A French town known for picking presidents sees big upset ahead

A pedestrian walks past campaign posters for the 2017 French presidential election, in Paris, on April 2, 2017.
A pedestrian walks past campaign posters for the 2017 French presidential election, in Paris, on April 2, 2017.PHOTO: REUTERS

DONZY, FRANCE (Bloomberg) - Frederic Coudray spends his days in a picturesque corner of rural France rearing ducks and geese. And following every twist of the country's presidential election.

Ask the 49-year-old foie-gras producer who's going to win on April 23 and he whips out his phone. On the screen are the latest forecasts he's texted his friends for his hometown of Donzy - which has mirrored the national outcome in almost every election in four decades.

"First round, Marine Le Pen 34 per cent, Francois Fillon 19.5," Coudray reads, though he's struggling to be heard over the cackling of geese fretting at the start of their forced-feeding. He puts Emmanuel Macron at 19 per cent.

Professional pollsters still project that Macron, a 39-year-old independent, will beat the Republican Fillon to get into the May 7 runoff and then canter to victory over the nationalist Le Pen, though his lead has narrowed to five points from as much as nine a week ago.

Coudray, a Macron supporter who buttonholes locals around town to inform his forecasts, sees Fillon holding off Le Pen in the final round, but by a couple of points at most.

"It's very close," he says. "I've got a neighbour voting Le Pen, and more than half his workers too. Plus their wives."

Political punditry may seem an unusual sideline for a Burgundy goose farmer. But the village of Donzy, two hours south of Paris, has a pedigree.

For the past four decades, locals have voted in line with the national result in practically every presidential election, often mirroring the choice of both winners and runners-up.

The only blip was 2012, when centre-right Nicolas Sarkozy led the first round vote in Donzy while Socialist Francois Hollande was ahead in the national vote. All the same, the village returned to form in the runoff, backing Hollande like the whole of France.

The town's growing reputation as a political bellwether has given the locals a special interest in the democratic process. The hairdresser's displays shampoos with caricatures of the five main candidates in the window - for the record, it's Macron's big toothy grin and Fillon's bushy eyebrows that are selling best.

Straddling two rivers and with a population of 1,640, Donzy is an attractive backdrop to the economic decline typical of rural France. The iron-ore mining which saw the area prosper in the 19th century died out long ago. Today only 48 per cent of households earn enough to pay income tax. Unemployment is above 15 per cent, five points higher than the national average, even with an influx of wealthy Parisians buying second homes.

"We're not a perfect microcosm of France because we've only got two or three immigrant families," said Jean-Paul Jacob, 64, centre-right mayor since 2008 and a Fillon supporter. "But we've got a good mix across the rural sector, blue-collar workers and office employees."

Jacob also sees the anti-euro, anti-immigrant Le Pen winning the first round with more than 30 per cent, but has Macron beating her by 20 points in the runoff. If Fillon gets through to the runoff, Jacob sees him winning by 10 points.

Most villagers have no doubt that their ballots will put Le Pen, 48, in the lead at first. In the 2015 regional elections, Le Pen's National Front came in on top in Donzy in both rounds, winning the runoff with 37.2 per cent of the vote.

All the same, it's difficult to find locals prepared to admit to backing Le Pen and her plans to pull France out of the euro.

Eric Agot, 52, who makes walnut oil at a 19th century water mill, may not vote because "I've had enough of corruption and unemployment - my wife's been looking for a job for three years."

Does he want France to leave the single currency?

"If I tell you, you'll guess who I might vote for," he says.

When they're not facing a reporter's notebook, people are much more open, goose farmer Coudray says.

"Everyone in the cafes seems to be for Le Pen," he says. "It's lucky that we vote at the polling station, and not in a cafe."

One person with no such qualms is 41-year-old orchestral conductor Sebastien Giacomi, having coffee in the Cafe Didier.

"I'm voting Le Pen for patriotic reasons - I'm tired of being bossed around by the European Union," he says. "We've got to get our sovereignty back. We need to control our borders and we need protectionism for French goods."

Pierre de Jean, a 57-year-old businessman, doesn't like any of the candidates and has no idea who he'll vote for. De Jean's firm makes "couture umbrellas" for fashion houses like Jean Paul Gaultier from a warehouse looking out across rolling fields.

"Politicians of right and left have abandoned our sector," he says. "We've been hit by three disasters under Hollande: massive taxation of the middle class, the Russian sanctions and terrorism, which means fewer tourists."

At his workshop in a medieval house in the heart of the village, watch and clock repairer Vincent Talay, 59, has little time for such complaints. He's backing Macron.

"This isn't a rich town but life is good here," he says. "People vote Le Pen just out of fear."