“The migrants have come back, you know,” the conductor says as we pull into Calais station. “Trying to get to England. It’s going to be a big problem again.”
For years, Calais — just 20 miles from the English coast — was the last stopping-off point on the migrant route that led from warzones and trouble spots the world over.
Thousands gathered, setting up camp as they waited to cross to the UK, through the tunnel, or hidden in trucks and cars. Their camp, “the Jungle,” was demolished in October 2016, and the migrants and refugees it housed dispersed. Aid agencies have since been banned from handing out food in the area.
The camp may be gone, but some migrants are still here, clustered around an ornamental pond in the park, or sitting together on a roadside verge.
That they have ended up in Calais may be down to a quirk of geography, but their presence in a region already struggling with high unemployment has provoked resentment among the community, helping to fuel a rise in support for the far right.
Meanwhile, customer Loic Focquer, who is unemployed at the moment, believes a vote for Le Pen “will make the job situation better.”
In the first round of the presidential election, Le Pen scored a convincing win here. She ran on a euroskeptic and anti-globalization platform, promised to improve the lot of workers, and — perhaps most importantly — offered something many here in Calais and elsewhere in France crave: Change.
After decades of economic stagnation and high unemployment, regardless of which of the two traditional main parties — Republican or Socialist — were in power, voters in France are looking for something different.
And this Sunday, one way or the other, they’ll get it.
The heart of Paris
Macron was a distant third in Calais, but came first across the country overall. He performed strongly in larger towns and cities, including the capital, Paris, where he handily beat more seasoned politicians, including the conservative Francois Fillon and left-wing firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon.
The Place de la Republique is at the heart of the people’s Paris. It is where Parisians come together to mourn in times of sadness — mass protests were held here after the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack — and celebrate in times of joy.
With the final round of the presidential election just days away, it is also where people come to debate and demonstrate. The statue at the center of the square, surrounded by flowers and candles after the Paris attacks, is now covered in political graffiti.
As May Day marchers prepared to set out from the square on Monday, Assan Kericha cooked kebabs and sausages on a food stall. He said he voted for Melenchon in the first round: “I don’t like the others, but this time I’ll vote for Macron — of course — to stop racism and to stop Le Pen.”
Natassja Naguszewski set up an anti-Le Pen protest in the square on May Day, at which scores of campaigners wore masks combining Marine Le Pen’s hair with the face of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, calling into question Le Pen’s attempts to sanitize his anti-Semitic legacy.
Naguszewski said she fears that, if Le Pen wins, France will become an insular police state, in which those considered “foreigners” are demonized.
As well as trade union demonstrations, May 1 in Paris is also traditionally the day when people sell sprigs of lily of the valley in the street.
The differences between Le Pen and Macron’s support bases demonstrate the deep divisions in society that France’s new president — whoever he or she is — will have to repair: urban versus rural, rich versus poor, elite versus working class.
A quick glance at a map of the first round results shows another divide too: east vs. west.
The next stop is Bordeaux, a prosperous university city near France’s midwestern coast. The train hurries out from the station into the spring green of the French countryside, through bright yellow rapeseed fields and past the occasional fairytale chateau, until vineyards spring up on both sides of the track.
Bordeaux’s mayor, Alain Juppe, was briefly in the running for the 2017 presidency himself, but lost out to Francois Fillon in the Republican primaries. In the first round of the election, Macron came out on top here, followed by Melenchon and Fillon; Le Pen came in fifth.
Jean-Michel Dewelle, who runs a plant and flower stall at the city’s Capuchins’ Market, says he voted for Macron in the first round, and will do so again: “I’m convinced he’ll bring progress … it’ll be a lot better for France if Macron wins.”
As for Le Pen, “she’s a fascist,” he says, bluntly. “I absolutely wouldn’t vote for her. I voted against her father in 2002 — I supported [former President Jacques] Chirac; I didn’t much care for him, but I didn’t hesitate for one minute.”
Students Camille Baudoux and Sarah Sanchez say they will follow the 2002 pattern — voting for Macron, who they would not normally back, in order to stop Le Pen.
“We’re picking the least worst option,” says Baudoux, adding she isn’t sure who’ll come out on top. “I think there are going to be a lot of people who just don’t vote.”
Fellow student Celestin Hernandez cautions that, should Macron win, he will face a tough time in the months ahead. “He won’t have a majority in the legislature, and that means it will be difficult for him.”
In his men’s clothing store in one of Bordeaux’s main shopping streets, Karim Laiche says he isn’t convinced Macron has it in the bag just yet: “We don’t know how it will go — we could have a surprise,” he said.
“The polls are saying it’s 60-40 to Macron, but polls can be wrong — Trump happened in the US, and we could end up with Le Pen here,” he says. “So, we pray, and above all, we vote!”
Heading southeast from Bordeaux, the landscape changes slowly, becoming hillier, drier, rockier. The view from the train window looks, at times, like a Cezanne landscape.
Le Pen country
The final destination is Beziers, near the Cote d’Azur. Many here are hoping Le Pen will find some way of swinging those unfavorable polls her way in the final days of the campaign.
Menard was recently convicted of provoking hatred and discrimination (and fined 2,000 euros) for suggesting that there were too many Muslim children in Beziers’ schools.
“Everyone’s voting Le Pen, even if they won’t admit it,” says one Beziers café owner, who asks not to be identified for fear his political views could damage his business. “Le Pen has solutions that everyone wants, but nobody wants to talk about.
“I like Macron a lot, but we’ve had enough,” he adds. “Economically, Macron would be a lot better for France, but Le Pen will actually do the things she says. I’m voting for her, to change the system.”
Change is coming to France regardless of the outcome, and the winning candidate will face an uphill climb to repair the damage done by a bitterly divisive campaign.
Many in Beziers are hoping Le Pen can overcome long odds to secure the win. But others in town, including restaurateur Maxime Roque, are preparing to hold their noses and vote for Macron in order to keep Le Pen out.
“Voting in the second round isn’t necessarily a pleasure,” Roque says. “You do what’s best.”