February 26, 2015 / 6:19 PM / 2 years ago

Le Pen woos French farm vote as malaise deepens

France's National Front political party head Marine Le Pen gestures as she speaks during a news conference at the party headquarters in Nanterre near Paris February 6, 2015.Charles Platiau

PARIS (Reuters) - French far-right leader Marine Le Pen was admiring a prize Charolais cow at a Paris farm fair on Thursday when five young farmers appeared before her demanding to take 'selfie' photographs with their favorite politician.

She obliged, each in turn. With polls showing Le Pen's National Front party winning up to 30 percent of the vote in round one of local elections next month -- ahead of any other party -- she was in high spirits at the annual Paris fair.

Pollster IFOP says rising rural support could help the Front even outdo its performance in European Parliament elections last May, its best yet in a nationwide vote.

While logic might suggest that the anti-EU stance of Le Pen -- now seen as a serious presidential contender in 2017 -- will put off many subsidized farmers who benefit from the European Union's Common Agricultural policy, many said they don't care.

"If Europe was really helping there wouldn't be so much joblessness," said 18-year-old Alan, one of the five farming students from eastern France who weaved through crowds to be photographed with Le Pen. "We're all voting for her."

High unemployment and the erosion of social services have stoked frustration with mainstream parties and many farmers say the Socialist government of President Francois Hollande has increased paperwork and accelerated village decline.

In 2014, average farmer revenues dropped by 5 percent to 24,400 euros ($27,360) annually, Agriculture Ministry data showed, compared with France's minimum wage of 17,500 euros. Anger at that will push many to vote to punish the political mainstream.

"We don't necessarily want to leave the European Union but we want to tell to the current government that we don't support its policies," said Philippe Pulles, 36, a livestock breeder from the Cantal region. "It's a protest vote."

EU CONTRADICTION?

In her courtship of rural voters, Le Pen denies her attacks on the EU go against farmers' interests.

"For the past 15 years farmers have been told that they have a big debt to the European Union, that's a lie!" she told journalists at the fair. "That money helps big corporations close to Brussels, not the small farmers."

While more established farmers support the EU, her arguments are catching on with younger ones who say subsidies only serve to lower food prices, while they get poorer working long hours.

"In terms of hourly wages, I'm on par with what people are earning in the Third World," said Pulles, adding that his pay had shrunk ever since he started working 12 years ago.

Analysts said Le Pen's appeal is as much about style -- her apparent sympathy for the poor -- as it is about substance.

"Le Pen is more skilled at addressing many issues than the traditional parties," said IPSOS analyst Jean-Francois Doridot "It's less about arguments than the sense she is on their side."

In a show of force for party that often struggles to find suitable candidates, the Front is fielding more than 1,900 in March's local elections, more than any other party. A strong showing would be a blow to the ruling Socialists and a boost for Le Pen's presidential ambitions.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who visited the farm show along with Hollande, warned rural voters against voting for Le Pen, telling journalists there: "The far-right and the rural world must not come together."

Editing by Mark John and Robin Pomeroy

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