While many visitors to Provence are concerned with topping up their suntans, the region's residents have some weighty issues to contend with: from terrorism and climate change to the ongoing strength of the far right. As in the rest of France, there's also an tension between the demands of city and countryside, tradition and modernity, localism and tourism – but the Provençal good life still seems as seductive as ever.
Concern over poverty, low wages, high unemployment and immigration has made Provence fertile ground for the far right, particularly the Rassemblement National (previously known as the Front National and rebranded by leader Marine Le Pen in 2018). During the first round of presidential elections in 2017, Le Pen beat Emmanuel Macron and his left-leaning En Marche party in four out of the six PACA départements (Alpes-Maritimes, Var, Vaucluse and Bouches-du-Rhône), although in the end all six ended up casting a majority vote for Macron. But it was close: Le Pen came within a whisker of taking the Vaucluse, showing that the far right still has a deep well of support here, as it has for the last three decades.
The RN endured further disappointment in 2017 when Marine's niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, announced plans to step down from office. It was a blow to the party; five years before, Marion had been elected in the Vaucluse as France's youngest-ever parliamentarian, and she was touted as her aunt's successor. For now, she has moved on to academia, opening a new 'academy of political sciences' in Lyon that commentators have dubbed a 'finishing school for the far right'.
So where does this leave the RN in Provence? The next départemental elections will be held in 2021, followed by presidential elections in 2022. The party has been paralysed by division, unsure whether to turn further right, or to soften its stance to appeal to centrist voters. In some ways, the future of the RN in Provence depends on the success of President Macron's political project. If all goes well, Provence's voters might be less receptive to RN, but Macron's desire to reform labour rules, employment rights, environmental policy and welfare are likely to put him on a collision course with many voters. Expect fireworks.
A Changing Climate
In 2017 Provence sweltered through one of the hottest, driest years yet recorded. Wildfires raged across the region (some started by arsonists), while vines withered in the heat and water reserves fell to perilously low levels. Unfortunately, it was far from a one-off: climate change has hit Provence in a big way. Year on year, it's become progressively hotter and drier in summer, while in winter extreme weather events, from flash floods to torrential downpours, have become increasingly common. In 2018, for example, 'orange alerts' were issued for several Provençal départements due to severe snowstorms and life-threatening winds.
The changing weather has big implications for agriculture, industry and tourism alike, and requires major changes, from environmental planning to water management and energy use. Whether everyone is prepared for the scale of the task remains to be seen.
Alongside its well-known reds and whites, Provence's pinks are continuing to gain popularity every year, especially in overseas markets such as Australia and the US. There are now nine countries outside France that consume more than 10,000 hectolitres of rosé every year; in 2017 the US alone consumed more than 22 million bottles worth a staggering €114.3 million. Thanks to its unique terroir, where the warm climate, porous limestone and elevation combine to give the wines their crisp, fruity edge, Provence is now the market-leader in making rosé wine. And despite pressing problems such as climate change, soaring land values and water shortages, the industry shows no sign of slowing – even Hollywood seems keen to get in on the act, with Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and George Lucas all acquiring stakes in major Provençal vineyards.
Return of the Wolf
There's another environmental issue that's been dividing opinion: the return of le loup (the wolf). Once a common sight in France but hunted nearly to extinction, the wolf has staged a comeback over the last decade, mainly in the mountainous areas of Haute-Provence. Scientists estimate their numbers at around 360, and a recent edict from central government has recommended that this should be allowed to grow to around 500 by 2023 – an announcement that has thrilled environmentalists but enraged local farmers. The future of the wild wolf in France still seems far from certain.