2007: Jean-Marie Le Pen’s collapse

On April 21, 2002 the far-right’s standard bearer, Jean-Marie Le Pen, had made history by placing second and qualifying for the runoff with 16.86% of the vote. It was an historic night for the French far-right, which had won its best result in its existence. However, five years later, Jean-Marie Le Pen failed to repeat his feat. With 10.44%, he placed a distant fourth and won a result which marked the end of his reign as the patriarch of the far-right in France. Few had expected such a result: in fact, with polls placing him at 12-14% before the vote, most casual observers had expected him to pull at least 16% given how polls underestimated his vote in the past. While the FN has roared back to prominence making talk of its imminent death silly, one of the main lessons of the 2007 presidential election had been Nicolas Sarkozy’s ability to grasp, by the first round, a sizable share of Le Pen’s April 21 voters.

Comparative evolution of the right and FN (2007) by department

Between 38% (Ifop) and 21% (Ipsos) of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s first round voters from 2002 voted for Nicolas Sarkozy by the first round of the 2007 election. The old patriarch kept only between 53% (Ifop) and 64% (Ipsos) of the voters who had made his spectacular feat of April 21, 2002 a reality. After having been deeply ingrained in French politics and society for over 20 years, after having weathered through the crippling split of 1998 with Bruno Mégret and after having resisted well in the 2004 regional elections, how did the FN suffer such a sudden and violent collapse?

The answer lies in the unique personality of Nicolas Sarkozy. The French right, after having tried unsuccessfully to court Le Pen’s electorate in the late 1980s, the right led by Jacques Chirac had cut short its attempts to seduce his electorate. Sarkozy, on the other hand, while not openly embracing or courting the far-right as a political entity, built himself an image as a law-and-order tough on crime populist which was quite different from that of the traditional right, led by Chirac. An ironic image for a man who was as recently as 2002 considered as one of the most liberal (in the French sense) politicians in France, but Sarkozy harboured deep presidential ambitions. Sarkozy’s strategy was to conquer Le Pen’s electorate by reclaiming control over certain themes which had until then been the exclusive property of the FN (ideas such as too much immigration, insecurity in the suburbs and so forth). To counter the old patriarch, his strategy was to show himself as an energetic Interior Minister in touch with reality who “gets stuff done” as opposed to Le Pen, portrayed as an archaic leader with radical positions out of touch with reality. Sarkozy struck at a moment which was perfect. Following Le Pen’s underwhelming performance in the 2002 runoff, an increasing number of FN voters were growing desperate for action and change while harbouring mounting doubts about Le Pen’s ability to conquer power and affect those changes himself.

While the FN criticized Sarkozy’s action as mirages and Le Pen often repeated how voters preferred the original to the copy, the party’s electorate appreciated Sarkozy’s action and positions taken in his role as Interior Minister in the fight against criminality and delinquency. Looking at Ifop polls over the course of campaign, the turning point seems to have been the riots in the Gare du Nord on March 27. Following those incidents, Sarkozy increased with Le Pen 2002 voters from the lows 30s to the high 30s. Ironically, Sarkozy’s announcement on the creation of the Ministry of Immigration and National Identity in early March actually led to a slow slide in his support with Le Pen’s electorate. It seems as if Le Pen’s electorate responds poorly to moves which seem as overt pandering from the UMP but respond far better to circumstances and events (such as the Gare du Nord riots).

Jean-Marie Le Pen lost about 6.42% of his 2002 result in 2007. On the other hand, Sarkozy increased by 6.2% the combined performance of Jacques Chirac, Alain Madelin and Christine Boutin in 2002. It is almost as if both go hand in hand: Le Pen’s lost vote almost all flowed to Sarkozy. At a departmental level, excluding the DOM-TOM and Corsica (because they voted weirdly), the correlation between the FN and the right’s evolution between 2002 and 2007 is very strong at 0.81. Of course, when you include the DOM-TOMs and Corsica, the correlation drops a whole lot to 0.58, but we’re looking at places where voting is very parochial, where the FN is very weak (the DOM-TOMs) or where it grasps a rather unique electorate (Corsica). In metropolitan France, the only main exceptions to the pattern is Corrèze where Sarkozy lost 8.9% of the combined right’s vote in 2002 (Le Pen lost 1.3%). There is thus a striking symmetry between the evolution of the right’s vote with that of the traditional FN map.

However, Nicolas Sarkozy and Jean-Marie Le Pen’s gains and loses were not spread out homogeneously over the country. Where did the FN lose the most, and where did the FN show the strongest resistance? The map below shows the evolution of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s support between 2002 and 2007, drawn up by 1986-2009 constituency. Brown indicate constituencies where Le Pen’s support increased between 2002 and 2007, while varying shades of blue indicates constituencies where his support decline between 2002 and 2007, with darker shades indicating a larger decline.

% change between Jean-Marie Le Pen’s 2007 performance and Jean-Marie Le Pen’s 2002 performance by legislative constituency (1986-2009 redistricting)

The Three/Four Worlds of FN Voters

In general, Jean-Marie Le Pen lost the most support where the FN traditionally does best: the Mediterranean coast, the Garonne valley, Rhône-Alpes, Alsace-Moselle and the greater Parisian basin. From the map, we pick out three or four major traditional FN voters, which progressively morphs into another type.

The first type we can distinguish is a petite bourgeoisie (lower middle-classes), in many cases retirees or small employees, concentrated mostly along the Mediterranean coast. They are not all that poor, but they are not traditionally considered as being part of the more affluent elites, and by their social status as petit bourgeois they are strongly individualist and deeply conservative. The region was too urban and industrialized to be Poujadist in 1956 (except Vaucluse, less industrial, and Poujade’s best department in 1956), but in their concerns the first type is somewhat Poujadist. In Provence, a fair number of these voters may be of pied noir ancestry, but in 2007 it is perhaps a bit ridiculous to say they’re all pieds noirs. Living in a region with a large North African population and with particularly high crime rates (especially Marseille or the Alpes-Maritimes), the FN has always been – since 1984 – very strong with this first type of voters. To an extent, their vote for the FN might be a protest vote, but it is not entirely that and in large part it could be constructed as a conservative vote concerned with North African immigration, insecurity and diametrically opposed to left-wing conceptions of the state and society.

In the Vaucluse, traditionally the FN stronghold by excellence, the FN tradition is born out of historical factors (less industrial, an old reactionary-conservative base, a vibrant Poujadist movement, the Algerian war and the OAS) and of contemporary social factors (an important agricultural sector employing farm workers, a petite bourgeoisie and lower middle-classes).

The first type is strongest on the Mediterranean coast, especially in the Var and Alpes-Maritimes (where it is the most conservative and affluent). A similar type of electorate (let’s call it type 1-bis), lower middle-class and equally concerned with immigration and insecurity, can be found in suburban or exurban communities, especially in the Rhône-Alpes region. It is especially strong in old working-class hinterland, but which has increasingly been transformed into average income middle-class bedroom communities. Unemployment in areas such as Meyzieu (Rhône) or Nord-Isère is not particularly high – in fact it is below average – so it is not the protest vote of poor suburbs with high unemployment – rather it is a conservative vote about immigration and insecurity (they are located close to working-class suburbs with high immigration such as Vénissieux), like in the Var or Alpes-Maritimes. The left-wing roots of these regions have been dropping like flies in recent years, as the contest in places such as Meyzieu becomes increasingly UMP and FN.

In terms of social categories, the first type is largely composed of employees and professions intermédiaires (a blanket term for broadly middle-class people). But these categories, like that of ouvrier, is far from homogeneous. They are all divided by some fairly key schisms in terms of their comparative political attitudes. Employees, generally the second lowest step on the “social ladder” in France behind the broad ouvriers category, are divided between those who work in small businesses (PME-PMI in France, including construction – BTP or agrifood) and in commerce (vendors, cashiers) versus those who work in the public sector (education, health, social services). The FN performs strongly with the first type of employees (small businesses) but performs very poorly with the second category. A similar public-private divide is found with the middle-class categories. Again, the FN performs well with those middle-level employees in the private sector (construction, small businesses, commerce) where the fear of losing their job is pretty big. On the other hand, the FN usually registers its worst results with middle-level public employees including teachers. The FN, like the traditional right, performs well with non-salaried self-employed workers (including the old, stereotypical FN-voting shopkeepers). The FN may use populist quasi-statist rhetoric, but its base often reflects some of the most economically liberal, anti-statist views out there.

The second type is somewhat similar to the first type, but it is less affluent and less urban. We can call this type a rural conservative vote, a phenomenon which is particularly pronounced in Alsace where the FN has performed well in lily-white small towns (often more Protestant than Catholic) with an older population particularly touched by concerns over immigration (which is particularly important in a border region like Alsace and in cities like Mulhouse). While there is a very strong working-class base throughout Alsace, unemployment is very low in some of these areas, so it is hard to see it as a protest vote of economically declining regions. It is, however, because of its rural element, more Poujadist in its orientation than the first type was.

The third type is an old white working-class vote, higher in in communities which concentrate both high unemployment (industrial decline) and proximity to large immigrant communities. The third type is particularly low-income, and it is the most left-leaning of the FN’s three/four types. The third type is important in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais, Moselle, parts of the Haut-Rhin (in the potash mining communities), the Montbéliard area and some regions such as the Yssengelais in the Haute-Loire.

Some people want to make you believe that the FN is strong in all working-class communities, no matter what. I would like them to explain to me why the FN is weak in Carmaux, Decazeville, Saint-Nazaire and even Longwy. The other misconception is that the FN’s working-class vote is made up in large part of old left-wingers or former PCF voters. This is truer now than it was in 1984, but PCF voters are actually those least likely to vote FN. A micro analysis looking at FN votes across working-class areas shows that old PCF strongholds are the least receptive to the the FN. In the past, a good part of the FN’s working-class electorate came from the 30% or so of working-class voters who were traditionally right-wing. Right-wing working-class communities such as Cluses, Saint-Amarin, Freyming-Merlebach or Stiring-Wendel are some of the FN’s rock-ribbed strongholds. The Marxist left never gained a foothold in these regions, and the FN emerged as the main alternative to the right in those regions. Of course, since 1995, there has been an increasing element of gaucho-lepénisme, denoting a certain kind of traditional white working-class left-wing voter who votes for the FN yet often returns to his left-wing roots in the runoff.

The third type’s vote is far more likely to be a protest vote. Unemployment is not necessarily high, but it is on average probably highest in these type of regions than in the first two types. In the stereotypical community of the third type, Hénin-Beaumont, unemployment in 2006 was 13.2% which is actually pretty low by the standards of the mining basin. It is not necessarily a protest vote against politicians of the “UMPS” but a protest vote against unemployment, industrial decline, immigration and insecurity (for those voters, the four problems are closely linked to one another). It is no longer a more well-off conservative vote, and it is the least Poujadist type of electorate.

hybrid of the second type – the rural conservative vote – and the third type – the WWC vote – is a kind of distant, isolated rural or exurban vote which is increasingly a protest vote in not-too-affluent “forgotten communities” against isolation from urban cores, their intellectual “tolerant” elites and exorbitant property prices in urban areas (such as Paris or Lyon). It is property prices and white flight which has pushed this populaire (old, low-income, traditionally working-class or working poor electorate) electorate of working-class tradition though not, in many cases, of unionized large industrial working-class tradition. The departments of the Meuse, Haute-Marne, Marne, Aube, Aisne and other parts of Picardie concentrates a good part of this vote, but it can be observed in the Vexin and the Perche (which is more rural than exurban). Unemployment or immigration is not particularly high (in fact, it is likely below average) but they are still touched by economic problems, criminality and the effects of immigration.

These are what I construe as the three general types of electorate, which are in some cases similar to one another but in other regards are rather different. Their difference can be seen in the reaction of these three types to the Sarkozyst tentation.

The first type reacted the most to the Sarkozyst tentation, as can be seen by Le Pen’s heavily loses along the Mediterranean and in Rhône-Alpes. In the Alpes-Maritimes, where Sarkozy won his best result in France in the first round (43.6%), Le Pen’s loses were heavy and concentrated in the most affluent and conservative regions: -14.26 in Cannes, -12 in Antibes, -11.95 in Cagnes-sur-Mer, between -12.4 and -13.3 in Nice, -11.9 in Menton. In the Var, the results are similar: -12.67 in Fréjus and Saint-Raphaël, -10.4 in Draguignan, -9.5 in Hyères, -6.7 and -7.9 in Toulon’s two constituencies or -10.1 in La Seyne. Loses were equally as heavy in Aubagne (-9.7), Gardanne (-8.7), Orange (-10.8), Carpentras (-9.9), Nîmes-centre (-11.7), Vauvert and Aigues-Mortes (-11.2), Béziers (-12), Sète (-10.6) or Montpellier-sud and Lattes (-10.3). For these more affluent, conservative petit bourgeois, Sarkozy’s rhetoric about work (his appeal to la France qui se lève tôt), immigration and insecurity had a distinct appeal. These voters, not all that much into voting FN for the sake of protest but more for specific reasons, saw Sarkozy as somebody who took up Le Pen’s concerns while being less dangerous, less radical, younger, more realistic and more able to deal with those issues.

The type 1-bis, similar to the first type in terms of preoccupations, also reacted favourably to Sarkozy’s appeal. Le Pen’s loses were heavy in places such as Meyzieu (-13.6), Bourgoin/La-Tour-du-Pin (-10.1), Givors (-10.8) or Romans-sur-Isère (-9.5). It is a similar type of suburban middle-class, concerned with the law-and-order thematic and perhaps Sarkozy’s “la valeur travail” meritocratic rhetoric.

The second type, the rural conservative vote, was the other category which responded most favourably to Nicolas Sarkozy. Jean-Marie Le Pen had done very well in Alsace in 2002, but did relatively poorly in the region in 2007 (he lost 9.89% in Alsace, the highest of any region). Losses were heaviest in Strasbourg Nord (-10.9), Strasbourg Sud (-10), Wissembourg (-10.41), Haguenau (-10.7), Illkirch-Graffenstaden (-11.4), Molsheim (-10.8), Mulhouse Est (-10.5), Altkirch-Thann (-10.2) and Hunigue (-10.1).

The third type did not react as favourably, but a sort of split decision occurred. Le Pen’s loses were very pronounced in traditionally conservative working-class areas such as Forbach (-10.8), Saint-Avold (-9.6), Altkirch-Thann (-10.2) and Yssingeaux/Le Puy Est (-8). They were equally pretty heavy in more left-leaning working-class areas such as Firminy (-10.4), Audincourt (-8.3), Moyeuvre-Grande (-8) and Rombas (-8.4). However, where the FN vote is in large part an old white working-class protest vote against immigration, unemployment and economic decline, Le Pen’s loses were rather small. This is the case in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais: -1.6 in Béthune, -0.1 in Bruay, -2.1 in Liévin, -3 in Marchiennes, -1.8 in Calais, -4.4 in Lens, -4 in Douai though amusingly -6 in Hénin-Beaumont.

The hybrid of the second and third types, the “forgotten communities” vote, was the most resistant to Nicolas Sarkozy’s appeal. In these lower middle-class or populaire exurban or rurban isolated communities of working-class or light industrial tradition, Le Pen resisted well. Loses were below the national average in departments such as the Aisne (-3.9), Meuse (-4), Cher (-4.1), Indre (-3.5), Haute-Marne (-5.4), Marne (-5.5), Vosges (-5.3), Seine-Maritime (-4.8) and of course the Pas-de-Calais (-2.4). Therefore, Nicolas Sarkozy’s rhetoric on law and order, work and authority was better received by traditional FN voters who are more affluent (and urban/suburban) than those who are less affluent or rural, whose vote for the FN is driven heavily by a deeply ingrained anti-establishment streak.

An Ifop analysis of those Le Pen 2002 voters who switched to Sarkozy versus those who did not reveals a similar contrast: those who switched to Sarkozy included 35% of cadres or professions intermédiaires (and 44% of ouvriers and 13% of farmers or shopkeepers), while those who remained loyal to the fold were heavily working-class: 59% ouvrier against 23% of cadres or professions intermédiaires (and 14% of farmers or shopkeepers).

The effects of exurbanization and urban sprawl (or périurbanisation) on the FN’s vote since the 1980s is particularly striking. In 1984, the FN’s vote was heavily concentrated in urban areas reaching peaks in urban or inner suburban areas, but weaker in rural areas. In 2007, the FN vote had been almost entirely drained out of the core of major urban areas such as Paris or Lyon, but was stronger in rural or exurban areas. A spatial analysis of the FN’s vote in 1995, 2002 and 2007 (by Loïc Ravenel at the Université de Besançon) is particularly revealing of the effects of urban sprawl. In 1995, Le Pen received his national average in urban cores and won his best results 25km from the urban core before progressively declining (with a final bump in areas 100km or more from the core). In 2002, Le Pen won about 1% less than average in urban cores and won his best results 35km from the urban core before declining (with another, less pronounced, bump 100km away). Finally, in 2007, Le Pen performed about 2% below average in urban cores, and wins his best results 35-45km away from the urban core while the subsequent decline is less pronounced than in past years (and the 100km away bump is far more pronounced). In 1995, Le Pen was at or above national average in an circle 0 to 55km from the urban core. In 2002, Le Pen was at or above national average in a circle encompassing areas 15 to 65km from the core. In 2007, Le Pen was at or above national average in a circle encompassing areas 15 to 90km from the core.

Le Pen’s decrepitude in 2007 was particularly pronounced in urban and suburban areas, except perhaps in Paris where Le Pen lost only 4.8% – perhaps because the FN’s collapse in Paris was already completed in 2002. There is a general pattern of major decline in support for Le Pen between 2002 and 2007 in most urban areas: Lyon, Marseille, Nice, Montpellier, Perpignan, Toulouse, Rennes, Lorient, Brest, Le Havre, Rouen, Amiens, Lille, Metz or Dijon. The FN electorate in these cities, which is already rather small as it is, is probably composed in large part of more affluent middle-classes who responded favourably, like the first type, to Sarkozy’s appeal on the basis of insecurity, authority, immigration or work.

Le Pen’s Zones of Resistance

In metropolitan France, Jean-Marie Le Pen managed to increase his support in two constituencies: Ault (Vimeu, +1.12%) and Abbeville (Ponthieu, +0.8%) in the Somme, both in the Baie de Somme. The Baie de Somme, a particularly important hunting region (waterfowl or gibier d’eau), had been the CPNT’s candidate (Jean Saint-Josse)’s best constituencies in 2002. The CPNT electorate, especially in Picardie and Normandie, is particularly right-wing, and Saint-Josse voters in those regions transferred in large part to Le Pen in the runoff, some of the only non-Le Pen voters to do so (see here). In 2007, with the CPNT’s collapse, Le Pen was due to capture some of this far-right friendly electorate. CPNT’s vote may also explain, in part, Le Pen’s strong resistance in the rural areas of the Centre, Poitou, Charentes and Aquitaine.

In the Limousin, the heart of Chiraquie, Sarkozy badly underperformed the right’s performance in 2002 with Chirac at its helm, as the favourite-son vote of Chiraquie flowed to Royal or Bayrou, but also Le Pen in a far more modest part. In Chirac’s constituency (Ussel), Sarkozy won 12% less than the combined right in 2002, and Le Pen lost only 0.02% between the two elections. In Bernadette Chirac’s canton (Corrèze), it appears as if Le Pen increased his result by atleast 1% between 2002 and 2007.

Jean-Marie Le Pen held his 2002 result in Corsica (15.7% in 2002, 15.3% in 2007). The FN’s presidential performance in Corsica far surpasses its paltry results in legislative or regional elections, largely because some of the more radical Corsican nationalist voters tend to vote for Le Pen in presidential election, largely because of the xenophobic and ethnonationalist undertones of some of the radical nationalists’ rhetoric on the island.

The Bases of Marine Le Pen’s Surge?

Jean-Marie Le Pen’s collapse in 2007 did not lead to the eradication of the FN as a potent political force. Following the FN’s weak showings in 2008 and 2009, many had started presuming that Nicolas Sarkozy might be able to do to the FN what Mitterrand had done to the PCF: kill the party as a major political actor by eating up its electorate. Following the 2010 regionals, and especially the 2011 cantonals, there is no chance of that happening. Marine Le Pen, the daughter and successor of the patriarch, regularly polls at 15-18% in the run-up to next year’s presidential election and she poses an underlying threat to Nicolas Sarkozy’s candidacy. Marine has been able, pretty spectacularly, to lift a dying (and bankrupt) party from the brink of political extinction and return to its former splendour. What can her father’s collapse in 2007 teach us about the rejuvenation of the FN?

Her father’s stronger resistance in populaire regions such as the NPDC seems to have laid the fertile base for Marine’s restructuring of the FN along the bases of a solidly working-class electorate as exemplified by her Hénin-Beaumont stronghold. Now more than ever, the FN seems to be deeply rooted as the “premier parti ouvrier” (largest party with working-class voters). In 2010, with Marine Le Pen as the FN’s regional candidate, the FN outperformed its 2007 performance in all but one constituency of the NPDC (Valérie Létard’s constituency in Valenciennes).

The third type seems to have remained ever so solidly frontiste and the 2010 regional elections showed the elimination of Sarkozy’s gains from the FN in conservative working-class areas such as the Moselle coal basin. The first type seems to have returned to its traditional far-right roots as well: in 2010, Jean-Marie Le Pen very much outran his 2007 performance in PACA especially in the Var (+6.5), Alpes-Maritimes (+8.5) and Bouches-du-Rhône (+6.7). The corruption cases surrounding Sarkozy’s government and discontent surrounding the government’s criminality record seems to be the main causes for the first type’s sudden reversal between 2007 and 2010-2011.

Type 1-bis has not returned in droves, but it has returned in good part: the FN gained ground in suburban Lyon and Saint-Etienne in 2010. The FN, in the 2010 regional elections, showed surprising vitality in urban and suburban areas (Oise, Aube, Loiret, Seine-et-Marne, Val-d’Oise, Yvelines but also Toulouse, Bordeaux or Lille) where Le Pen had suffered the most in 2007. One element at play here might be unhappy traditional right-wing voters whose vote for the FN is a conservative protest against Sarkozy (we had seen strong FN performances in some upscale areas of Paris in 2010), another element might be the result of the reversal of the type 1-bis electorate back to the FN.

The second type still seems the most reluctant to return to its FN tradition, with the FN still registering disappointing results in the Bas-Rhin in 2010. Interestingly, the FN’s 2010 results, compared to its 2007 performance, was not particularly strong in the areas where it had resisted well in 2007: the Somme, Ardennes, Meuse, Haute-Marne, northern Aisne and the Bray in Seine-Maritime. Other weak FN performances in 2010 vis-a-vis 2007 in departments such as the Ardennes, Haute-Saône, Côte-d’Or seem to be based on a strong local appeal of a favourite-son right-wing candidate (Warsmann, Joyandet, Sauvadet etc), while others might be based on local factors – Sébastien Jumel, the PCF-FG’s top candidate in Haute-Normandie, carried a strong personal appeal in the Bray and Dieppois, which might explain the FN’s relative weakness there in 2010.

The FN’s collapse in the 2007 presidential and legislative election did not mark the beginning of the end for the FN, in fact it only marked a spectacular but ultimately short-lived trough which the party has come out from looking rather strong. However, the differences in Nicolas Sarkozy’s appeal to the FN electorate reveals fascinating details about the different types of FN voters and their reasons for voting FN. Jean-Marie Le Pen’s strong resistance with the third type and the hybrid type revealed, by 2007, that the FN had become solidly encysted in lower-income regions with a populaire tradition, something which explains why Marine Le Pen has structured the FN’s revival around the third type and the hybrid type.


Posted on December 28, 2011, in Far-Right (FN etc), Maps, Swings, trends and political evolution. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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