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Monday, 8 April, 2002, 09:37 GMT 10:37 UK
Apathy rules as French vote looms
Marie-France Buisson drinks Vichy water
The spa town of Vichy is enjoying a renaissance
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By BBC News Online's Sheila Barter
In Vichy

Marie-France Buisson has come to Vichy to take the waters.

Three times in the morning and three in the evening she measures out her dose in the town's Hall of the Springs.

The rest of the day is given over to mud wraps, water massages, and similar treatments.

Boutique mall in the Centre Thermale des Domes
Genteel: Mineral water beats politics at the spa
Like hundreds of others, she has come here seeking health from the waters and the restful and beautiful surroundings.

Vichy has given the world water, mints, leek soup and collaboration - not bad for a town of 27,000.

And two weeks before the presidential election, genteel Vichy certainly has things other than politics on its mind.

No hope

Middle class women of a certain age patrol the streets with big hair and small dogs, guarding against any threat to their boutiques and chocolate shops. Some are wearing fur on a mild spring day.

And Marie-France Buisson echoes what I have heard elsewhere - that there is little interest in the election because the two leading candidates, Lionel Jospin and Jacques Chirac, are two sides of the same coin.

Coast to coast election reports

  1. Calais unmoved by shorter week
  2. Nanterre murders become election issue
  3. Crime and the French voter
  4. Sleaze leaves voters cold

"There is not much feeling of hope in France," she says, "nothing different is on offer anywhere."

Even crime, the only issue which has even begun to register nationally, is not a real concern here.

The apathy which has gripped the country to an unprecedented level is evident here, in the heart of France, as well as in the big cities.

One woman who professes herself moderately interested in the election cannot name a single campaign issue.

Another mentions crime, but says it's a question for France in general, not here.


Many people are not planning to bother voting at all.

President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin
Wits have dubbed them Chirpin and Jospac
Nationwide, abstentions are predicted to outstrip even the record 22% witnessed in the presidential election first round in 1995.

In recent opinion polls, up to 37% of voters questioned said the election was not particularly important to them.

Perhaps the main reason for this state of indifference is the fact that Lionel Jospin and Jacques Chirac have both scrabbled towards the centre ground of politics, blurring the distinction between them.

People everywhere are seeing the economy as more important than politics

Public relations worker
Wits have dubbed them "Chirpin" and "Jospac".

As a result, fringe candidates are enjoying record poll ratings - but most of them, too, are faces whose familiarity has bred contempt, some dating back to the 1970s.

Voters seem to be simply bored with the lack of fresh talent on display.


Another theory offered to me is that France's relative prosperity has lulled voters into a kind of trance.

"People everywhere are seeing the economy as more important than politics. If they have enough money they are happy," one public relations worker says.

"Chirac was on the radio the other morning, and even I, as a former political journalist, wasn't the slightest bit interested."

Widespread cynicism has also tainted public attitudes. The rot set in more than a decade ago after revelations of corruption in French political funding, and voters' trust has yet to be won back.

At least here in central France people will admit that corruption bothers them - unlike in the north where everyone seems to accept it as part of life.

But otherwise the election seems to be barely registering here.

Vichy, if not where East meets West, is certainly where North meets South - it is in the frontier territory where the old language of the south, Oc, reached its most northern limits, and the French language petered out.

At the crossroads of France, though, France does not seem to be at a crossroads. People are just getting on with their lives.

This being Vichy, there's a lecture tonight on colonic irrigation. See you there at six.

BBC News Online's Sheila Barter is travelling across France to gauge the mood ahead of the forthcoming presidential election - this is the fifth of her reports.

See also:

05 Apr 02 | Europe
Record slate for French election
08 Mar 02 | Country profiles
Country profile: France
10 Oct 01 | Europe
Q & A: Chirac's corruption battle
04 Sep 01 | Europe
Chirac corruption inquiry halted
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