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Imagine an election-year Iowa State Fair but in the center of Paris. You know, instead of fried butter, you've got fried escargot. That is the scene in Paris now. And NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports that, much like the Iowa fair, France's version is a bellwether.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Over 10 days every February, nearly a million people show up at a Paris convention center that's been turned into a piece of the French countryside.
(SOUNDBITE OF SHEEP BLEATING)
BEARDSLEY: In a massive hangar-like building, baby lambs scamper about their hay-filled stalls, and farmers tout their high-quality meats and cheeses.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking French).
BEARDSLEY: Retired engineer Gilles Roque (ph) says farming holds a kind of mythic place in the French psyche.
GILLES ROQUE: (Through interpreter) We French, even if we live in the city now, we have peasants and farmers in our ancestry. Farming is part of our heritage. It's in the French soul.
BEARDSLEY: France holds a presidential election in May. And a stop at the Salon de l’Agriculture is a must for every candidate.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Speaking French).
BEARDSLEY: On Tuesday, it was front runner Marine Le Pen’s turn. Such a dense scrum of reporters, cameras and microphones surrounded her that all you could see was the top of her platinum blonde head bobbing as she walked around talking to farmers. Roque says he's always voted socialist. But this year, he may vote for Le Pen.
ROQUE: Marine Le Pen...
(Through interpreter) She has completely changed the party from her father's day. She has created a solid base that's no longer extremist. And you see that in the simple, regular people who want to vote for her now.
BEARDSLEY: Le Pen took over the far right National Front Party from her father in 2011. He was seen as a xenophobic and racist firebrand. His daughter has worked to de-demonize the party and attract new voters. Today, Le Pen is leading the presidential race with 27 percent of the vote. And she's even more popular in the hard-working world of rural France.
But not every farmer here is enthusiastic about her. Thierry Chabot's (ph) Montbeliarde cows wear giant bells around their necks. Chabot makes the famous Comte cheese in the mountains near the Swiss border. He says he doesn't like Le Pen's ideas about leaving the European Union.
THIERRY CHABOT: (Through interpreter) Today, we can't live without Europe. We sell our products in the EU. We have a European currency. We can't go backwards. And we see how the English regret their decision to leave.
BEARDSLEY: Chabot says most French farmers vote conservative. And their candidate was Francois Fillon. But he is under investigation for allegedly creating a fictitious, well-paying government job for his wife. This morning, in a surprise and unheard of move, Fillon suddenly cancelled his visit to the farm show.
But Chabot says political turmoil in the U.S. after President Trump's election gives him pause about voting Le Pen. Three women nearby tell me Le Pen has nothing to do with Donald Trump. They say she is much smarter and savvier. One of the women, Martine Le Monze (ph), recently retired from a research job at a respected scientific institute.
MARTINE LE MONZE: (Through interpreter) We really hope she'll be elected because France is so low right now. And she's the only one who can bring us up. She has a program for the old, the young, the farmers. And it's the only viable plan.
BEARDSLEY: What's strikingly different about attitudes here since the last presidential election just five years ago is the typical Le Pen voter seems a thing of the past. And there is no shame in voting for the National Front. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.
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