Michel Sieurin leans forward, sets down the shoe-hammer and lowers his voice: “Five years ago I voted for Nicolas Sarkozy. Today, I’m embarrassed by that. That slogan, ‘Work more to earn more’, I liked. But he’s done nothing for the little people. He’s the president of the rich.”

For 25 years Sieurin has been the shoemaker of Montivilliers, a small town in northern France near Le Havre. “The anti-Sarkozyism is a phenomenon of the Parisian elite,” Carla Bruni-Sarkozy said not long ago, and the pro-government media picked up the refrain: the Parisian literati, journalists and intellectuals are all against Sarkozy, but the “silent majority” out there think differently. That’s the story told too by the man himself, who out on the road in the provinces – surprise, surprise! – meets nothing but admirers. Perhaps Sarkozy should talk with someone like the shoemaker of Montivilliers.

As a young man the now 56-year-old Sieurin was a metal worker, organised in the CGT trade union devoted to class struggle. “In 1981, when Mitterrand brought the Left to power, I was expecting miracles.” The Left departed, capitalism stayed on. Sieurin saw a lot more wither away. His dreams of a united society. His job as an auto mechanic, and with it thousands of other industrial jobs in the region.

France is going downhill

On 22 April the French go to the polls to vote for a president; the concluding ballot, if needed, will be on 6 May. Michel Sieurin will probably leave his ballot blank. For him the socialist Francois Hollande is “just another Liberal” – a word that in France refers to the hated economic liberalism. The hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon is too aggressive for the shoemaker, and the radical nationalists with Marine Le Pen are beyond the pale. “But not for some of my friends,” says Sieurin. “They’re angry and they want to show it. Fascists they’re not.”

Montivilliers is a small town like many others. Paris is a two-and-a-half-hour drive, but when it comes to culture the capital city is light-years away. The public debate is being thrashed out all on sides there, with the great city’s usual nervous energy. Life in the provinces of France moves at a different pace. Opinions take shape quietly here, among family, friends, in clubs. This is the France where the election will be decided. The geography of the country is changing. Low earners and long-term unemployed are moving into small towns and out into the countryside. In the big cities they often have only the choice between expensive neighbourhoods and dangerous ghettos.

“It’s quiet here,” is the first answer you get when you ask residents of Montivilliers for the good points about their town. Ancient houses surround the square, some half-timbered, most admittedly run down. It’s been a long time since the city had a market. The building in the best shape on the other hand is the nearly thousand-year-old abbey, which the state keeps up. Its history ended with the French Revolution, when the nuns refused to swear by the new Republic.

From 1793 the building even housed a brasserie. There is still an “Abbey Brasserie”, but it’s sited across from the abbey. Now it’s a meeting point for workers. Claude Far and Salim Khaoua, 28 and 30 years old, from Algeria and Morocco, and as “inseparable” as brothers, as they say, have met up there. They admire the Germans for their chancellor and their cars, and think that France is going downhill.

“President of the rich”

In this they’re in tune with the majority opinion, which is fed by a flood of books and articles that bemoan the decline into second-class status and with it the erosion of the “French social model”, which can be summed up in one word: Égalité. “Our buddies are almost all unemployed,” says Salim. “They can’t afford to go to the restaurant, like we can.”

Claude and Salim are almost always on the move, checking the welds of nuclear reactors around the country. Sometimes there are working wages, sometimes only money to tide them over, depending on whether their bodies have already received the critical dose of radioactivity and they have to take a mandatory break.

The two belong to that “France that gets up early,” whose virtues Sarkozy likes to praise. “He promised people like us that we would earn more – huh! It never happened.” And again: “He’s the president of the rich.” What about Hollande? “No, he wants to shut down nuclear power plants.” Marine Le Pen? “Maybe. France must defend itself against the competition. But the demand to return to the franc is nonsense.”