I returned in January not on the trail of a presidential candidate but to better understand a French paradox just beneath the surface of the campaign: the deep pride felt by the French in what they regard as an unparalleled way of life, always accompanied by anxiety that it is facing extinction.
The campaign is like few before it in France, because of the looming question of whether the far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen, will do the once-unthinkable, and win. She has already pushed the discourse rightward and made a visceral promise to voters: to protect not just France, but Frenchness. Whether the menace is defined as Islam, immigration or globalization, her vow to voters is the same: I am the woman to preserve the French way of life.
The visible decline of so many historic city centers is intertwined with these anxieties. Losing the ancient French provincial capital is another blow to Frenchness — tangible evidence of a disappearing way of life that resonates in France in the same way that the hollowing out of main streets did in the United States decades ago. A survey of French towns found that commercial vacancies have almost doubled to 10.4 percent in the past 15 years. As these towns have declined, voters have often turned sharply rightward. Albi is traditionally centrist, but the same conditions of decline and political anxiety are present, too.
Turn a corner in Albi, and you’ll pass the last school inside the historic center, abandoned a few years ago. Down another street is the last toy store, now closed, and around a corner is the last independent grocery store, also shuttered. Walk down the empty, narrow streets on some nights and the silence is so complete that you can hear your footsteps on the stones.