FRANCE 24 joined a group of Socialist Party canvassers this week on the streets of Nimes in southern France, the only region where far-right candidate Marine Le Pen came out on top in the presidential election's first round.
Across France teams of Socialist activists are knocking on doors and talking to voters, in a door-to-door campaign inspired by US President Barack Obama’s successful 2008 campaign.
FRANCE 24 joined a small team of Socialist Party (PS) canvassers working the suburbs of Nimes in southern France as the country gears up for the second round of the presidential election on May 6.
Locally, there is much at stake for the PS. Nimes is the main city in the Gard – the only administrative region in France where far-right candidate Marine Le Pen came top in the first round of the presidential vote.
Incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy will face off against PS candidate Francois Hollande in the second round, and although polls give Hollande a ten-point lead, much still depends on how Le Pen’s supporters choose to vote.
The PS activists are leaving nothing to chance.
Beaming optimism and big smiles
Their approach and strategy is surprisingly American in a country where door-to-door canvassing is virtually unknown. For the first time in a presidential campaign, the socialist-party has organised a large-scale effort to draw in left-wing sympathisers who might have otherwise abstained, drawing inspiration from the Obama canvassing method.
Activists are furnished with lists of households in overwhelmingly left-voting neighbourhoods that have abstained from voting in previous elections (not the names) and these form the core of the highly coordinated strategy to target undecided voters.
Each canvasser has been given sales-type training and approaches the work with beaming optimism and big smiles.
They follow strict guidelines on how many minutes to spend talking with each person, how to focus on listening rather than lecturing, and to provide as much information as they can as efficiently as possible.
“People who don’t agree with us get two minutes and those who do get five,” said Laurent Thomas, a council gardener who organises all canvassing in Nimes and has been out on the streets every night for the past four weeks.
“We are always polite and we never argue with people. If they don’t want to talk to us we simply move on.
“Our mission is to educate as many people as possible about Francois Hollande. We are not here to convert people. Above all we want people to go out and vote on May 6.”
Le Pen’s coy voters
Out on the streets, householders seemed surprised at the presence of these red-jacketed Hollande supporters.
Activist Kevin Boucard, 31, said the method “that we studied from the Obama campaign” was working, and that the team had been able to cover most of the city in the run-up to the vote.
“People aren’t used to this direct approach in France,” he said. “Many of our new activists are a little scared to approach people directly, but they soon get over their shyness.”
In a region that saw 25% of voters cast their ballot for Marine Le Pen’s National Front in the April 22 first round of the election, her supporters are surprisingly coy.
Peering round her front gate, one mother of two children leaning out of the house windows told FRANCE 24: “I voted for Le Pen in the first round. I’m abstaining in the second. I won’t vote for either Hollande or Sarkozy.”
She refused to be named or be photographed.
Canvassing finishes at 8.30pm sharp because “people are having dinner and we mustn’t disturb them” and the team gets together for to debrief on the evening’s work.
“It’s an important part of the day’s work, we learn from each other and it makes us feel good about what we’ve done,” says Thomas.
They disperse after copious kisses on cheeks – they do it three times in the south. No high-fives in Nimes.
DOOR-TO-DOOR CAMPAIGNING IN NIMES
Laurent Thomas (right) organises all door-to-door canvassing in Nimes. He is joined by his father Claude (left) who has been a PS supporter since 1974.
Canvassers work their patch in pairs. Friends Laurence Choimet (left) and Leila Bekkaoui (right) feel they work best together.
This is social worker Kevin Boucard’s first election as a PS activist. “Hollande may be ahead in the polls, but the game is not done by any stretch,” he said. “Nicolas Sarkozy is extremely combative and I think the result will be much closer than anyone thinks.”
Mohammed Snabi looks after disadvantaged youngsters. Canvassing is “all about convincing people to vote and not to be indifferent - too many people feel that the elections do not concern them and will change nothing.”
Kheira Ghezali, of French Algerian origin, said that “most people who voted for [far-right leader] Marine Le Pen aren’t racists, they’re simply fed up with Sarkozy.”
A resident in this affluent suburb seems surprised to see the red-coated activists. She will vote for Hollande, she says.
Leila Bekkaoui talks with a Hollande sympathiser who wasn’t planning on voting because he thought the result was a foregone conclusion.
This resident refuses to say how she will vote, but seems to enjoy the attention.
Not everyone is at home, although canvassing takes place between 7.30 pm and 8.30 pm on weekdays to maximise the chance of direct contact.
Time to move on after a discussion with this couple exceeds the allotted five minutes.
At every door where there is no response, the canvassers leave their calling card with one simple message: “Vote.”