ST. RÉMY-SUR-AVRE, France — Eternal France, its villages gathered around church spires, its fields etched in a bright patchwork of green and rapeseed yellow, unfolds as if to offer reassurance in troubled times that some things do not change. But the presidential election on Sunday, an earthquake whatever its outcome, suggests otherwise.
France has changed. It has eviscerated the center-left and center-right parties that were the chief vehicles of its postwar politics. It has split into three blocs: the hard left, an amorphous center gathered around President Emmanuel Macron, and the extreme right of Marine Le Pen.
Above all, with Ms. Le Pen likely to get some 45 percent of the vote, it has buried a tenacious taboo. In a country that for four wartime years lived under the racist Nazi-puppet Vichy government, no xenophobic, nationalist leader would be allowed into the political mainstream, let alone be able to claim the highest office in the land.
Unlikely to win, but well within the zone of a potential surprise, Ms. Le Pen has shattered all of that. She is no outlier. She is the new French normal. If Mr. Macron does edge to victory, as polls suggest, he will face a restive, fractured country, where hatred of him is not uncommon. The old nostrum that France is ungovernable may be tested again.
St. Rémy-sur-Avre, a small town of some 4,000 inhabitants about 60 miles west of Paris, is Le Pen territory. In the Maryland cafe, named for a cigarette brand that is no more, the prevailing view is that something has to give in a France that has lost its way under a president too privileged and remote to know anything of the burden of struggle.
Customers buy lottery tickets, or bet on the harness racing on television, in the hope of unlikely relief from hardship. A kir, white wine with a little black current liqueur, is a popular morning drink. The streets are deserted; most stores have disappeared, crushed by the hypermarkets out on the highway. In this town, Ms. Le Pen took 37.2 percent of the vote in the first round of the election on April 10, pushing Mr. Macron into a distant second with 23.6 percent.
Jean-Michel Gérard, 66, one of the kir drinkers, worked in the meat business from age 15, as a butcher, in slaughterhouses, or as a trucker hauling beef carcasses. But he had to stop at 60, when his knees gave out from regularly carrying several tons of meat a day on his back, the record being a single 465-pound rear of a bull.
“Now we have a generation of slackers,” he said. “When I was young, if you did not work, you did not eat.”
The old France of solidarity and fraternity had disappeared, he lamented, gone like the horse butchers where he started work and replaced by a new France of individualism, jealousy and indulgence.
He voted for the left until François Mitterrand, the former Socialist president, imposed limits on work hours, and then switched his allegiance to the far-right National Front party, now Ms. Le Pen’s National Rally. What infuriated him, he said, was foreigners collecting social benefits and handouts without working.
“We didn’t want to work less, we wanted to work more to earn more. What’s the use of free time without money?” he asked. “If foreigners work, they have their place. If not, no.”
Mr. Gérard gazed out at the church. That jogged a memory. The other day, he said, he saw a young man from the Maghreb urinating on the church wall. He shouted at the man, who looked about 17. “What would you do if I urinated on a mosque?”
The fraught relationship between France and Islam — in the country with the largest Muslim population in Western Europe and a recent history of terrorist attacks — has been one of the themes of the election campaign. Mr. Macron has called Ms. Le Pen’s program racist for wanting to make head scarves illegal on the grounds that they constitute a threatening “Islamist uniform” — on the face of it, an extraordinary claim, given that an overwhelming majority of Muslims in France just want to live peacefully.
“If women are wearing them just for their religion, OK,” Mr. Gérard said, “but I think in general it’s a provocation.”
Maryvonne Duché, another firm supporter of Ms. Le Pen, was seated at a table close by. She started work at 14 as a sales clerk, before spending 34 years on the production line at a nearby Philips electronics factory, which closed 12 years ago.
“Apart from two pregnancies, I worked nonstop from age 14 to 60, and now I have a pension of 1,160 euros a month,” she said — or about $1,250. “It’s pathetic, with almost half going in rent, but Macron doesn’t care.”
And Ms. Le Pen? “I don’t love her, but I will vote for her to get rid of Macron.”
The view of Mr. Macron in this town was of near-universal disdain: a man with no respect for French people, removed from reality, so cerebral he has no idea of “real life,” insensitive to the everyday problems of many people, from a class that has “never changed a kid’s diaper,” in Mr. Gérard’s words.
Ms. Le Pen, by contrast, is seen as someone who will protect people from the disruptive onslaught of the modern world.
What to Know About France’s Presidential Election
Heading to a runoff. In the first round of the election, French citizens voted to advance President Emmanuel Macron and the far-right leader Marine Le Pen to the second round on April 24. This runoff, which polls predict could be close, will hinge to a large extent on perceptions of the economy. Here’s a look at the race:
The incumbent. Mr. Macron, an inveterate political gambler, who in 2017 became the nation’s youngest elected leader, announced his re-election bid just a day before the deadline, against the background of the war in Ukraine. After a lackluster campaign, Mr. Macron is trying to tap into the country’s large pool of voters worried about the environment with ambitious promises.
The far-right veteran. Ms. Le Pen, a nationalist with an anti-immigrant agenda, is making her third attempt to become president of France and is facing Mr. Macron for a second time after losing to him in the 2017 runoff. Though she has sought to sanitize her image, her proposal to ban Muslim women from wearing head scarves is controversial.
What comes next? At 8 p.m. in France on April 24, the French news media will work with pollsters to publish projected results based on preliminary vote counts, though projections might not become clear until later if the race is close. Read more about the runoff here.
France, like other Western societies including the United States, has fractured, with a liberal, global and metropolitan elite parting company from what the French call “the periphery” — blighted urban and remote rural areas that feel left behind and often invisible.
The old class war of left and right has ushered in an identity war pitting globalists against nationalists. Ms. Le Pen, representing the alienated and the struggling, has given voice to a France angered by what it sees as the insouciant impunity of Mr. Macron and his cronies busy dissolving French identity in some mishmash of multilateralism. Hence the anti-immigrant, and especially anti-Islam fervor, that remains the heart of Ms. Le Pen’s message and program, whatever her milquetoast makeover in this campaign.
These issues will persist long after the election, testing France’s ability to resist growing forces of division, street protest and political unraveling.
“I am a single mom with an unemployed son,” said Sabine Robert, 50, who works in a public hospital. “I get to retire at 57, and I think Ms. Le Pen will protect that pension. I also think undocumented foreigners should be sent away. They get work my son could have.”
Sick of Mr. Macron’s “oily voice trying to please everyone,” she has no doubt her vote will go to Ms. Le Pen.
As for the head scarves, she is not bothered, but worries they are imposed on Muslim women by Muslim men. “In France,” she said, “a woman gets to do what she wants. She is free to dress as she likes, think what she likes, and do what she wants.”
As it happens, the Maryland cafe was bought five years ago by a young couple who are Chinese immigrants. The nearby boulangerie is run by Fadel Borkis, a Tunisian immigrant, who came to France when he was 18 looking for work. “People like our bread,” he said. “I am a Muslim, I work, I respect people, no problem.”
This, too, is France, transformed but somehow itself, a country of fierce realism that has adapted more to the seamless modern world than it seems to care to admit to itself, a nation in denial about its own successes.
During the presidential debate on Wednesday between Mr. Macron and Ms. Le Pen, she said he had no idea about “the real world.”
Mr. Macron responded with a weary smile: “We all live in the real world.”
Whether the French believe their restless, quick-witted, adaptable president does so enough is one of the big issues on the ballot Sunday. Another is whether France will lurch to the nationalist right, with its sympathies for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, in a time of war in Europe.
During a day of reporting in St. Rémy-sur-Avre, the word “Ukraine” was uttered only once.