not been beautiful for a long time’
Claims to de Gaulle’s legacy are ten a penny in the world of French politics - the Socialists, the Républicains and the FN have all said they are the rightful heirs to Gaullism at one time or another. Philippot is no exception. The FN vice-president has regularly invoked his attachment to the ideas of the former president, as he did in a visit to Colombey-les-deux-Églises in December last year.
“[De Gaulle] is an example to me, a model. He … represents national independence, the greatness of France and the bringing together of the French people,” he declared. The comments sparked the ire of some FN supporters because of de Gaulle’s role in Algeria’s independence, forcingLe Pen to reprimand her number two.
In front of the “La Belle France”, in the town square bathed by the morning sun on a chilly Tuesday in December, all is quiet. The streets are deserted, the town hall and the tourist office closed. It is hard to imagine the commotion of the regular commemorations that are held here in de Gaulle’s honour, attracting flocks of politicians and journalists.
"Normally, we're pretty quiet here. And nobody talks about politics," says Cyril’s partner Lucie, in front of the town’s church. As she is talking, Pierre exits the shop and lights a cigarette. He waves to Lucie from afar. Behind him, the shop sign of “La Belle France” is lit up by the sun. Pierre notices and smiles.
“You can say what you want but life is not like that,” he says gesturing towards the sign. “France has not been beautiful for a long time.”
This article was dapted from the original in French.