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Paris commuter train tracks France's political divide

PARIS/MALESHERBES, France (Reuters) - A 90-minute train ride from the Gare de Lyon station in Paris traces a political gulf between big-city voters and the rest, a divide that has shaken up Britain and the United States and has an outside chance of doing the same in France’s upcoming vote.

The further you go, the greater the support for the anti-immigrant, anti-Europe National Front (FN), judging by interviews with people living on the RER D commuter line and results from the most recent election, a regional poll in 2015.

At the Gare de Lyon, 32-year-old stage production manager Victor Leclere likes his multicultural neighbourhood in the heart of the capital. With the presidential election just weeks away, he fears the popularity of the FN.

“We’re used to living all together,” he said as he boarded a train, a former Socialist voter now undecided. “I think it’s worrying, the image portrayed by the National Front, as if France wasn’t the multicultural country it already is.”

Villeneuve-Saint-Georges is just 19 minutes from Paris but with concrete blocks and highways a world away from the stone buildings and avenues of the centre of the capital.

Lucien Ngando, 30, an IT support technician of Congolese descent, said he could well back Le Pen this time. He was angry with what he described as media bias favouring centrist Emmanuel Macron, whom pollsters see winning a presidential run-off vote in May against FN leader Marine Le Pen.

“She’s been demonised, ostracised, but I don’t think the FN is a bad party, we should give them a chance to change things in France,” he said on the RER D platform. Ngando voted for Socialist Francois Hollande in 2012.

He said Le Pen and left-wing firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon spent more time campaigning outside the capital than the other frontrunners, Macron and conservative Francois Fillon, and understood suburban dwellers better.

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Opinion polls predict Le Pen may possibly win the first round of the presidential election on April 23 but will lose the second round on May 7 against either of her main rivals.

The chances of a shock like the Brexit vote in Britain or Donald Trump’s victory in the United States depend on people living beyond the main cities, all of which showed relatively low FN votes in 2015 with numbers climbing further out.

In Paris, the FN won nearly 10 percent of the vote in the regional election’s first round, while in Villeneuve-Saint-Georges, a suburb of 32,000 it was almost 29 percent. Second round figures showed a similar pattern.

Not all voters interviewed in Villeneuve-Saint-Georges said they would back Le Pen, but distance from politicians and disgust with a campaign dominated by scandals was keenly felt in a place where unemployment is more than 50 percent above the national average.

“Politicians never come here. We see them on TV, in Paris of course, because it’s not like the suburbs, but in Villeneuve-Saint-Georges? No... We count for nothing,” said 43-year-old stay-at-home mother of eight Isabelle Cauchard.

Just under 30 percent of voters live in city centres while over a third live in suburbs like Villeneuve-Saint-Georges, one in four in rural areas and under one in 10 in medium-sized towns, the INSEE statistics office says.

Within 10 km of Paris, the FN attracted 14 percent of votes on average in the regional election, while it got almost 30 percent in a radius of 20-30 km and 39 percent in the 70-80 km range, a study by Ifop pollsters showed.

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“It’s a divide between the winners and losers of globalisation ... In the outskirts, the depressed former industrial bastions, rural enclaves, people feel left on the side of the road, isolated,” Ifop’s Jerome Fourquet said.

“Marine Le Pen has understood this very well.”

Wallerand de Saint Just, FN head for the broader Paris region, has noticed the difference during the campaign.

“There are a lot of street markets in Paris where they’re not giving us a nice welcome at all,” he said. “But in rural towns they welcome us with open arms.”

In the picturesque town of Malesherbes, 75 km from Paris, 33-year-old Olivia Berthaut is tempted to back Le Pen for president, seeing her as the only candidate who cares about small-town voters.

The FN got more than 42 percent of the vote in the regional election’s first round in Malesherbes, a town of about 6,000 set amid fields and forests at the end of one branch of the RER D.

Berthaut, is a job seeker who moved there for cheaper living costs. She has previously voted for mainstream right candidates but now says the only other option is an empty envelope in the ballot box.

She said Le Pen understood the problems of rural areas better than others, listing concerns including difficulties getting a doctor’s appointment, poor Internet service and plans to scrap the RER D, the only direct train to Paris.

Le Pen has made the fight for ordinary workers against “globalists” a key theme, presenting herself as their shield against financial markets and European legislators.

That was the attraction for Frantz Chipan, a 37-year old school social worker who used to vote centre-right.

“I am ‘Marine’,” he said as he stepped off the train in Malesherbes. “I can identify with her thinking, with what she says, I feel more protected.”

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Editing by Adrian Croft, Andrew Callus and Philippa Fletcher