After French Election, Voters Are Resigned to Cost-of-Living Crisis

by Pelican Press
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After French Election, Voters Are Resigned to Cost-of-Living Crisis

Celine Gallois is more careful these days about what she puts in her shopping basket. Prices at French supermarkets have jumped by nearly a third in the last couple of years, and two bags, filled mainly with basics including pasta, milk, meat and fruit, now cost her about 80 euros — the most she can afford to spend each week.

The cost to fill up the gas tank of her small car jumped to €90 a week from €60. And Ms. Gallois’s electricity bills, which President Emmanuel Macron’s government had capped during an energy crisis last year, shot up again last month after the subsidy ended.

All of this led her to cast a vote for Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party for the first time during France’s parliamentary elections this weekend.

“People are struggling, and there seems to be no relief in sight,” said Ms. Gallois, her frustration clear as she wandered through an artisanal market in the northern French city of Beauvais with her fiancé, but refrained from buying. “The government says they’ve addressed it, but we keep falling behind.”

As the dust settles from France’s elections, one thing has not changed: anger over a cost-of-living crisis that continues to affect households across the country.

A two-year streak of rapid inflation has left low- and middle-income French families struggling to pay for essentials like energy, gas and food, while wages, in some cases, have failed to keep pace. Polls showed that “purchasing power” was a top concern of voters, alongside immigration and security.

The problem was so acute that the major parties sought to put pocketbook issues out front: The National Rally, an anti-immigration party, pledged to slash energy bills. The New Popular Front, a left-wing alliance, said it would raise the minimum wage. Mr. Macron’s centrist coalition said it would increase social benefits for poor households by around €5 billion a year.

But after the election, in which no party won a majority and the French National Assembly was left in gridlock, many citizens feared that a new government would not accomplish anything, leaving them continuing to grapple with their daily lives — and nursing their discontent.

On Sunday, those worries rippled through the local market in Beauvais, the administrative capital of the l’Oise department of northern France, which voted almost entirely for the National Rally in the elections.

In the town’s main square, dominated by a statue of Jeanne Hachette, a celebrated heroine who helped stop an invasion by the Duke of Burgundy in the 15th century, tepid sales among artisans selling goods like honey, hamburgers, jewelry and purses were a mirror of the increasing strain.

“Before, it seemed like our income allowed us to live a decent life,” said Noëlla Lamotte, who owns a small business making hand-painted lamps and decorative home furnishings. “But our electricity bills are huge, and so is food,” added Ms. Lamotte, who, with her husband, Joel, backed the far-right party. “Everyone is feeling the impact and so they’re watching what they spend.”

Even the square’s fairground attraction, anchored by an elegant carousel and a popular hook-a-duck game, was short on customers; the owner said teenagers and families with young children had been cutting back.

In France, it seems as if things should not be unfolding this way. Inflation has dropped to 2.4 percent from a record high 6.3 percent annualized rate early last year. When food and fuel prices began flaring after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Mr. Macron’s government subsidized household energy bills and pressured food producers and supermarkets to slow the run-up in grocery prices.

At the same time, wages increased as workers demanded more to keep up with inflation. The government increased France’s official monthly minimum wage six times in the last two years. Salaries in the private sector, based on negotiated wage agreements, rose an average of 4 percent in 2023. And the Bank of France said purchasing power was improving.

But for many, those statistics do not feel real in everyday life. Despite the wage gains, “purchasing power has been eroded by high inflation,” the French bank Crédit Agricole said in a recent analysis.

The feeling of precariousness is widespread.

In Bauvin, a working-class town in northwest France, Bruno Loez, 56, said the last few years had been difficult. “Two months ago, we barely had enough money to get to the end of the month,” said Mr. Loez, who has worked as a tiler since he was 17.

“We used to be able to fill our gas tank without any problem. But now we can’t afford it,” he said. “Shopping is the same: If you want a full cart, you need between €300 and €400.” He decided to vote for the National Rally after the party pledged to lower fuel bills.

In the southern town of L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, Robert Rocchi, 69, a wine shop owner, said inflation had hit people in his region badly. “For the small earners, it’s very difficult,” said Mr. Rocchi, who voted for a Socialist candidate.

At the Beauvais market, there was a sense that it would be hard to put the genie back in the bottle.

As people leaned in to taste free samples of artisanal beer at a stand called Pap’s Biere, the owner, Remi, who declined to give his last name, looked at his unsold stock. He had marked down his bottles to €3.30 euros from €4, “because no one will buy at that price.” Still, his sales were slow. And his production costs had surged 40 percent in the last two years because the cost of glass and hops remained high.

“Purchasing power is the No. 1 issue on people’s minds,” he said. “But I don’t believe any of the political parties can do much about it.”

Later in the afternoon, Claire Marais-Beuil, the National Rally candidate in Beauvais, stopped by the market to greet voters.

She had campaigned hard on cost-of-living issues, and echoed the same grievances that many voters had. Beneath that appeal was the party’s pledge to target what it said were immigrants tapping France’s welfare system, and redirect some of those benefits in favor of “hard-working” French people.

“There’s a feeling that living standards have declined dramatically,” said Ms. Marais-Beuil, who wound up beating her opponent from the center-right Les Republicans party. “People say they are fed up, and they want change.”

Ms. Gallois said her vote for the far right had been cast partly out of desperation at financial woes — and partly out of hope that the party could reverse a sense of decline. “We felt like we were middle class and that ground has been eroding,” she said. “Things just can’t keep going on this way.”

For Noémie Duhamel, 38, the owner of a sewing shop called the Magic Thread, the shake-up in French politics did not necessarily mean a change for the better. “Politicians have promised many things to get elected,” she said, tidying the custom-made toiletry bags and children’s outfits at her market stall as she waited for the occasional customer.

“But after the elections, it’s going to be more difficult because everything will be blocked,” she said. “People are still uncertain about the future.”

Ségolène Le Stradic contributed reporting from Bauvin and Cassandra Vinograd from L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue.

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