Caroline Wyatt's tour cuts across several regions
With France's presidential candidates now into the frantic final fortnight before the first round of voting on 22 April, BBC Paris correspondent Caroline Wyatt is testing the atmosphere at three campaign rallies this week.
She began in Tours, where the frontrunner, centre-right candidate Nicolas Sarkozy, was campaigning and finished at a Francois Bayrou rally in Besancon on Friday. On Wednesday, she was in Metz for a visit by Segolene Royal.
Driving south from Metz down to Besancon, I hadn't realised before how beautiful this part of France is.
On the three-hour car journey from the flat industrial landscape of France's north east, the flat green fields gradually become rolling hills, and suddenly - about an hour outside the fortress town of Besancon - they start to become craggy mountains, towering over the small villages that nestle in their shadow. Even the air is different - clean and pure, as we drive past small translucent streams and yellow fields filled with dandelions, where cows the colour of milk and white chocolate graze.
A final chance to interview Francois Bayrou
On his farm outside Besancon, Sylvain Marmier looks after 150 dairy cows, though much of his time is spent travelling and lobbying on behalf of other small farmers - and ensuring that his own farm survives to be passed on to one of his three children.
"It's a totally different kind of farming here in eastern France to the industrial farms up north. We don't use pesticides, and the distances are huge. And in winter it can be harsh, - 35C or - 40C outside on the mountain pastures, so we spend a lot of money heating the barns for the animals."
He would like France's next president to continue to intervene on behalf of France's farmers in Brussels, to ensure that the common agricultural policy helps smaller farms, as well as the agro-industrial giants.
In theory, the centrist candidate Francois Bayrou is the man for him - the only candidate who knows how to milk a cow and drive a tractor, his now-famous (in France at least) ancient Massey-Ferguson. Mr Bayrou helped run his parents' farm after his father died, and began to breed race-horses, hence his nickname the "horse-whisperer". That's now been changed to the tongue-in-cheek "tractor-whisperer" by the French press instead, as a result of his appeal to France's farmers.
Yet on Sunday 22 April, Mr Marmier isn't sure whether he will vote Bayrou.
"My heart wants to, but my head tells me to vote for someone from a bigger party, because that's the only way to have real influence in Paris and Brussels."
So he will probably go for Nicolas Sarkozy, the right-wing candidate, whom he believes also has the interests of small businessmen and entrepreneurs at heart - including France's smallholders.
An hour's drive away, Jean-Pierre Gerard is mulling over his own decision. He is the boss of Cheval Freres, a company that employs 800 people in the watch-making industry, and his small factory hums with the noise of machines making the bezels for luxury watches that are put together in neighbouring Switzerland.
"The next president needs to make us more competitive," he says. "We work the fewest hours in Europe, and far fewer hours than the USA, and there's so much red tape to wade through that I spend far more time on that than on what I should be doing - finding new markets and new customers.
"And we need someone who can teach the French that bosses aren't all bad or greedy. If you are a company owner, you have to do things quietly here."
His smile rapidly fades as we walk outside, to discover much of his workforce enjoying a cigarette break in the sun.
"Smoking kills!" he admonishes them. He won't be drawn on which candidate he will vote for, though I suspect it will undoubtedly be one on the right.
Our next destination - just outside Besacon's thick fortress walls - proves rather more complicated to find, thanks to the narrow streets' fiendishly complex one-way system, presumably designed by modern town planners who still want to keep any invaders out.
Time for change? France needs to be competitive
Or, perhaps, in. When we finally reach the CFDT trade union building to the north, their meeting is well under way, though car worker and trade unionist Olof Hervieu breaks off to meet us. Unlike Mr Gerard, he dreads what a Sarkozy victory would mean for France.
"It's all a cliche that we work too few hours. I finished work at 8pm last night," he says. "Mind you, my boss is English." Olof, who was brought up in France by a French father and a Swedish mother, speaks English with a glorious mix of French accent combined with a Swedish lilt. He is a firm believer in the Socialist candidate Segolene Royal.
"I think it's high time we had a woman president in France. It would change some of the macho attitudes and make people think differently."
He says that the way to improve France's stagnant job market and sluggish growth is not by working longer hours or making people and firms compete harder, but by improving training and education from a young age, to ensure that French workers can turn their hand to any job.
The sun is high in the sky and beating down on the verdant fields as we drive again through the countryside to the Scierie Chauvin timber-yard where Francois Jallet exports timber across France and to the rest of Europe. Huge racks of freshly-cut oak and beech are ready for export ("the English prefer oak", he confides.)
Like our watchmaker, he believes red tape is stifling small French businesses such as his, and that the rules and regulations surrounding working hours reins in competitiveness and initiative.
Francois Jallet: France needs someone closer to the people
"I spend so much time on paperwork," he grumbles. Yet he is not sure that he wants to vote for Mr Sarkozy. Francois Bayrou sounds distinctly appealing - a man from the centre, but a little bit to the right, who understands the countryside and its needs, and is not a classic part of France's political elite.
He would also like a president who thinks about the environment, and how to sustain it and the industries that live from wood-cutting here.
"We live from the forests, so we have to take care of them - because if there are no forests left, we will have no business to run in 20 years' time. And if we don't protect the industry itself, there will be no jobs left in it in a few decades' time here."
It sounds to me as though Mr Bayrou may have won his vote.
"The best person to be president in France would be someone who is closer to the people and who can make us more competitive, and help small companies. For me, Francois Bayrou is a politician who is a centrist, and that's a good thing. If you are in the middle you can take the best ideas from the right and from the left, so why not?"
On our way back into Besancon, my producer Hortense Harang and I stop off to file a piece for this Saturday's From Our Own Correspondent on Radio 4 and World Service radio. It's the first time I have sat in such a beautiful field to file, surrounded by the cheerful chirping of the birds in the hedgerows, and curious ants walking across our alien technology: the satellite phone and Glensound machine that ensure we can file in studio quality.
The infinitely patient "traffic manager" at the other end in London, the person who takes our calls when we ring in to file for BBC radio or TV, worries that the birds are too loud, and as if on cue they fall quiet for five minutes or so.
Then it's back to try to beat the one-way system in Besancon, to find the cafe where Francois Bayrou will be meeting local tradesmen and talking to local journalists before heading off for his rally.
It may well be smaller than the 6,000 who attended Segolene Royal's rally at the same venue here last night, but that very smallness and sense of intimacy is part of his attraction - even though today, the former Socialist Prime Minister Michel Rocard has been trying to persuade the two candidates to join forces against Mr Sarkozy, creating a fresh buzz around Mr Bayrou's campaign.
Yet his party machine is tiny, compared with the French Socialists or the might and money of the UMP, and his press secretary Geraldine has been overwhelmed with the sudden interest in his campaign from the French and foreign media.
It seems he has struck a chord with the independent-minded French who are fed up with the constant insults traded between left and right, and sick of the deep ideological differences between the two parties that have made France veer from left to right so often over the past 30 years.
Recently, he promised to be the candidate of hope for France, to help dig it out of its current feeling of helplessness and sometimes even despair and dread of the future.
Can the birds keep the noise down please?
Of all three main candidates, Francois Bayrou seems to be the only one whom ordinary French people can imagine wanting to sit down with for a glass of wine and a chat. But whether he really can prevail against the might of the other parties remains a huge question mark - however likeable and normal he seems.
And if even his main support base of French farmers are beginning to doubt that he could make a real difference once in office, and unite the left and right, then he probably stands little chance of being President at all.
If I had to put money on it, at the end of this week's 'tour de France', I would say Nicolas Sarkozy will be the next president, unless French voters have another big surprise in store, as they did in 2002.
A WHIMPER NOT A BANG
This should have been one of the Socialist candidate's crowning moments - returning to the region where she grew up, and being welcomed back warmly as presidential candidate.
Perhaps it is that the people of Metz are not as naturally exuberant as their counterparts in Marseille, who screamed and shouted and whistled their support for a good two hours at Segolene's rally there a few weeks ago.
But despite a speech in which she went firmly on the attack against Nicolas Sarkozy, the hall never quite lit up, despite the enthusiasm of the young Socialist supporters at the front.
Segolene Royal held a rally in Metz where she grew up
Ms Royal has clearly decided to do what she ruled out at the start of the campaign - get personal.
She did not mention Mr Sarkozy by name, but she did not need to.
She heavily criticised his recent comments which suggested he believed that paedophilia and teenage suicide might be genetically predetermined.
"Nobody's life or fate should be decided at birth," she told her audience, as she contrasted what she saw as Mr Sarkozy's harsh, competitive, right-wing view of the world with her own, softer Socialist vision for France.
Yet talking to the leader of Metz's Young Business Leaders' Forum, Pierre Herzog, and reading between the lines, it seems Segolene Royal's economic policies are not the favourite among French businessmen.
In general, they would prefer a real reformer - such as Mr Sarkozy - or at least, a candidate who really will support business and entrepreneurs.
"You know, people who start businesses don't get up in the morning and think 'hmm, how many people can I sack today?'" says Mr Herzog with a smile, "even though that is the stereotype in France, where businessmen are not very popular because they are often seen as greedy, perhaps because of the bad behaviour of a few at the top."
Labour costs in Metz are 20% higher than in neighbouring Luxembourg, which he says means that people prefer to set up businesses and small companies there, rather than France.
He would like France to come round to the same view as its other closest neighbour - Germany - which is a society that supports business, especially its medium-sized, family-run firms known as the Mittelstand.
France has very little in-between the huge multinationals, and its small family-run businesses, so many businesspeople in France are hoping that Mr Sarkozy, if he wins, can bring in a new and rather more supportive attitude towards entrepreneurs.
"Segolene Royal still believes too much in state help," he says, and though he will not tell me exactly who he will vote for, I suspect Mr Sarkozy is the runaway winner amongst most French business people.
I am off to Besancon now - a three-hour drive down the motorway to a place famed for its watch-making and timberwork, where Segolene Royal will be holding a rally on Thursday and Francois Bayrou one on Friday.
We will be talking to a farmer and a wood-worker there about which candidate they prefer, and what they want for France and their children.
NO TRUST IN ROYAL OR THE OTHERS
Metz, some three hours east of Paris on a slow train that ambles through the flat fields of Champagne, is a stolid kind of city.
Ms Royal does not want left-wing rivals to undermine her
Its public buildings in cream and red are imposing in a German style, with few French frills and fripperies.
If it were not for a man munching a baguette at a zebra crossing, you could imagine yourself across the border in Germany.
Even the cars stop at pedestrian crossings, not a typical French trait, while the people of Metz are rather more solid than their etiolated Parisian counterparts.
That may be thanks to Metz's long history as the pawn in the frequent wars between France and Germany over the past centuries.
From 1871 to 1919, Metz was indeed part of the German empire, and again German during World War II until it was liberated by the Allies.
"Some people wouldn't mind if it were German again,"
smiles Fouad Harjane, 27, who is trying desperately to find a job in Metz.
"Things are much cheaper over the border and young people are treated better. Here, if you try to organise a concert, it's incredibly expensive and the police patrol it incessantly. All they seem to expect from young people is trouble."
His grandfather came to Metz from Algeria, fleeing the civil war there and looking for work. His father found a job in the local steel industry. But for Fouad, like so many young people in France, the jobs market appears closed.
"I have an arts degree, but every time I go for a job they tell me I am overqualified," he says.
"I even went for one in construction, but they said that too."
Fouad is an articulate young man, who is fluent in English, but he is beginning to lose hope.
Now he spends his time helping organise rallies for the CGT trade union.
I ask him if it is harder to get a job in France if you are called Fouad rather than Philippe.
"Yes!" he says, "but it's a wider problem for all the young. We are in the middle of a severe social crisis in France. We said no in the European Constitution referendum because we don't want fewer rights for young workers and people in France than our parents' generation.
"We don't want more capitalism. And you saw what happened in the suburbs - it was rage exploding
after Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy promised to wipe the 'rude boys' from the streets."
Fouad will not be voting for any of the candidates in this election. He does not trust any of them, or believe they have the solutions for France.
'France needs reform'
Young lawyer Audrey Zeher, 28, disagrees with him entirely.
She works at the European Court of Justice across the border in Luxembourg, travelling an hour and a half to work every day.
"France needs reform urgently, and the only man to do that is the right wing candidate Nicolas Sarkozy," she says.
"He has the ideas and he can help us."
As a firm believer in the EU and a strong French voice within it, she says Mr Sarkozy is the only candidate who can offer real French leadership and heal the rift left by the French 'non'
Later tonight, the Socialist candidate Segolene Royal will be holding a rally here in Metz, using this border town as the base from which to flesh out her foreign policy, especially on Europe.
Debate over foreign policy has been almost entirely absent from this increasingly vicious election campaign, in which all the main candidates are now exchanging personal insults or questioning each other's character (or in Jean-Marie Le Pen's case, implying that the French will not vote for Sarkozy because he is the son of an immigrant.)
Perhaps the lack of debate on foreign policy is because France is too busy looking morosely and introspectively at its own problems, rather than engaging with the outside world?
Questioning what it means to be French, with each candidate wrapping themselves in the tricolour.
"The whole patriotism debate is wearing really thin,"
"And for Segolene Royal to talk of the need for each French family to have a flag at home is just not part of the left's philosophy.
"We on the left should be outward-looking, international, but this is not."
Those attending tonight's rally may disagree, but Segolene Royal is seen with suspicion by many. "She is authoritarian, but not very competent," believes Audrey.
"If she won, France would continue its current slump, young people would have no better chances than they do now."
As we leave the cafe we have been sitting in, the imposing stone buildings cast a chill over the pedestrianised streets.
It feels rather like the chill that seems to have overwhelmed France in this election
campaign: a sense of national gloom and suspicion of the nation's politicians, along with a deep mistrust between the generations, with few young people truly believing that the older generation has their best interests at heart.
It is a gloom that the next French president, whoever it is, will find difficult to dispel.
The high-speed TGV train from Paris to Tours takes less than an hour but it transports you into another
world: from the big city into the provinces, and a sleepy town of just over 300,000 people that is known as the "garden of France", as its green fields lie between the Loire and Cher rivers.
Nicolas Sarkozy was campaigning in Tours on Tuesday
The main employers here are the university and the university hospital, though Tours is also home to France's first online bank.
According to the university's political science lecturer, Jean-Philippe Roy, voters in Tours share similar concerns to those in the rest of the country.
They worry about the rising cost of living and fear that politicians in Paris are becoming ever more removed from the realities of life for those outside the city.
In the suburbs of Tours, where brightly coloured washing hangs drying on the balconies in the sunshine, those worries are magnified.
Nasrine is half-Palestinian, half-French and says she is determined to vote in these elections:
"I support the smaller candidates, because I feel that the main candidates don't offer any solutions on globalisation.
"At the moment, it's only benefiting big companies in France, not the little people or immigrants."
The candidate she fears most is the UMP's Nicolas Sarkozy, who held a rally in Tours on Tuesday night.
These activists want young people to vote in the elections
"He wants France to adopt the US economic model. I know France has big economic problems, and it needs to change, but that would be a disaster," Nasrine says.
"He would make the rich richer and the poor even poorer, and make the middle-classes poor too. And he would do nothing for immigrants either."
Her friend Nadia is part of Diversi-T37, a group that is working in the suburbs to encourage youngsters to vote.
She says she does not care which way they vote, as long as they do, and can feel that they have had a say in France's future direction and how it shapes itself over the next few years - and whether it becomes a country in which the children and grandchildren of immigrants are encouraged to succeed.