In A Heated Campaign Season, French Politicians Flock To Paris Farm Fair

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French far-right leader Marine Le Pen attends the 2017 Agriculture Fair on Tuesday in Paris.

For 10 days every winter, nearly a million people show up to visit a Paris convention center that's been transformed into a piece of the French countryside.

The Salon de l'Agriculture, which runs Feb. 25 to March 5, is one of the world's largest agricultural fairs. Inside the massive, hangar-like exposition hall on the west end of Paris, dozens of breeds of milk and beef cows chew their cud and watch hordes of visitors, as baby lambs scamper about their hay-filled stalls. Farmers tout their high-quality meats and cheeses and young people learn what it's like to work on a farm.

And during a heated political campaign season, this farm show is an obligatory stop for any presidential candidate.

Retired engineer Gilles Roque says Parisians young and old show up here every year because farming holds a kind of mythic place in the French psyche.

"We French, even though we mostly live in the city now, we have peasants and farmers in our ancestry," he says. "Farming is part of our heritage. It's in the French soul."

France is also the European Union's top agricultural producer, with exports of more than $60 billion a year. With a presidential election coming in May, the importance of candidates paying their respects to the guardians of this nation's cherished farmland and villages cannot be underestimated.

On Tuesday, far-right candidate and front-runner Marine Le Pen made her visit. There was such a dense scrum of reporters, cameras and microphones surrounding her that all you could see was the top of her platinum-blonde head bobbing as she walked around, talking to farmers.

Roque filmed it all on his cell phone. He says voters today are tired of 40 years of going back and forth between right and left. Many are choosing the two outsider candidates, Le Pen and political newcomer Emmanuel Macron, who stepped down as President Francois Hollande's economy minister to launch his own movement and run as an independent.

Roque says he's always voted Socialist, but this year, he's thinking of voting for Le Pen.

"She has completely changed the party from her father's day," he says. "She's created a solid base that's no longer extremist. And you see that in the simple, regular people who want to vote for her now."

Le Pen took over the far-right National Front party from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in 2011. He was seen as a xenophobic and racist firebrand. His daughter has worked to soften the party's image and attract new voters. Today she is leading the presidential race, with 27 percent support in recent polls.

And she's even more popular in the hard-working world of rural France. Le Pen favors leaving the European Union, boosting aid to French farmers and promoting French products. A recent poll in Le Monde showed her support at 35 percent among farmers.

But not every farmer at the Paris agriculture show is enthusiastic about about Le Pen. Thierry Chabot, who makes the famous Comté cheese in the mountains near the Swiss border, is one who isn't. He's brought some of his Montbeliard cows here, wearing giant bells around their necks. Chabot says he doesn't like Le Pen's ideas about leaving the European Union.

"Today we can't live without Europe," he says. "We sell our products in the EU, we have a European currency, we can't go backwards. And we see how the English regret their decision to leave."

Chabot says most French farmers vote conservative, and their favored candidate has been Francois Fillon, on the mainstream right. But Fillon is under investigation for allegedly creating a fictitious, high-paying government job for his wife.

In a last-minute surprise Wednesday that had the French news channels in a speculative frenzy, Fillon suddenly cancelled his scheduled visit to the farm show. With news that the investigation into a possible fictitious job scheme is going forward, Fillon called a press conference to denounce a "political attack" and vowed to continue his campaign.

Even with Fillon looking less and less attractive, Chabot says he's hesitant about voting Le Pen. He says the political turmoil he's seen in the U.S. after President Trump's election gives him pause.

No one seems too excited about Macron, currently running second in the polls behind Le Pen.

Three women who are discussing the election tell me Le Pen has nothing to do with Donald Trump. They say she is much smarter and savvier than him.

One of the women, Martine Le Monze recently retired from a research job at a respected scientific institute. She says she's always voted for mainstream right candidates, but this year, her vote will go to Le Pen.

"We really hope she'll be elected because France is so low right now and she's the only on who can bring us up," says Le Monze. "She has a program for the old, the young, the farmers – and it's the only viable plan."

Le Monze and her friends say Macron is a neophyte with no program at all. The centrist candidate has revealed the overall themes of his campaign and is expected to present a detailed platform on March 2.

What's strikingly different about attitudes here since the last presidential election just five years ago is that the typical Le Pen voter — usually blue-collar and without higher education — seems a thing of the past. And there is no shame anymore about voting for the National Front.

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