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Friday, 12 April, 2002, 10:46 GMT 11:46 UK
France in search of a hero
Posters of Communist candidate Robert Hue go up in Paris
French people are looking for someone to believe in
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Sheila Barter
By BBC News Online's Sheila Barter
In Canet-Plage

Hundreds of miles, 10 nights, seven rail journeys, six towns, two cities - and hardly a flicker of interest anywhere in the French elections.

This is a presidential election without real questions, real answers or real passion

In the entire journey from the North Sea to the Mediterranean, I have only once heard a spontaneous conversation about the presidential election.

And that was not about issues or candidates - it was about the traditional amnesty granted to motorists by a new president.

This is a presidential election without real questions, real answers or real passion.

Coast to coast election reports

  1. Voters unmoved by shorter week
  2. Nanterre murders become election issue
  3. Crime and the French voter
  4. Sleaze leaves voters cold
  5. Apathy rules as vote looms
  6. Nationalism fails to ignite voters
  7. Unemployment hits Narbonne
  8. The greying south

France does have major issues to wrestle with - like its high level of state employment and huge civil service, its strike-happy mentality, its international role and its greying population.

But none of them is a particular feature in this election.

Several times politicians and the media have lit the blue touch paper, only to stand back and watch it go out again.

The corruption issue fizzled for a bit, but burned itself out despite the return from exile of a key suspect.

A winter of discontent crackled and hissed for several months, before petering out in spring.

Big questions over health and pensions turned out to be on a really slow fuse.

Only the crime issue looked as though it might really catch light, fuelled by two horrific shooting incidents.

But for every person I met who thought crime was a problem, another said Jacques Chirac was using it as a smokescreen to avoid discussion of other issues, and was playing on people's fears.


France is a country where most people are deeply interested in politics but seem to have shunned the political process.

It remains a country of extraordinary contrasts and contradictions, in landscape, culture and personalities.

Where the discussion on morning radio flows effortlessly from Voltaire to male beauty products, and where corruption is tolerated but jay-walking remains frowned upon.

It is a country where people will engage you in lengthy and informed political discussion, before telling you they have never voted and never will.

And where people complain bitterly about the two leading candidates, despite having it in their power to send any one of 16 people to the presidential palace.

The journey from north to south is a fantastic one. It takes you from the green farmland of the north, through the vast open expanses and prairie-style fields of central France, through the volcanic mountains of the Massif Central, and finally to the Mediterranean.


The changing landscape is home to very different cultures.

Politicians are like factories which only produce gas

Calais resident
The people of the north are supposed to be more formal and less friendly than laid-back, rule-bending southerners.

I found nothing but warmth, courtesy and kindness virtually everywhere I went.

And I found almost uniform disinterest and cynicism from north to south.

"Politics is like dust in your eye, like bobbles on your jumper," one man in Calais told me. "Politicians are like factories which only produce gas."

Posters in Vichy
Walk on by: Election has left voters cold
The gulf between the political elite and the ordinary French voter is the source of much of the public's disdain.

"When journalists ask them how much a baguette costs, they don't know," one woman in Millau told me.

"They live in a completely different world, which has nothing to do with ours," said another in Narbonne.

Almost everyone else complains at the lack of differerence between the two main contenders and the perceived corruption of all politicians.


Mr Chirac and Mr Jospin are indistinguishable - a bonnet blanc and blanc bonnet - a white hat and a white hat. I have heard exactly the same refrain in northern, central and southern France.

The young are in 'standby' mode - they are waiting to be led

Samir Chergui
Only their personalities divide them - an earnest intellectual versus a smooth back-slapping political operator.

Amid the weariness at the whole affair were some voices of hope for the future.

"Everyone says the young people of France are not interested in politics," said young teacher Samir Chergui, drinking coffee in a bar in Narbonne.

"But that's not true. The young are in 'standby' mode. They are waiting to be led."

The only election question that interests me is 'When will it be over?' - I've had enough already

Millau resident Andre Bousquet
On a bus winding its way through Languedoc vineyards, former teacher Fabrice Fortassier offers a similar view.

"Everyone is looking for his candidate, for someone to believe in," he tells me.

"When people can trust someone, and find someone to represent their views, they will be much happier."

As my journey ends beside the Mediterranean Sea, more than 600 miles (1,000km) from where I watched the ferries set sail from Calais, I think he has captured the essence of the nation's problem.

France is desperately in search of a political hero, but doesn't even know where to look.

Sheila Barter has been travelling across France to gauge the mood ahead of the forthcoming presidential election - this is the last of her reports.

See also:

05 Apr 02 | Europe
Record slate for French election
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