FOCUS: France - Postcard from the Edge: A Journey to the Heart of le Pen Country ; the City of Montpellier and the Mediterranean Coastal Villages of the South of France Are a Favourite Haunt of British Holidaymakers. for the Writer and Critic Kevin le Gendre the Area Is a Home from Home - but When He Returned There Last Week, He Encountered a Country Divided and a People Who Have at Last Discovered Their Voice and Are Demanding to Be Heard

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The Place de la Comedie, in central Montpellier, is the perfect place to spend a spring afternoon. It has ornate Renaissance architecture to marvel at, sunshaded cafes to be seen at, street musicians to be serenaded by and Roman-style monuments to pose under for those perfect holiday snaps.

Yet what I found in France's eighth biggest city was not tranquillity but activity. People hadn't come to hang out but to speak out against Jean-Marie Le Pen's shock success in last Sunday's first round of the presidential elections.

With the department of L'Herault, of which Montpellier is the focal point, registering an impressive "Front National" score of nearly 30 per cent, a sense of urgency has gripped the city, with daily protests uniting all sections of society.

When I arrived on Thursday, 5,000 schoolchildren were taking the afternoon off to march against Le Pen. As I joined them on the route that leads right through the city centre's main landmarks, including Antigone, the Place de l'Europe and the Place de la Comedie, they were more than willing to talk on behalf of a France that stayed silent last week. Many, such as 16-year-old Ahmed, realised that it was time for action. "We're against a guy like Le Pen who's a real fascist. We have a right to be heard."

In many ways the procession was a portrayal of everything that Le Pen fears about France today; a multicultural representation of young "hexagonaux" whose image is as diverse as anything that you will see on the streets of London. French teenagers of African, Arabic and Mediterranean descent walked along, chanting to the sound of djembe (a North African drum) and quick-fire slogans that were as much rapped as sung. There were lots of couplets punning on fascism and Nazi, but perhaps the most meaningful thing heard all afternoon was the simplest: "First. Second. Third generation. We're all immigrants."

The carnival atmosphere made me think of a mini-Womad festival without the food stalls and Portaloos. The kids were soon running through a fountain in the middle of the broad, bright walkways of Place Thessalie to refresh themselves in the afternoon heat. Then they reflected on Le Pen's success.

According to Sebastien, who is 17, apathy caused it: "There were so many opinion polls saying that Le Pen didn't have a chance, that it would be Jospin and Chirac. A lot of people thought it wasn't worth voting because of that. Plenty also voted for a lot of small parties, and that weakened the left." Who do you think actually voted for Le Pen? Mehdi, who is 16 years old, thinks that it was "old people... who else! All that the papers just talk about is crime all the time. That scares them".

Everybody has a theory about Le Pen's electorate. While some put it down to the generation gap, others think he's favoured by the unemployed. And there are even reports of Arabs voting for him. What most people at the Place de la Comedie agreed on - and by late afternoon the lyceens had been joined by war veterans and 60-year- old women who remember 1968 (and who voted for Chirac) - is that disenchantment with the political class and the media's obsession with law and order helped to create the circumstances that led to Le Pen's surprise electoral success.

One of the most interesting sights of the afternoon was Iwan, a 30-year- old carrying a placard not only denouncing Le Pen but urging people to pick up any rubbish that they might leave behind. "Le Pen has done well through disorder in society," he said. "It plays into his hands if the place isn't clean. That's all part of the image that he's exploiting. A lot of people in the villages in particular have made up their minds based on the image of a dirty, unsafe place they've seen on TV. A lot of political capital has been made from that."

Iwan advised me to take a trip to one of the small villages on the Mediterranean coast if I wanted to understand how France's political climate is changing. …