Christian Hartmann (Reuters)

Radical right voting and the new dividing lines of French politics

Amory Gethin

11 mins - 19 de Abril de 2022, 12:28

Rarely in its history has France been so deeply polarized. The first round of the 2022 presidential election structured the electorate into three antagonistic blocs. On the left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon significantly improved his score as compared to 2017, capturing 22% of votes. He was overtaken by the radical right candidate Marine Le Pen by a mere 400,000 votes, allowing her to reach the second round. The incumbent Emmanuel Macron, squeezed in between these two blocs, was supported by about 28% of voters.

The old center left and center right, who had hoped to recover from their 2017 collapse, were completely wiped out from the political scene. The Socialist Party, whose candidate François Hollande had once gathered wide support and ruled France from 2012 to 2017, did not exceed 2%. The Republicans, who had narrowly failed to make it to the second round in 2017, saw their vote share plummet to below 5%. Perhaps most unexpectedly, the 2022 election saw the rise of a new far-right candidate, Eric Zemmour, who despite his complete inexperience in electoral politics and his positioning to the right of Le Pen succeeded in receiving support from 7% of voters. This put the total vote share of the radical right at over 30%, an exceptional level in France’s political history and in the broader recent history of Western democracies.

On which lines of division has the reconfiguration of French politics unraveled? To what extent is this process the outcome of long-run trends rather than recent events? In this column, I offer a few descriptive facts on the changing structure of support for the radical right since the mid-1990s. Available data suggests a renewed role for geography and education in driving electoral behaviors, which has now been long in the making. At the same time, the speed and intensity of recent political upheavals in France stand out in comparative perspective.

The new educational divide
In a recent book co-edited with Thomas Piketty and Clara Martínez-Toledano, we drew on a new database to map the long-run evolution of class conflict in Western democracies from the 1940s to today, focusing on two dimensions of inequality: education and income. The result of this analysis are extremely clear: electoral divides by income and education have diverged in the past decades, with education becoming an increasingly strong determinant of party affiliation. In the 1950s and 1960s, both lower-educated and low-income voters were more supportive of left-wing parties. Low-income voters do, until today, continue to be more likely to vote for the left. Meanwhile, lower-educated citizens have very gradually shifted to the right, until forming the core of the electorate of anti-immigration parties. This dissociation of education and income has led to a fragmentation of the political space and to the emergence of what we propose to call "multi-elite party systems," in which social democratic parties have come to embody the interests of educated elites, while conservative parties continue to represent those of the richest citizens. This divergence is also intrinsically linked to a gradual separation of electoral politics into two axes of political conflict: a persistent economic dimension structured by income, and a new sociocultural dimension structured by education, which aggregates issues as diverse as immigration, morality, the environment, and the rights of minorities.

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The 2022 French election largely confirms this trend. In Figures 1, 2 and 3, I combine municipal-level election results with data on the population of each city and its composition in terms of education (from population censuses) and income (from the finance ministry). While these results should be seen as preliminary, they reveal very clear patterns. The blue line in Figure 1 shows that Marine Le Pen’s party, the Rassemblement national (RN, previously Front National (FN)) has become increasingly popular in less educated cities. Moving from the least educated city to the most educated city was associated with an FN vote share that was 4 percentage points higher in 1995, compared to 24 points higher today. The red line shows that this trend holds after controlling for population and income, that is, for a given population size and income level, municipalities with a lower share of university graduates have become increasingly likely to vote for Marine Le Pen. This confirms a similar trend visible in political attitudes surveys:
between 1986 and 2017, the share of primary-educated voters supporting the FN/RN rose from 10% to 34%, while the share of university graduates voting for the radical right remained stable at 5-10%.
Figure 1.– The rise of the educational divide: support for the radical right among least educated cities in France, 1995-2022

Figure 2 shows that in contrast to education, income does not seem to have become more relevant than before in explaining far-right voting in France. We do observe a rising relationship between lower income and the FN’s vote share: the gap between poorest and richest cities was 2 percentage points in 1995, compared to 12 percentage points today. However, as shown in the red line, this evolution does not hold once education is accounted for: in 2022, for a given population size and education level, poorest cities were not more or less likely to vote for the RN. In other words, while poorer cities have become more supportive of the far right, this is entirely due to the fact that they have lower levels of education. For a given level of education, there is no relationship between income and far-right voting today.
Figure 2.– Income and radical right voting in France, 1995-2022

The previous analysis focused on the FN/RN, ignoring Eric Zemmour, who campaigned on an even more right-wing platform in 2022, both on economic and social issues. Support for Zemmour appears to have been very different from support for the FN. It was mostly concentrated in the richest cities of France, while education and population density do not seem to have played a significant role. This fact puts him at odds with the vast majority of far-right movements in Western Europe today and calls for future research. One possibility is that Zemmour succeeded in bringing back some of the high-income voters that used to vote for the FN in its early years; as shown in the red line of Figure 2, Marine Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie Le Pen was actually slightly more popular in high-income municipalities in 1995. This trend fits well with the RN’s recent ideological shift towards a more economically progressive agenda, which might have alienated part of the economic elites previously voting for the FN, and whom Zemmour may have succeeded in mobilizing back.

A new rural-urban divide?
Another variable stands out when studying the evolution of French political divides: population density. Figure 3 shows that the FN/RN has become increasingly popular in rural areas in the past decades. In 1995, smaller cities were not more or less likely to vote for Jean-Marie Le Pen. By 2022, moving from the smallest to the biggest French city increases support for the RN by 20 percentage points. Part of this gap is due to the fact that smaller cities are on average poorer and less educated, but this trend is robust to controlling for income and education, as the red line shows.
Figure 3.– The rise of the rural-urban divide: support for the radical right among rural areas in France, 1995-2022

The reasons underlying this striking evolution remain complex and partly unexplained. Cities are not people, and voting patterns in geographical areas are always the reflection of both the characteristics of individuals living in these cities and the contexts in which they grow up and evolve. At the same time, there are a number of economic and social trends that call for a specifically geographical dimension to these new political conflicts. One such trend is climate change, which pushes governments to implement carbon taxes whose costs are disproportionately borne by those who do not have access to alternative modes of transportation than their car. This 'mobility divide' was most evident during the Yellow vests protests that erupted in November 2018 against president Macron. Another factor has to do with urbanization and the spatial reorganization of economic activity in Western societies, which have deeply disrupted the traditional organization of rural society in the past decades. Far-right parties, in France and beyond, have been quick to exploit rural nostalgia for the past. This rise of the rural-urban divide largely goes beyond France and has also been long in the making, as visible for instance in the rising urban bias of the US Democratic Party since the early 20th century.

A French exception?
While the trends highlighted above can be seen in most Western democracies, France does stand out in the intensity of its recent political upheavals. The difference with its neighbor Germany is particularly striking. In September 2021, Germany elected a new chancellor from the traditional center-left party, the SPD, which captured 26% of the votes, closely followed by the center-right CDU/CSU (24%) and the Greens (15%). Meanwhile, Germany’s main radical right party, the AfD, saw its vote share decline from 13% in 2017 to 10% in 2021.

While the reasons underlying this dramatic divergence between the two countries remain largely unclear at this stage, at least two complementary explanations can be mentioned. The first one is more economic in nature. The German economy has done far better over the past decades, with higher growth and lower unemployment, together with a far more efficient vocational education system that has arguably limited feelings of insecurity and enhanced social mobility among less educated citizens. Another explanation has more to do with France's political system, which grants enormous power to the president in comparison to most Western European democracies. In a context of high political fragmentation, this has effectively resulted in giving tremendous political authority to a president elected by only a narrow minority of citizens in the first round, while leaving other parties no ability to influence the policy-making process whatsoever. Perhaps relatedly, trust in political parties in France ranks second-lowest in the European Union after Greece, with a mere 7% of citizens believing that parties can be trusted, as shown in figure 4. At the same time, France is one of the Western countries where affective polarization (the extent to which citizens feel negatively toward other political parties) has risen the most in the past decades. Together, distrust and polarization offer a bleak picture on the present and future of French politics. In addition to broad and inclusive economic policies, ambitious reforms of the electoral system and a significant renewal of the political class will likely be pre-requisites for moving the country's politics towards a more positive direction.
Figure 4.– Trust in political parties in Europe (%)
  Notes: Author's computations using Standard Eurobarometer Surveys. Average over the 2015-2020 period.

(Here, the Spanish version)

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