Le Pen: a warning Hollande cannot ignore
Can Hollande bridge and balance the socio-economic anger of “la France invisible” and the vested interests of upper middle-class “insiders” and civil servants?
Last Sunday relief was soon followed by bitterness for French left-wing voters. François Hollande beat Nicolas Sarkozy in the first round, a performance that no former contenders in a presidential election had achieved against a man vying for re-election. This placed him in a position of strength for the run-off on 6 May. But the high score of Marine Le Pen cooled down many on the left, not least because it was reminiscent of the bad memories of 2002.
Certainly, early estimates of 20% for Le Pen were partly to blame for the sense of shock. She eventually got 17.9% of votes according to official results, a score that corresponds to the upper range of pre-election polls. But compared with the 4.8 million people who chose her father in 2002, Marine managed to attract 6.4 million to her name. Some analysts rightly point to the significance of the increased number of registered voters for a mathematical explanation. There were 41 million people back in 2002, against 46 million today. Nevertheless, this confirms that Le Pen junior has a strong appeal among recently registered voters, primarily the young.
For all the likelihood of his victory, this is a serious warning for François Hollande. Like in many European countries, a substantial chunk of the electorate chooses to blank mainstream parties and to go for “the original, not the copy”; namely populist parties proposing radical solutions. This phenomenon has been thoroughly analysed by political scientists; in the French case, it is worth making the following observations.
The Front National performed particularly well in north-eastern and south-eastern parts of France. The latter can be described as a traditional bastion of the far-right and pertains, by and large, to long-standing tensions between the “pied-noirs” community and North African immigrants. As for northern France, socio-economic anger is a key factor, especially in declining industrial regions such as Lorraine. At the national level, Ipsos polling reveal Le Pen got 29% of blue-collar workers’ votes.
Yet the electoral map also shows how much the FN is now embedded in peri-urban areas around Paris, such as Somme and Champagne. This electorate has been dubbed “la France invisible”. It corresponds to lower middle-class employees and independent workers, who feel betrayed by broken promises of higher purchasing power, and not taken into account by public policies. Resentment is particularly high against the “banlieues” and their immigrant communities, who are accused of drawing too much attention and money.
In December 2011, a group of intellectuals identified with the left published a pamphlet entitled Pour une gauche populaire. The publication sought to explain why the left was progressively losing ground to the FN, and called on the Parti Socialiste to respond. Contributors found that globalisation and open borders were widely interpreted as permanent and uncontrolled threats against living standards and the French way of life. The perceived absence of socio-economic rules and the fear of losing their “cultural referee” status explained why more and more people were rejecting mainstream politics.
In the face of the Le Pen danger, reconnecting with “the people” – retrouver le sens du peuple, as Laurent Bouvet puts it – has been the North Star of all mainstream candidates. Unsurprisingly, this has been a relative failure for a mistrusted Nicolas Sarkozy, who collected 19% of blue-collar workers’ and 22% of low-qualified white-collar employees’ votes last Sunday. Meanwhile François Hollande’s performance, 27% and 28% respectively, was extremely solid. Especially comforting is the fact that Jean-Luc Mélenchon did not siphon votes from the Socialists in these segments, with the Front de Gauche champion scoring highest among urban civil servants.
There is no room for complacency in the Hollande camp. In an extremely adverse environment his politics will have to square the circle of miscellaneous objectives and demands. Restoring French competitiveness, reaching a budgetary balance, and tackling structural unemployment will require more than just higher taxes on the well-off, growth-enhancing public spending and more stringent regulations. Market-friendly forms of protection urgently need to be promoted. This might imply going against the vested interests of upper middle-class “insiders” and civil servants.
In addition, a left-wing government will have to reconcile social democratic values of openness and solidarity with widespread concerns over immigration and Islam, baring in mind Sarkozy’s failure on “national identity”. This should not mean avoiding the topic, but rather engaging with it in a more constructive way.
On all these challenges, Hollande will have to walk on a tightrope. It will take a lot of cautiousness and empathy to avoid the trap into which Lionel Jospin and the European centre-left fell ten years ago. This requires a solid narrative embracing the feelings of diverging constituencies tempted by withdrawal and angry at each other.
Renaud Thillaye is policy researcher at Policy Network
Marine Le Pen
la France invisible
Pour une gauche populaire