FILE PHOTO - France's President Francois Hollande is seen speaking in a bar after voting in the first round in the French mayoral elections in Tulle, France, March 23, 2014. Picture taken March 23, 2014. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau/File Photo(reuters_tickers)
By John Irish
TULLE, France (Reuters) - The Socialist party's headquarters in the southwestern town of Tulle bears the physical scars of the political earthquake that has shaken France since its former mayor Francois Hollande was elected president in 2012.
Standing on the rue Jean Jaures, a street named after the father of French Socialism, its doors are shuttered and its walls daubed in silver with the word "collabos" - short for 'collaborators'.
The reference is to Hollande's mid-term U-turn on a pledge to take on the world of high finance and big business - a broken promise that helped make him the least popular president in post-war history.
Hollande made that promise to thousands of cheering supporters in Tulle on a May evening five years ago, vowing to change a deeply divided society after years of conservative rule.
Voting figures from the first round of the presidential election on April 23 in Tulle and the surrounding rural Correze region speak for themselves.
The Socialist vote collapsed from almost 60 percent to under 10. Voters who felt doubly betrayed when Hollande's volte-face still failed to significantly cut unemployment mainly turned to centrist Emmanuel Macron or far-left maverick Jean-Luc Melenchon.
Marine Le Pen's far-right National Front has also made inroads in a region where previously it had no real presence.
"It's the rejection of the traditional political parties, and a desire for politics to be done in a different way," said Patricia Bordas, a former Socialist senator who now heads Macron's En Marche! (Onwards!) movement in the region.
"The Socialist party is finished," she told Reuters.
What happened in Correze happened to some degree around the country, with the conservative Republicans squashed between the National Front and Macron in the same way as a Macron-Melenchon pincer movement shut out the Socialists.
The result was that neither of France's two mainstream political parties made it to this Sunday's presidential runoff, where Macron faces Le Pen.
The Socialists were pushed into a distant and ignominious fifth place, while the Republicans held onto third by a whisker from Melenchon.
Macron's movement can seal their fate on Sunday, and in June's legislative elections.
Macron has cast himself as the face of a new politics that erases the traditional left-right divide and instead pits an open, market-friendly, internationalist approach against a growing trend on both far left and far right towards nationalism, protectionism, and more tax-and-spend state intervention.
"You can have identical values, but come from the left or right," says 20-year-old Sam, a law student in neighbouring Brive. "Why not stand up for something new?"
Highlighting just that, local politicians believe that En Marche! will put up two candidates defecting from the Republicans and the Socialist party to stand for the region's two parliamentary seats.
Across France, Macron has promised not only to gather willing centrists from the main parties but also to field hundreds of new faces, around half of them from civil society.
"We lack youth and renewal. We are witnessing the end of the political parties as we know them," said Republicans regional president Jean-Daniel Vilatte.
"Macron and Melenchon have changed the faces and instigated a new way of doing politics, even if they are both trying in some form to recreate a party to fit into the existing system."
An opinion poll published on Wednesday suggested Macron's upstart movement was indeed on track to reshape the political landscape by winning around half the seats in the lower house of parliament.
The conservatives, who held the presidency from 1995 to 2012, had been favourites to win both the presidential and parliamentary elections until their candidate Francois Fillon became embroiled in a financial scandal this year.
SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST
Thanks in part to the momentum that gave to Macron, they, like the Socialists, also find themselves at a crossroads.
In the Tulle region, the party's profile is ageing. Some members still hark back to the mid-1990s when conservative president Jacques Chirac, whose family is from the region, swayed what is normally a left-wing bastion to vote right.
But these days, conservative voters have become increasingly disenchanted with national politics in Paris, which is seen as remote, and with a stale party apparatus. Divisions over France's status within Europe abound.
Vilatte says seven out of 10 people who leave the party are turning to the far right.
And Francoise Beziat, a regional elected official for the Republicans, thinks it is a case of 'change or die'.
"Only those who successfully reorganise will be able to face up to Le Pen in five years' time, because she's the only one who isn't splitting up. On the contrary, she is expanding, and will find herself as the main opponent to the system."
Philippe Lescure, the head of France's Triathlon Federation and a former regional elected official for the centrist Modem party, says it has been clear for some time that the two-party system of the last 30 years is dead.
He sees the new political landscape dividing loosely into three: a Left, likely inspired by Melenchon's "France Unbowed" movement; a liberal centre with elements from the traditional mainstream parties; and a hard right encompassing Le Pen's far-right nationalists and the more conservative elements of the current Republicans.
"I see these three poles being the basis of this realignment, but we could also see further splits between those pushing reform and the pro- and anti-Europe camps," he said.
AN ALTERNATIVE LEFT?
The Socialists are putting on a brave face in Correze, arguing that they are the only left-wing movement that can govern.
"It's the end of a cycle, that's for sure. But the Socialist party will not die," said Olivier Faure, the head of the party's parliamentary group said.
But it is clear that the charismatic Melenchon's anti-establishment platform has stolen the Socialists' thunder - helped significantly by Hollande's adoption of pro-business reforms and abandonment of a planned wealth tax.
Across the Correze region, an area where the Communists have traditionally been strong, Melenchon trailed Macron, but was well ahead of other parties.
How that translates nationwide in the legislative elections will depend on whether he is able and willing to become a rallying-point for left-leaning groups.
"Melenchon managed to capture people's imagination and a huge hope was born, but in Tulle it was more a vote of defiance than support," said Alain Guilbert, departmental chief for the Communist Party, whose regional members voted against the party's national decision to back Melenchon for the presidency.
"We want a Left that resists, but offers a real anti-austerity policy. I think will we be able to rebuild that political wing only after the legislative elections," he said.
"If we don't, and the only option we offer to the people in five years' time is the far-right plague of Le Pen and the capitalist cholera of Macron, then the country will eventually fall ill."
(Additional reporting by Elizabeth Pineau; Editing by Andrew Callus and Kevin Liffey)