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Brittany Was Once Barren Ground for France’s Far Right. No More.

LocalBrittany Was Once Barren Ground for France’s Far Right. No More.


So many locals over so many decades have left Gourin in rural Brittany for the United States that Air France awarded the town a miniature Statue of Liberty.

So proud were residents of that binational identity, they fund-raised four years ago to have the statue recast in bronze. It sits in a place of prominence, in Gourin’s main square, encircled by poles bearing international flags.

And yet, in the recent elections for the European Parliament, almost one-third of local voters opted for the far-right National Rally, a French party built on intense anti-immigration sentiment.

“This is an area that knows what it means to be immigrants,” said Pierre-Marie Quesseveur, a member of the local Brittany TransAmerica association, who expressed surprise at the election results. “We are very open to all cultures.”

Equally stunned by the results, and worried about what might happen in the French legislative election that begins this Sunday, was the centrist mayor of Gourin, Hervé Le Floc’h. President Emmanuel Macron announced the snap election on June 9, after the far right trounced his party in the European elections.

“We all have some family in the United States,” said Mr. Floc’h from his office in city hall, which overlooks the mini Lady Liberty. While many of those émigrées stayed in the United States, others returned to Gourin with nest eggs to restart life here.

“In high school, half of my friends were born in New York,” said Mr. Le Floc’h, 61, who is also a dairy farmer.

The northwestern region of Brittany has been the heartland of support for Mr. Macron and, for many years, a seemingly impenetrable rampart against France’s far-right movement. The National Rally holds just 8 of 83 seats on the regional council, and in the region has not won a single election for mayor or for a seat in the national Parliament.

Locals proudly called it the “Brittany exception.”

The local culture of collaboration among parties didn’t mesh with the party’s politics of division, explained regional council president Loïg Chesnais-Girard. He calls the region “furiously moderate.”

Thomas Frinault, a senior lecturer of political science at Rennes 2 University who has studied the history of the National Rally in Brittany said the party’s newfound popularity in the region is a sign that it “has normalized and is emerging dominant.”

In some ways, Brittany would seem to be a hard sell for the far-right’s message that France is plagued by high crime and that too many immigrants are soaking up scarce resources and jobs.

Mr. Le Floc’h can’t think of the last time there was a serious crime committed in Gourin, a town of 3,800 surrounded by cow pastures, a 50-minute drive from the coastal city of Lorient. Unemployment is so low, the nearby food processing factories sometimes have trouble recruiting workers, he said.

“Here we are not confronted by the problem of immigration,” he said. “We have very few foreigners here.”

But talking with locals in bars, restaurants and a cultural center hosting Gourin’s regular retirees’ social gathering, it’s clear the far right’s political talking points and its grim view of the country’s condition have taken root. There is also a bitter sense of abandonment by the ruling class in far-off Paris and a burning anger at Mr. Macron.

“He’s only for the rich,” said Yolande Lester, 53, taking a break from the crêperie where she works.

“Why not try the RN?” she asked, calling the National Rally by its French initials. “They’ve never run the country before.”

She added, “They can’t be any worse.”

It’s not that no one here ever voted for the party. Its numbers have steadily crept upward, notes Mr. Frinault. But few had admitted to voting for them, according to Joël Sévénéant, owner of the local radio station. “Now, people are talking with no restraint,” he said.

What he hears most is the feeling that life has not improved in the countryside for 40 years. The cost of gas and heating has gone up. Local hospitals continue to lose their full-time emergency services, so when the National Rally’s president, Jordan Bardella, talks about how undocumented migrants can access medical care for free, it hits a nerve.

“The RN is surfing on this discontent,” said Mr. Sévénéant. “There is a general fed-up-ness against Paris.”

Across from the town’s 16th century Roman Catholic church, inside a small bar where locals can buy newspapers and cigarettes, two men drinking beer after a long day of manual labor listed the reasons they intend to vote again for Mr. Bardella’s party.

Speaking of failed asylum seekers who remain illegally in the country, Thierry Beigneux, 55, said, “They commit crimes.” “Not here,” he explained. “We don’t have a lot of crime here. But in France.”

“We don’t have immigrants here,” agreed Hervé Pensivy, 62, a building contractor. “But they will come.”

Mr. Frinault, the university lecturer, explained such feelings this way: “There is a fear inspired through television, radio, the press and social media. You have a population that, without being confronted themselves by these issues, develop a kind of fear about them.”

The local National Rally candidate for Parliament, Nathalie Guihot-Vieira, acknowledges that the worries are not grounded in the area’s reality, but in a gnawing fear the issues will appear here.

“There’s a fear of chaos,” she said during a short break from the grueling two-week campaign.

Given the party’s lack of establishment in this section of Brittany, called Morbihan, Ms. Guihot-Vieira, a retired naval officer, has had to learn on the fly how to register as a candidate and how to campaign. She learned just recently that she taking over her party’s campaign efforts throughout Morbihan, after the person doing that job was fired.

One of party’s central tenets is “national preference” — reserving social benefits, subsidized housing, certain jobs and free access to medical treatment for French citizens and not non-French residents.

“We pay taxes, and we live in medical deserts and can’t find doctors,” Ms. Guihot-Vieira said, “and yet they give medical treatment for free to foreigners.”

“When you talk like this, people call you a racist,” she added. “But it’s not racism, it’s a request for equity.”

In its early years, the National Rally party was openly racist. Its founder and longtime leader, Jean Marie Le Pen stated that people of different races “do not have the same abilities, nor the same level of historical evolution” and was repeatedly convicted of making antisemitic comments and publicly diminishing the Holocaust.

Since his daughter Marine took over the party leadership in 2011, she has worked to expunge antisemitism from the party, even expelling her father.

Still, many are unconvinced that the party has fundamentally changed.

Alex Flusen is one. He moved to Gourin for work just two months ago, but he’s planning on making the long trip this weekend — six hours by car — to Paris, where he is still registered to vote.

“I’m the grandchild of immigrants. I could never vote for the RN,” he said. “My grandparents both survived Auschwitz.” The party, he added, “goes against all the values of France.”

Pollsters predict high turnout, and Mr. Floc’h, the mayor, wonders what that will mean for Brittany and his little town.

“Was the European election just a protest vote?” he asked. Maybe people will vote differently when it’s the national election, he said.

“But maybe,” he added, “people will continue to protest.”



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