DIJON, France — At Le Carillon, a convivial place for a coq au vin as France prepares to vote in a critical election, the heated political debates that always characterized past campaigns have fallen silent, as if the country were anesthetized.
In other election seasons, the restaurant would buzz for months with arguments over candidates and issues. This time, said the owner, Martine Worner-Bablon, “Nobody talks politics. I don’t know, people’s heads are elsewhere. No confidence in politicians. If anything, they talk about the war.”
In this strange atmosphere, overshadowed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, President Emmanuel Macron, a centrist, holds a slight lead over Marine Le Pen, a hard-right nationalist, according to the latest polls. But his comfortable advantage of more than 10 percentage points has evaporated over the past month as his dismissal of debate and failure to engage have irked voters.
“What astonishes me is that the president of the French Republic does not think first about the French,” Ms. Le Pen, whose newfound mild manner masks a harsh anti-immigrant program, said last month. It was a remark that hit home as Mr. Macron spent most of his time pondering how to end a European war.
With the vote spread over two rounds starting on Sunday, many people still undecided and an expected abstention rate of up to 30 percent, the election’s outcome is deeply uncertain. During her last campaign, in 2017, Ms. Le Pen chose to appear at the Kremlin with President Vladimir V. Putin, who said with a smirk that he did not wish “to influence events in any way,” as she vowed to lift sanctions against Russia “quite quickly” if elected.
The possibility of France lurching toward an anti-NATO, pro-Russia, xenophobic and nationalistic position in the event of a Le Pen victory constitutes a potential shock as great as the 2016 British vote for Brexit or the election the same year of Donald J. Trump in the United States.
At what President Biden has repeatedly called an “inflection point” in the global confrontation between autocracy and democracy, a France under Ms. Le Pen would push the needle in the very direction the United States opposes.
All seems tranquil in Dijon, for now. Quiet and immaculate, its center a succession of churches and palaces, the capital of the Burgundy region is as good a symbol as any of “la douce France,” the sweet land of gastronomic delights that finds its way into many people’s hearts. But Dijon, a town of 155,000 inhabitants, has its turbulent underside, in the image of a country where beauty and belligerence and magnificence and malaise are often uneasy bedfellows.
Among regulars at Le Carillon, inquiries as to the whereabouts of nuclear bomb shelters are on the rise. Emmanuel Bichot, a center-right city councilor, does not like the country’s mood. “There’s a lot of frustration, of aggression, of tension,” he said. “People get angry very quickly. This has not been an election about programs. I don’t hear anyone debating them.”
He paused to contemplate this puzzle. “It’s come down to Macron’s Machiavellian manipulations against Le Pen’s resilience.” This is the third time that Ms. Le Pen, the leader of the National Rally, formerly the National Front, has run for president. The two leaders in the first round of voting go through to a runoff on April 24.
One fundamental development contributed to the fractured, incoherent nature of the election. Mr. Macron’s agile occupation of the political center, destroying first the center-left Socialist Party and then the center-right Republicans, effectively wiped out two pillars of postwar French democracy.
What was left was the president against the extremes, whether to the right in the form of Ms. Le Pen or to the left in the form of Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Between them, Ms. Le Pen, the far-right upstart Éric Zemmour and Mr. Mélenchon are set to garner some 50 percent of the vote, the latest poll from the Ifop-Fiducial group showed.
“This is a country that no longer has the political structures that corresponds to what a democracy is,” François Hollande, Mr. Macron’s Socialist predecessor as president, said in an interview last month in Paris. “And I believe, if you look across Europe, it’s only in France that political parties have collapsed to this point.”
Contemplating his own allegiance to the center-left, he said, “The left has completely blown up, divided, and the most responsible part of it disappeared.”
At the same time, Mr. Macron’s own party, La République en Marche, has proved a largely empty vessel.
In this vacuum, the campaign has often descended into candidates shrieking at each other, while a lofty leader takes the view that his presidential stature should be enough to win the day.
That attitude, however, underestimates French restiveness. Not for two decades has a French president won a second term. Regicides are a thing of the past, but political decapitations at five-year intervals are not.
At the same time, immigration, security and a sharply rising cost of living have coalesced into an ugly brew. Many French people feel left out from the economic growth Mr. Macron has delivered to the country and anxious about the violence they see in their neighborhoods.
Referring to several Islamist terrorist attacks in France, Irène Fornal, a retired state pension fund director ensconced at Dijon’s Café de l’Industrie, said, “After Charlie Hebdo, after Bataclan, after the murder of Samuel Paty, evil was personified by the immigrant stranger, and the country split.”
Dijon, like many towns in France, has its projects, underprivileged areas of nondescript high-rises where immigrants, often Muslims from North Africa, and their descendants predominate, and the drug trade brings violence between rival gangs.
“Insecurity pollutes the life of people,” said François Rebsamen, the city’s longtime mayor and a lifetime Socialist who has joined the Macron campaign, given his own party’s collapse. “In these areas, tranquillity is elusive.”
Two years ago, in the Les Grésilles neighborhood of Dijon, street battles between Chechens and North Africans erupted over five days after a 16-year-old Chechen boy was assaulted by drug dealers from the Maghreb. In another depressed area, called Fontaine d’Ouche, some stores are still boarded up after drive-by shootings late last year.
Mathieu Depoil — who heads a social center in Fontaine d’Ouche that tries to improve people’s lives through sports, carpentry, gardening and other activities — said the area’s roughly 7,000 inhabitants, mostly immigrants, formed a “zone of precariousness” with a 25 percent poverty rate, high unemployment and many single-parent families.
“People complain to me that if they say where they live, they are told, ‘Oh, you live with savages,’” he added.
A mock election he organized recently with a debate on the 12 official presidential candidates drew only a handful of people. “I am not sure people will go vote,” he said. “They are disillusioned, they feel alone and isolated after Covid-19. They have lost any faith in collective solutions.”
We went for a stroll through the neighborhood, visited late last month by Mr. Macron as he finally woke up to the need to get out of Paris and hear the concerns of people struggling to get by. The posters of him that were hurriedly put up are now gone.
Instead, the bespectacled face of Mr. Mélenchon, the hard-left candidate, adorns many walls with the slogan, “Another world is possible.”
In this one, meanwhile, yellowish apartment blocks, some rising to 10 or 12 stories, surround a bleak square with a halal butcher. A Sudanese family, an Eritrean refugee and an unemployed Italian named Giovanni Oddone tell similar stories of scraping by on odd jobs. They are far from destitute — the French state is generous — but they do seem adrift.
“People do not feel concerned by the election because they do not feel understood,” Mr. Oddone said.
A Moroccan woman named Hafida El-Bakkouri, wearing a head scarf, joined a group of women playing a version of dominoes. She said she buys a bag of flour for 50 cents in order to bake three baguettes for about the price of one at the bakery. “We get by,” she said.
When asked how she felt about Ms. Le Pen, who has vowed to ban the use of head scarves in public and fine women who wear them, Ms. El-Bakkouri said: “The main thing is she wants to send delinquents out of the country. I may vote for her. Why not?”
This is an opaque election fraught with potential surprises.
Back in the other world of central Dijon, the mayor’s office is housed in the Palace of the Dukes, approached through the magnificent hemicycle of the Place de la Libération, or Liberation Square. UNESCO has registered the city center as a World Heritage site.
Mr. Rebsamen, who has governed the city from here for 21 years, is worried. “There’s been no real Macron campaign,” he said. “They plan a rally and think two tweets are enough to draw a crowd. I would put Le Pen’s chances at 15 percent, which means it’s possible she wins. We have to be very wary of high abstention.”
He had joined the Macron campaign, abandoning the Socialists, because “France needs someone who can represent the country with dignity, and because, as the philosopher Raymond Aron put it, the choice in politics is ‘between the preferable and the detestable.’”
On the issue of security, on giving people the sense that he really cares about their lives, the president had failed, Mr. Rebsamen, who once served as minister of social affairs, said. The letter to the French people that belatedly launched Mr. Macron’s campaign with an admonishment to them that they would have to work harder was botched. His election slogan, “Avec Vous,” or “With You,” was belied by an impression of stage-managed aloofness.
“But now he’s woken up, he needs this sense of urgency,” the mayor said. “I tell him he has to get out of his comfort zone!”
Mr. Macron has turned to attacking Ms. Le Pen hard for her attachment to Mr. Putin — which she is scrambling to play down. He is lauding “fraternity” and reminding the electorate of how he steered the country through the loneliness and economic hardship of the pandemic.
“Crises have forged me and my energy is intact,” he told Le Figaro this week in an interview.
Whether the French will hear him in sufficient numbers is unclear. Mr. Macron, through apparent distraction, or perhaps mere boredom at the idea of another campaign, has allowed Ms. Le Pen to slip into the zone of the possible surprises that once seemed unthinkable.