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Home Opinion The two electorates of the Front National
France • Le Pen • Populism

The two electorates of the Front National

Jérôme Fourquet - 15 October 2013

As the Front National moves to attract left-leaning voters with welfare chauvinism it risks losing its more traditional right-wing conservative support

A recent Le Monde article tried to show that the differences that exist between leader of the Front National (FN), Marine Le Pen, and her niece, the MP Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, should not be seen as that of a rivalry but instead as an expression of two cleavages existing within the electorate of the one party. In effect, the Le Monde analysis, which resulted from a cumulative survey of over 6000 interviews, showed that although anti- immigration sentiment, a fear of globalisation and the denunciation of perceived weak responses to crime (three themes that are still the pillars of the FNs ideology) were shared by all components of the FN electorate, significant regional differences appeared on other topics.

Northern Front vs. Southern Front

These differences can be contrasted somewhat schematically, as a 'Mediterranean electorate’ (residing in the regions of Provence, Alpes, Côte d’Azur and Languedoc-Roussillon) and a ‘Northern electorate’, bringing together voters from Nord-Pas-de-Calais, Picardie, Haute-Normandie, Champagne-Ardenne and Lorraine.

If the latter are mainly working class and are more sensitive to social issues than the average citizen (including, for example, their desire to increase taxation on the wealthy), their more middle class southern counterparts (small independent business owners and retirees) are more sensitive to anti-tax narratives and are more right-wing oriented. An analysis of the reports of votes in the second round of the presidential election of 2012 confirms these differences. While Southern Marine Le Pen voters mostly supported the centre-right Nicolas Sarkozy in the second round of the 2012 election, those in the north-east were more likely to abstain or to vote for François Holland, the candidate of the left.

It is striking how the Front National’s leaders have adapted their political message to cater individually to these separate geographical characteristics:

In the north, Marine Le Pen was elected in Pas-de-Calais while the party’s vice-president Florian Philippot, developed a form of "proactive-state" narrative during his campaign in Forbach, Lorraine, which purports to defend France’s social model. They were also very involved in the debate on gay marriage and strategically declined to confirm rumours of a potential alliance with the UMP for the next municipal elections.

By contrast, in the south, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, MP for Vaucluse, Gilbert Collard, MP for the neighbouring department of Gard, and Louis Aliot, candidate for Perpignan, each, though sharing the fundamentals of the FN, hold different positions to their northern colleagues. In fact, the two MPs actively participated in several demonstrations by opponents of gay marriage and these three leaders frequently speak in favour of an electoral alliance with the right in southern cities (where the border between the UMP and the Front National is becoming increasingly porous).
Welfare chauvinism vs. the extreme right

It could be said that the ‘southerners’ image of the Front National remains that of the traditional party movement as it was originally portrayed under its founder Jean-Marie Le Pen. It is also no coincidence that it is precisely in the Mediterranean departments that Jean-Marie Le Pen had his first electoral success and that these territories have very quickly become primary bastions of support for the party. No doubt partly influenced by what she has seen and heard in the working-class areas of Pas-de-Calais, Marine Le Pen has gradually changed the tone of the FNs narrative giving it a more social and populist orientation.

This inclination has been evident since her election as head of the party in 2011 and was clearly perceptible during the presidential campaign of 2012. The 'Marinist' ideology combines the fundamentals of the extreme right (with its rejection of immigration and globalisation and its emphasis on national security) with a desire to defend the French social model by reserving it exclusively for French nationals. This corresponds to what some analysts of populist movements have observed elsewhere in Europe and they have labelled the concept "welfare chauvinism".

This strategic shift has helped Marine Le Pen to grow her audience via popular media but also to make progress among the middle classes. However, as a consequence of this, Frontists not only have a challenge to gain support from the right, but also from the left where the party finds itself increasingly in competition in the social categories which have historically constituted a 'natural' reservoir for the left. Now, in typically white suburban areas and medium-sized cities, it is Marine Le Pen who dominates with the left retaining its influence in large cities and their immigrant populated suburbs. The last two legislative elections of l’Oise and Lot-et-Garonne confirmed this trend with the Socialist Party eliminated in the first round while the Front National grew sharply with scores in the second round of between 47 and 49%.

Similarly, in the presidential election the new discourse of the FN has helped Marine Le Pen to create numerous spaces for progress. Comparing her score with her father’s in the second round of the presidential election of 2002 (the election which marked the best ever electoral result for the FN), the younger Le Pen has significantly improved the positions of her party in Frances peri-urban areas and strengthened its base in the crisis industrial lands of the north and east. In contrast, as quite a few have noted, the party appears to be in retreat in the constituencies of the Mediterranean coast. Along the Mediterranean, the resorts on the Atlantic coast, the plush cantons of Alsace or Savoie, and the affluent neighbourhoods of large cities, a fringe of the radicalised right electorate that had voted for Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2002 (because Jacques Chirac seemed not quite right in their eyes) preferred to vote this time for Nicolas Sarkozy than for the FN. This is one of the difficulties that will impede the FN at the next elections. If the more social narrative developed by Marine Le Pen allows her party to progress in certain territories and compete with the left in certain categories, this choice may cost her votes in other categories, where voters will return to the more traditional, conservative right all the more easily given how the UMP party has shifted to the right in the last few years. The ability to hold together these two types of voters will be crucial for the FN just like its propensity to retain the voters attracted by its 'anti-the-system' nature and as the party becomes more ‘institutionalised’ and more respectable in accordance with the wishes of Marine Le Pen.

Thus, the Front National are not without limits, and if the next election should result in further success for the party, the internal sociological contradictions at play within its electorate should eventually lead the movement to reach a ceiling, albeit a ceiling that could be higher than that which has been achieved so far.

Jérôme Fourquet is director of the Public Attitudes and Corporate Strategy Department, Ifop
This article forms parts of the Policy Network/Barrow Cadbury Trust project on “Populism, Extremism and the Mainstream”.

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Understanding Populism .

Tags: Jérôme Fourquet , Jerome Fourquet , Opinion , Front National , Extremism , Far-Right , Radical , Marine Le Pen , Le Pen , FN , France , Jean-Marie Le Pen , Islamization , Anti-Semitism , Islamophobia , Economy , Welfare , UMP , Nicolas Sarkozy , Sarkozy , Union for a Popular Movement , Union pour un Mouvement Populaire , Neo-Nazi , Racism , Fascism , Nationalism , Homophobia , Democracy , Anti-politics , Protest Party , Election , François Hollande , Socialist Party , Parti socialiste , PS , Droitisation , Radical Right , France , Marion Maréchal-Le Pen ,

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