Category Archives: Electoral analysis

Beyond Yes and No: the 2005 Referendum

Certain elections and referendums not only have a direct short-term impact on a country or a region’s politics, but eventually have a major long-term impact on the country’s political culture. The French referendum on the European Constitution, held on May 29 2005 is an example of such a referendum whose impact was not only immediate but also long-term.

The 2005 referendum has been treated, rightly or wrongly, by French political commentators as a watershed moment in contemporary French politics. The 2005 referendum allegedly marked the crystallization of French politics around a dichotomy between the so-called ‘elites’ and the ‘people’. The victory of the NO with nearly 55% of the vote on May 29, 2005 is often interpreted as being the angry wake-up call from a ‘silent majority’ against the broadly European political ‘elites’ of the country.

The argument goes that, prior to 2005, French political leaders from the established political parties sought to win office (most notably the presidency) using fairly moderate discourse which did not wander too far off into populism. Since 2005, however, more and more aspiring political leaders have structured their campaigns around attempts to harness the popular forces which gave the NO its remarkable victory in May 2005. Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2007 – and 2012 – campaigns were certainly a watershed in French politics. His penchant towards a brand of right-populism represented a major break with Jacques Chirac (in his post-neoliberal incarnation) and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing’s old brand of consensual, moderate, ‘Orléanist’ centre-right politics. Sarkozy built his winning coalition in 2007 through a very right-oriented rhetoric focused on law-and-order, work ethic, accountability, personal responsibility and a subtle anti-system and anti-incumbent message.

The whole idea of the “droite décomplexée” (a right freed of its ‘chains’ and ‘political correctness’) which Sarkozy built in 2007 and which continues to have a major influence on the political direction of the French right has clear roots in the victory of the ‘people’ in May 2005. Sarkozy won, in good part, by harnessing the type of forces which had contributed to the success of the NO in 2005. That same year, even the European federalist and liberal François Bayrou attempted – with some success – at playing the game which had worked for the NO’s backers in 2005 – the anti-politician, anti-establishment and anti-system card.

And while the moderate and consensual Hollande won and Sarkozy lost in 2012, it was due more to Sarkozy’s personality and the ephemeral appeal of anti-Sarkozysm to wide swathes of the electorate than to any shift away from the post-2005 political ‘reality’. In fact, Marine Le Pen’s success in the first round (17.9%) in 2012 was the result of a campaign – with populist themes such as the appeal to ‘invisible’ and ‘forgotten’ France – which once again harnessed the forces behind the NO vote in 2005.

To what extent is this view of the ‘new’ reality of French politics correct? The best way to answer this question is to actually take the time to analyse objectively the results of the May 2005 referendum, in particular the heterogeneous coalition behind the success of the NO vote. To set the 2005 referendum in historical perspective, it is also necessary, for our understanding of what 2005 wrought, to look back even further – twenty years ago – at the 1992 referendum on the other European treaty – the Maastricht treaty which created the EU.

Is there such a thing as the ‘people’, which has formed a silent and homogeneous majority against the dominant ‘elites’? Finally, to what extent was the 2005 referendum the result of this alleged people-elite divide?

There are two perspectives for understanding the 2005 referendum. There is the more sociological perspective on the referendum, which encompasses the people-elite view of the referendum which has been promoted by many observers and taken up by certain populist politicians who make use of the “Eurofederalist liberal bobo elites” myth in their speeches. On the other hand, there is the more circumstantial view of the referendum which downplays its long-term significance and emphasizes instead its ephemeral, time-dependent anti-incumbent aspect. Both approaches have their merits and both can explain the results of the referendum.

The Circumstantial View: Partisanship and Ideology as Voting Determinants

To understand the results of the 2005 referendum, one must first place the event in its context. Held in May 2005, the referendum took place in a political context in which the electorate was, by and large, very hostile to the incumbent government. The Chirac-Raffarin executive had been in power since June 2002 and had grown very unpopular. In May, Raffarin’s approval stood at 22% and Chirac’s approval stood at 32%. Since the summer of 2003, the government’s ratings started dwindling thanks to the 2003 heat wave kerfuffle, tepid economic growth and high unemployment, a social policy judged to be disappointing by most voters and an unpopular pension reform in 2003. In March 2004, the governing party (UMP) was trounced by the left in regional elections, and a cabinet shuffle after the regionals failed to durably boost the executive’s popularity.

A common saying about referendums in France – it is probably true for other countries as well – is that voters have a tendency to answer the person who asked them the question rather than answering the question itself. Major referendums like the 2005 referendum but also the 1992 Maastricht vote have tended to turn into tests of the incumbent government’s popularity and the (un)popularity of these governments have played major roles in the outcomes. Of course, neither 2005 nor 1992 were like 1969, where nobody had the faintest clue of what the referendum was technically asking but knew that if they voted NO then de Gaulle would resign.

In this context, the government’s unpopularity in 2005 played a large role in the victory of the NO. There were certainly many good rationales and reasons for opposition voters to oppose the EU Constitution, but the temptation of punishing the government by handing it a significant blow was certainly quite strong on the left – but also on the far-right.

The Ipsos exit poll from May 2005 confirms that there was a strong partisan and ideological schism on the issue, which lets us presume that the incumbent government was a major factor in vote choice. 63% of those who identified with the parliamentary left voted against, only 27% of those who identified with the parliamentary right did likewise. 56% of PS sympathizers voted against, but 80% of UMP sympathizers (it is true that by May 2005, those who identified as UMP sympathizers were certainly the moderate right’s core voters) voted in favour (76% of UDF voters also voted YES). Opposition was nearly unanimous on both ends of the political spectrum: 94% of far-left sympathizers, 98% of PCF sympathizers and 93% of FN sympathizers voted NO according to Ipsos.

Ipsos also gave us slightly different ways of looking at partisanship and ideological affinity in its exit poll. Breaking the vote choice down by 2002 presidential preference, 77% of Chirac’s 2002 voters voted YES against 46% of Jospin’s 2002 voters. Breaking the results down by vote in the 2004 regional elections, Ipsos tells us that no less than 79% of those who backed the moderate right in 2004 voted in favour, while only 39% of the moderate left’s 2004 voters did likewise.

However, can we assume that all left-wingers just voted against because they hated Chirac? There were certainly good rationales, grounded in the content of the EU Constitution, for a left-winger to vote against. According to the Ipsos exit poll, 52% of those who voted against did so because they were unhappy about domestic socio-economic conditions but a good number of voters also cited reasons more directly linked to the content of the referendum itself: 40% said the proposed text was too economically liberal (49% amongst PS sympathizers), 39% said a rejection of the text would allow a better text to be renegotiated (this sentiment was particularly pronounced with left-wing nonistes), and about a quarter of left-wing no voters voted against because they opposed Turkish membership in the EU (35% overall). Only 24% of respondents openly said they voted against because it was a chance to oppose Chirac and his government (26% of PS sympathizers). 31% of respondents expressed a rejection of the ‘political class’ in general.

Hence, from this point of view, the reality might not be as simple. Before trying to answer the question of whether or not the government’s unpopularity can be the main explanatory factor for the NO’s victory through the analysis of the actual results, it is useful to compare Ipsos’ partisan breakdowns in the 2005 exit poll with its partisan breakdowns in the 1992 exit poll. The 1992 Maastricht referendum was held in a context where the incumbent government was similarly unpopular – except that in 1992 the incumbents were left-wing (President Mitterrand). Mitterrand’s unpopularity was not as big as a factor in 1992 as Chirac’s unpopularity in 2005; given that only 15% or so of voters said that their vote was influenced in a way or another by their opinion of Mitterrand. Only a small minority of NO voters said that Mitterrand was the main factor in their vote back in 1992, though that question in 1992 was not multiple response like in 2005.

According to Ipsos, the partisan split in 1992 was the opposite of that found in 2005. 63% of parliamentary left supporters in 1992 voted in favour while 51% of those who backed the parliamentary right voted against (including 59% of RPR sympathizers but only 39% of UDF sympathizers). More strikingly, 78% of PS sympathizers in 1992 voted YES.

Testing the Circumstantial View

Exit polls only say so much, an actual analysis of the results tells us much more. The map below shows the results of the 2005 referendum by canton (the Insee cantons, which do not include infra-urban electoral cantons, unfortunately) with a 5% graduated colour scale.

The general look of the map confirms the impression that right-wing voters formed the core of the 45% of voters who voted YES in 2005. The strongholds of the YES vote are, primarily, right-leaning regions: the Catholic regions of Alsace, the inner West (the Choletais, the bocage vendéen and angevin, the Léon), the high plateaus of the Aubrac and Cantal, parts of Savoie, the Lyonnais and the Jura plateau; but also affluent region such as the Parisian outskirts spreading westwards from Paris (Yvelines, Hauts-de-Seine), Senlis and Chantilly (Oise), Lille’s wealthy suburbs, the Lyonnais, most wealthy resort towns including parts of the Côte-d’Azur and ski country.

But these are not the only traditionally right-wing places in France. There is certainly no shortage of conservative regions which voted NO, sometimes quite heavily. Furthermore, the two main YES demographics highlighted above could be expected to support further European integration regardless of their political orientation or their approval of an incumbent centre-right government.

The link between religious practice and pro-Europeanism is not some 2005 phenomenon explainable only by the political orientation of Catholics towards the moderate right. Just as the French Christian democratic centre-right, from the MRP in the immediate post-war era to the UDF in 2005, has been the most consistent promoter of European integration; its electoral base has long been known for its bias in favour of European integration. Nobody seems to have come up with an acceptable explanation for why the most religious voters are strong supporters of European integration – it could be, in part, because of the vision of ‘Europe as a Christian project’ or the internationalist, pan-European values expounded by the Catholic Church in the past decades.

Similarly, the most economically privileged voters could be expected to be the strongest supporters of European integration regardless of time-dependent partisan or ideological considerations. The economic aspects of European integration: free markets, free movement of goods or economic and commercial integration appeal to the most affluent of voters, who form the so-called ‘European elites’ or, more derogatively, the “neoliberal Eurofederalist elites”.

% change in the YES vote, 1992-2005, by canton (source:

So far, the circumstantial view of the 2005 referendum does not seem to hold much weight because both of the two main YES demographics highlighted are reputed as being pro-European, regardless of contemporary domestic political conditions. A comparison to the 1992 referendum (which was fought under a left-wing government) is useful at this point. The map to the right shows the percentage difference between the YES vote in 1992 and 2005 by canton. Various shades of green represent cantons where the YES vote decreased less than the national average (-5.71%) or even increased. In contrast, various shades of pinkish red represent cantons where the YES vote decreased more than the national average. Given that no less than 551 cantons in our analysis actually showed a higher YES vote in 2005 than in 1992, a second map highlights, in dark green, all those cantons where the YES vote was higher in 2005 than in 1992 (a clear counter-cyclical vote).Mapping out the difference between the YES vote in 1992 and 2005 gives some very interesting results which give credence to the view that the 2005 result is best understood as an anti-incumbent vote more than anything else. The YES vote increased or declined by a lesser amount than the national average almost quasi-exclusively in right-leaning areas, even if some ultimately voted NO in 2005. Brittany, Vendée, the inner West, Normandy, Champagne, the southern Massif Central, the Basque Country, the Côte-d’Azur and ski country are the most telling examples. There are certainly exceptions to this rule, most strikingly Alsace and parts of Lorraine, even if Alsace still voted YES in 2005. However, the map certainly reflects a clear pattern: the areas where the YES vote held up best or even increased between 1992 and 2005 are conservative, right-leaning regions.

On the other hand, the YES vote collapsed, largely, in left-wing (and oftentimes working-class) areas including the Nord-Pas-de-Calais’s mining basin, the Pays-Haut Lorrain, the Ardenne and the Seine valley’s industrial conglomeration. In rural left-wing areas, such as the Landes, the Pyrénées, the Cévennes, the Rouergue (Aveyron), the Languedoc’s wine-making backcountry or the Nièvre, the YES vote also took a thumping between 1992 and 2005. Were economic problems and concerns about the local economy, notably in the Languedoc’s wine-making regions, at play here? Or was there, instead, only a natural left-wing anti-incumbent shift away from the YES vote in 2005, which was more closely associated with the right than it had been in 1992?

The second map, which shows only these ‘countercyclical’ cantons – those where the YES vote was actually higher in 2005 than in 1992, reveals more interesting tidbits, particularly of the type of voters who were motivated to vote YES in 2005 but who had been much more reluctant in 1992. At first glance, the map is a splattering, but a few solid blocs of ‘countercyclical’ emerge. The haut bocage vendéen and the Choletais stand out in the inner West, extended to the bocage angevin (Château-Gontier), parts of the bocage normand (Manche, Orne) and western Sarthe. These regions are all traditionally right-wing and share a common Christian democratic/Catholic political tradition. The Vendée as a whole voted against Maastricht in 1992 but voted for the EU Constitution in 2005, an amusing turnaround for a department which was best known for Philippe de Villiers, the local favourite son who was one of the most forceful opponents of European integration on the right in both 1992 and 2005.However, the decline of the villieriste following in the Vendée between 1992 and 2005 does not really explain the turnaround in neighboring regions (in the Choletais and in the bocage region of the Deux-Sèvres). Similarly, in southern France, another Catholic region stands out for a pro-European turnaround between 1992 and 2005: the Aubrac and the Cantal plateau. This isolated religious and conservative region, where agriculture (herding) remains a significant employer to this day, voted against Maastricht in 1992 but switched allegiances against the grain in 2005.

Cantons where the YES vote in 2005 was higher than in 1992 (source:

The YES vote also increased in some fairly secular but otherwise solidly right-leaning rural or exurban areas: the Beauce (Eure-et-Loir, Loiret), the Vendômois (Loir-et-Cher), the Aube’s wine-making region and the Champagne (parts of it at least). The map is patchy here, and no consistent blocs emerge, but in general the YES vote still held up well in these regions. While the Beauce and Gâtinais in the Loiret and Eure-et-Loir still voted NO in 2005, suburban growth from Orléans and Paris might explain why the YES vote proved very resilient in 2005. However, in all of these regions there certainly is a partisan, political factor at work.A final boost in the YES found is found in the affluent suburbs to the west of Paris. The YES vote increased in Paris itself, the result in good part of demographic changes (tied to high property prices) which have made the capital even more exclusively white-collar and middle-class. However, in 1992, there seems to have been some reluctance in solidly right-wing affluent suburbs in the 92 and the Yvelines to vote heavily YES, but in 2005 these voters – the (in)famous ‘liberal European elites’ went against the tide and confirmed their natural inclination towards European integration.Of course, even if the pattern appears straight-forward and apparent, it is admittedly quite reductive and a bit foolish to assume that partisan considerations related to the incumbent power were the only role in informing both these ‘countercyclical’ swings in the opposite direction or heavier than average swings against the YES. In 13 years between 1992 and 2005, not only are we dealing in a lot of these places with some significant demographic changes which could have had a significant impact on the political leanings of the region in question (but the ‘countercyclical’ cantons are pretty much all old, established right-wing strongholds since 1946 at least) but also with a not insignificant renewal of the electorate with immigration, emigration, deaths and births. It is tough to claim that these ‘countercyclical’ swings are primarily the result of partisan considerations dependent on the incumbent power. However, there is undeniably a partisan element to these swings – even if it is not the only element.A quantitative analysis confirms these observations. Comparing the percentage change (by Insee canton) in the YES vote between 1992 and 2005 to the ‘pro-European right-wing’ vote in 2002 (the sum of Chirac, Bayrou and Madelin votes), we arrive at a correlation coefficient of 0.59 which indicates a strong positive correlation between a high pro-European right-wing vote in 2002 and a strong(er) resistance in the YES vote in 2005. The correlation becomes even stronger, at 0.69, if the DOMs are excluded. The correlation between the right-wing vote in the second round of the 2004 regionals and the change in the YES vote is 0.56, or 0.61 without the DOMs.

The correlation between the YES vote itself in 2005 and the ‘pro-European right-wing’ vote in 2002 is very strong: 0.68, and again jumps to 0.72 if the DOMs are excluded. The correlation between the right-wing vote in the 2004 regionals and the YES vote a year later is 0.78, or 0.84 with the DOMs excluded. These are extremely significant correlations.

If the YES vote in 1992 is compared to the ‘pro-European right-wing’ vote in 1995 (Chirac and Balladur), the correlation is still positive but fairly insignificant: 0.23 with the DOMs, 0.13 without.

The YES vote in 2005 was thus significantly more right-wing in origin than the YES vote was in 1992. There are certainly a good number of reasons beyond disapproval of Chirac to explain why left-wing voters might have been more reluctant to support the EU Constitution than Maastricht. The EU Constitution was presented as a ‘(neo-)liberal’ constitution and the left-wing NO campaign was largely structured around opposition to the neoliberal constitution. However, with such a stark difference in the partisan composition of the YES vote in these two referendums, domestic political and partisan considerations were certainly a factor in the NO vote in 2005.

Europe: A New Cleavage beyond Left and Right?

The opposing view holds that the referendum represented something more profound, a fundamental divide between the political elites and the bulk of the ‘people’ which went beyond just the simple issue of the referendum.

Since 1992, many observers and academics have stressed the emergence of a new divide in French politics, which has broken or at least weakened the old left-right cleavage based on socio-economic and religious questions. This new divide, which transcends old notions of left and right, opposes those who favour European integration to those who oppose it. The moderate parties of the centre-left to the centre-right form the ‘elite’ in the middle which favours European integration, while both extremes – far-left and far-right – are, at least on the surface, united in a counter-nature opposition to European integration. Some would argue that the emerging question of Europe has reduced the relevance of the ‘archaic’ left-right cleavage to contemporary politics, transforming the political battle to one between ‘elites’ and ‘people’ (or the ‘anti-elites’) rather than one between old notions of left and right.

Certainly, in both 1992 and 2005, the official stances of the various political parties to both Maastricht and then the constitution would confirm this theory. In both referendums, despite major oppositions on domestic policy, the moderate parties – the PS, the Greens, the UDF and the UMP (the RPR was split in 1992, but Chirac backed the YES) – officially endorsed a YES vote (even if a very significant minority of the PS and Green leadership endorsed a NO vote). On the other hand, the parties which lie at the extremes of the political spectrum – both on the right (FN, Pasqua-Villiers) and on the left (PCF, LO-LCR) – officially endorsed a NO vote. On these extremes, despite major differences between the individual parties, their voters were homogeneous in their opposition. In 2005, 93% of FN sympathizers, 75% of MPF sympathizers, 98% of PCF sympathizers and 94% of far-left sympathizers voted NO.

However, are the far-left and the far-right’s opposition to European integration not rooted in traditional left-right ideology to begin with? The terms left and right have always encompassed a wide range of ideologies and political attitudes, as the very use of a term such as ‘far-right’ in opposition to ‘centre-right’ indicates. The NO vote in 2005 and 1992 should probably be referred to as the NO votes, in plural, given the heterogeneity of the NO’s electorate and the plethora of concerns, fears, and motivators which influenced their opposition to the constitution.

The FN and the right’s opposition to European integration are based on traditionalist, nationalist or paleo-Gaullist ideology. The FN’s opposition to the European Constitution in 2005 was structured heavily around concerns related to the loss of national identity, the loss of French sovereignty in a supra-national Europe and fears linked to potential Turkish membership in the European Union.

On the other hand, the PCF and the far-left’s opposition to European integration in the form of the 2005 constitution were not based on nationalist or isolationist attitudes, but rather on economic concerns. In 2005, the PCF and most of the noniste left’s opposition was built around concerns about the proposed constitution being too economically liberal (including, most famously, attacks against the infamous Bolkestein Directive) or fears of a European free market on French industry.

Ipsos’s 2005 exit polls broke down the motivation behind the NO votes by party, including the PCF and the FN. Their numbers show that while vague circumstantial factors like anti-incumbency, socio-economic discontent and opposition to the political system were factors common to both PCF and FN voters in the referendum, there were clear and conflicting ideological distinctions underpinning the NO vote of PCF and FN sympathizers.

57% of PCF voters said they voted NO because the constitution was too liberal, but only 18% of the FN’s NO voters cited this as one of the main reasons for their vote. On the other hand, 56% of FN voters cited opposition to Turkish membership in the EU as one of the main reasons for voting NO and 44% of FN voters said that they voted NO in part because the constitution, in their eyes, constituted a threat to French national identity. However, only 23% and 20% respectively of PCF voters cited these as factors in their opposition.

It is also important to note that the PCF and the left’s opposition to European integration in the form of the 2005 constitution or Maastricht is not a nationalist or even isolationist opposition – unlike the FN. 44% of PCF NO voters – along with 55% of Green NO voters and 47% of PS NO voters – said that they voted NO because it would be an opportunity, in the future, to renegotiate a “better constitution”. Only 17% of the FN’s sympathizers said that this was a reason for their vote on May 29.

The Ipsos exit poll also asked voters if they supported ‘pursuing European integration’ – a vague but also interesting question. Overall, 72% of French voters said that they were – including 57% of NO voters. Some 56% of PCF sympathizers claimed that they favoured pursuing European integration, but only 32% of FN sympathizers expressed the same feelings.

It is clear that the FN and PCF might both be Eurosceptic parties in that they oppose European integration, however, they cannot be grouped into a single homogeneous anti-European populist family. The reasons which are advanced by both the left and the right for opposing European integration often have nothing to do with one another. The FN’s rationale for opposing European integration is based heavily on right-wing nationalist, isolationist or traditionalist feelings. The right as a whole, including not just the FN but also Eurosceptic Gaullists, views European integration as a danger for the sovereignty of the French nation-state or for France’s national identity. The PCF’s rationale for opposing European integration is based on left-wing anti-liberal feelings. The left views European integration, as it is currently expressed, as a danger for France’s so-called social model (including the welfare state) or French industry in a wide open free-market.

The Sociological/People-Elite View: Class and Income as Voting Determinants

Despite these differences – which should not be understated, we can still discern a common thread in the opposition of both the far-left and the far-right to European integration: a populist revolt against the ‘elitist liberalism’ which the European Union allegedly represents. Both sides make heavy use of the ‘European technocrat’ image, both speak to fears about job losses and corporate restructuring (major fears in all Western societies touched by deindustrialization since the 1980s) and both generally oppose the free-market liberalism (perhaps for different reasons) which the EU represents. Their opposition represents the fears of the so-called ‘popular classes’ (classes populaires – the working poor) of socio-economic marginalization in increasingly globalized, multicultural and morally permissive Western societies dominated by the tertiary rather than secondary sector.

In this way, the idea that the 2005 referendum represents the revolt of a silent majority (the ‘people’) against the ‘elites’ which have driven European integration since the 1980s without significant institutional opposition is quite valid.

This hypothesis is largely confirmed by Ipsos’ breakdown of the 2005 vote by socio-professional categories. These 6 professional categories are broad, vague and all very heterogeneous; but it can be said that the ‘elite’ is formed by the professions libérales and cadres supérieurs (higher managerial and professionals, abbreviated CPIS), and, to a lesser extent, by a part of the artisans, commerçants, chefs d’entreprise (artisans, shopkeepers, small business owners) though in practice they are more representative of a ‘traditional middle-class’ petite bourgeoisie living in fear of proletarization. The professions intermédiaires (intermediate grade) form a sort of broad middle-class which leans more towards the ‘elite’ than the ‘popular classes’.

On the other hand, the ‘popular classes’ or the ‘people’ are basically formed by two, perhaps three socio-professional categories. The largely feminine employé(e)s and heavily masculine ouvriers are the modern working-class in a Western economy dominated by the tertiary sector, working tough and low-paying jobs in industries which are economically troubled or at risk of marginalization. The very small category of agriculteurs now encompasses a more privileged, smaller class of farmers who own and work their own land on a full-time basis. However, they have usually stood against Europe and its regulations and quotas.

According to Ipsos, 65% of the CPIS voted YES in 2005 – down only marginally from 67% in favour of Maastricht in 1992. However, the exit poll reports that the artisans/shopkeepers rejected the constitution with 51% against in 2005, whereas 51% of them had voted in favour of Maastricht in 1992. This result is not surprising: as aforementioned, this category does not really stand at the top of the social ladder in reality. They are a middle-class petite bourgeoisie, viscerally opposed to ‘Marxist collectivism’ and fiercely, instinctively individualist, egalitarian and conservative-traditionalist.

The victory of the NO in 2005, from a socio-professional standpoint, was wrought by the shift of the broad, middle-class professions intermédiaires who voted against the constitution with 53%, while they had backed Maastricht by a significant margin in 1992 (62% in favour). The employees, a more populaire demographic than the intermediate grades, nonetheless straddles the invisible border between the lower middle-classes and the working classes. These employees had already rejected Maastricht in 1992 with 53% against, but their vote against the constitution increased dramatically to no less than 67% according to Ipsos.

These major shifts in these two middle-class type of demographics, which are largely found in smaller provincial cities and more distant suburbs/exurbs, represent the fears and insecurities of a middle-class which was being hit hard by socio-economic problems: job losses and industrial restructuring, poor job security, poor wages, a higher cost of living, unemployment, and in some cases other fears (safety and criminality, immigration and so forth). After all, for 52% of those who voted NO, discontent about the country’s social and economic situation in 2005 was one of the main reasons for their vote against the constitution – and this was true across the board, for all partisan categories.

However, the strongest opponents of the European project as symbolized by Maastricht in 1992 and the constitutional treaty in 2005 were the ouvriers. Already in 1992, 61% of them voted NO. In 2005, their opposition increased to nearly eight out of every ten ouvrier which voted: 79% voted NO, by far the strongest NO vote of all professional categories (the agriculteurs in Ipsos’ small sample voted against with 70%, up from 62% against in 1992).

There are other variables tested by Ipsos which allow us to confirm the stark class cleavages found in this referendum.

Measuring the vote by educational attainment, the NO (and YES, by definition) vote formed a graduated scale which constantly increased as the educational attainment (last diploma obtained) of the interviewee decreased. 72% of those who obtained no diplomas or certifications whatsoever voted NO, but only 36% of those who had at least the Bac (high school diploma) and three years of post-secondary education (Bac +3 and above) voted against. Going downwards, the NO vote increased to 46% among voters who had a Bac +2, reached 53% with those whose last diploma obtained is the Bac, and climbed to 65% with those who had a technical or trades certificate below the Bac (BEP/CAP/CEP). In 1992, measured on a different scale (number of years of education, from 14 or less to 22 years or more), there was an identical pattern: only 35% opposition with those who studied for 22 years or more, but 53.5% opposition with those who studied less than 16 years.

Measuring the vote by income, Ipsos found a broadly similar pattern. 63% of those whose households earned above 3000 euros per month voted in favour, but the YES vote fell to 42% with those whose net monthly income was 2000-3000 euros, tumbled to 35% with those who earned between 1000 and 2000 euros, but somehow perked up to 40% with those who earned less than 1000 euros – probably some statistical issues here.

The Sociological/People-Elite View: Geographic Examination of the Yes Vote

Does the geographic distribution of the votes confirm this class cleavage? Broadly, the geography of the referendum confirmed Ipsos’ exit polls and the stark ‘people’-‘elite’ divide. Keeping in mind the very clear partisan undertones and colourings of the map, it is also very instructive to find those right-wing and left-wing voters who voted ‘against’ the trend: those right-wingers who voted NO and those left-wingers who voted YES.

This analysis refers, in all cases to cantons rather than communes, unless otherwise indicated.

Probably boosted by partisan and ideological considerations which were more ‘favourable’ to a YES vote than in 1992, the wealthiest regions of France distinguished themselves by very heavy votes in favour of the European Constitution, even moreso than in 1992 in a good number of cases. In Neuilly-sur-Seine, no less than 82.5% voted in favour. The surrounding very affluent bourgeois outskirts of Paris also voted in favour by a huge margin: 76.9% in favour in Saint-Cloud, 74.6% in Saint-Nom-la-Bretèche, 74.3% in Le Chesnay, 73.3% in Boulogne-Billancourt, 72.4% in Sceaux, 72.2% in Le Vésinet, 69.1% in Maisons-Laffitte and 68.9% in Versailles. In the Val-de-Marne’s affluent suburbs, the YES vote reached highs such as 71.2% in Saint-Mandé, 67.8% in Nogent-sur-Marne, 67.7% in Vincennes and 64.8% in Saint-Maur-des-Fossés. The case of Paris itself will merit further analysis, but the vote in favour of the constitution reached impressive heights in the core bourgeois arrondissements of the capital: 80.5% in Paris-7, 80% in Paris-16, 79.7% in Paris-8 and 79.4% in Paris-6.

This pattern was not a uniquely Parisian affair: it held up very well outside of the Parisian basin as well. In a sea of solid opposition to the treaty in the Oise, the two very affluent suburban cantons of Senlis (56.2% YES) and Chantilly (58.2% YES) form a unique block of support for the constitution in a department which awarded only 37.6% to the YES on May 29.

In the Seine-Maritime, we find three lone holdouts for the YES in a department where the rejection of the European Constitution reached 65%. These holdouts, once again, are the most affluent parts of the department: the Victorian-style affluent coastal resort of Sainte-Adresse (outside Le Havre) with 63% for the YES, and two old strongholds of Rouen’s old bourgeoisie: Mont-Saint-Aignan (54%) and particularly Bois-Guillaume (61.5%).

In the Lyonnais region, the vote in favour of the European Constitution triumphed throughout Lyon’s affluent suburbs, which forms a sort of belt to the north of the city itself. In Lyon, a city known for its ‘bourgeois centrist’ socio-political makeup, the constitution triumphed handily with 61%. The vote in favour reached 73.1% in Lyon-6 (La-Tête-d’Or) and 69.9% and Lyon-2, the two most affluent arrondissements of the city. In Lyon’s most prized suburban communes, the YES vote, once again, reached impressive heights: 77.3% in Saint-Didier-au-Mont-d’Or, the most affluent commune in the Greater Lyon, 74% in Saint-Cyr-au-Mont-d’Or, 74% in Limonest, 71.3% in Écully, 69% in Sainte-Foy-lès-Lyon, 66.6% in Tassin-la-Demi-Lune and 64% in Caluire-et-Cuire.

The same observations can be made throughout France. The YES vote triumphed handily in the affluent suburbs of Lille (68.5% in Marcq-en-Barœul), Rennes (66.3% in Cesson-Sévigné, 65.1% in Betton), Nantes (64.1% in Orvault, 57% in Vertou), Toulouse (56% in the parts of Toulouse-8 outside the city itself, a canton which includes Balma and Pin-Balma), Grenoble (71.5% in Saint-Ismier, 71% in Meylan); but also in the very wealthy suburban canton of Annecy-le-Vieux on Lake Annecy (66.9%) and Geneva’s prosperous white-collar suburbs across the border in France (63% in Ferney-Voltaire, 61.5% in Saint-Julien-en-Genevois, and 60.8% in Gex).

While a lot of France’s notoriously right-wing and wealthy seaside resort towns had been somewhat reticent in 1992, they, by and large, adhered to the European Constitution in 2005. While the NO triumphed comfortably in the Alpes-Maritimes and Var for example, the YES vote found a few bases of support in some famous coastal resort communes: 53.7% in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, 53.1% in Saint-Raphaël, 52.7% in Sainte-Tropez, 52.6% in Antibes, 52.3% in Sainte-Maxime and 51% in Cannes. The YES vote also triumphed in other famous resort – either sun or snow – communes throughout France: 58% in Cassis, 58.6% in La-Grande-Motte, 61.5% in Biarritz, 61.6% in Arcachon, 54.8% in Royan, throughout L’Ile-de-Ré, 53% in Les Sables, 55.5% in Pornic, 63.5% in La Baule, around the Golfe du Morbihan, 56.8% in Perros-Guirec, 57.4% in Dinard, 56.2% in Saint-Malo, 59% in Deauville, 67.5% in Le Touquet-Paris-Plage or 64.5% in Chamonix and 69.2% in Megève.

Regardless of the actual percentages throughout these cantons or towns, the image is clear. The most affluent regions of France, which tend to concentrate a population of highly educated white-collar professionals who share a liberal, pro-European and internationalist mindset, voted heavily in favour of the European Constitution, against the ‘rest’ of France.

The YES vote was not only the affair of a few wealthy right-wing suburbs. It was, primarily, an urban affair. There was a clear urban-rural divide, but it was not universal. For example, while Paris (66.5%) and Lyon (61.3%) both answered in the affirmative, the NO triumphed in Marseille with 61.2%. Large cities such as Nice, Montpellier, Rouen, Lille, Limoges all rejected the constitution (in some cases, however, by margins noticeably smaller than the department in which they are located). Provincial cities and towns which had voted in favour of Maastricht in 1992 joined the bandwagon of opposition in 2005: the constitution was rejected in Avignon, Valence, Nîmes, Perpignan, Montauban, Agen, Le Mans, Beauvais, Amiens, Arras, Charleville-Mézières, Troyes, Clermont-Ferrand and Saint-Étienne – among others.

However, the list of the cities which, in contrast, responded in the affirmative, is enlightening about the nature of the YES vote in urban areas, where the partisan explanation holds less weight than in the aforementioned privileged suburbs.

Results of the 2005 referendum in Paris by polling station (source: géoé

Parisian electoral geography has, since the beginning of time, been conditioned by a very stark polarization between the west side and the east side of the city, the former being right-wing and the latter being left-wing. However, in the 2005 referendum, the city’s famous polarization is almost erased. As this map shows, while the traces of the partisan divide are visible due to the YES’ major gains (vis-à-vis 1992) in the wealthy west side, the differentiation between the NO and the YES vote in the capital does not replicate a partisan cleavage. While those Parisian areas which voted NO in the sea of YES are solidly left-wing neighborhoods, other neighborhoods whose partisan habits are quite similar in quantitative terms awarded impressively high shares of the vote to the YES.In 2005, in addition to the expectedly strong showing of the YES vote in Paris’ wealthiest neighborhoods, the YES vote was also the product of the Parisian left’s new base: young professionals, fairly well-off salaried middle-classes and the well-known bobos. Hence the YES vote reached high levels not only in the core affluent arrondissements such as the 6th, 7th, 8th or 16th but also the central arrondissements, gentrified or boboized: the 2nd, the 3rd, the 5th, the 9th, the 10th or the 14th. Socio-economic status, in this case, trumped partisan considerations.Instead of a partisan east-west divide in the geography of the referendum in Paris, there is a certain centre-periphery divide apparent in the geography. The NO’s only bridgeheads in the capital were all located on the periphery or outskirts of the city. The explanation, again, is a demographic rather than partisan explanation. Social changes in Paris, gentrification and other things wrought by property prices, have changed the character of the city into an overwhelmingly white-collar and highly educated liberal metropolis. The old working-classes or impoverished classes have been pushed out of their former central neighborhoods in the centre-east into the peripheral areas of Paris proper or, more often, outside city limits. Hence, the immediate surroundings of the peripheral highway in north-eastern, eastern and south-eastern Paris are the last remaining holdouts of working-class Paris, concentrating, nowadays, a multiethnic population combining lower education, lower incomes, more blue-collar jobs and higher unemployment. In these neighborhoods, the NO found its only sizable base of support in the capital. This interesting study, based on the 2007 election, illustrates this socio-economic split, which is more complex than the left-right divide, quite nicely.

Lyon, where the YES won 61.3% on May 29, tells a similar story. The YES vote was highest in the right-wing bourgeois arrondissements, but, once again, socio-economic status and attitudes trumped partisanship for the left’s new base of professionals, salaried middle-classes and bobos. The YES won 63.4% in Lyon-4 (which includes the plateau of the Croix-Rousse) and 60.6% in Lyon-1. Only one arrondissement in Lyon rejected the constitution – Lyon-8 (50.3% NO) and the margin was tight in Lyon-9 (53% YES). Both of these arrondissements lie on the periphery of the city, outside the city core. Lyon’s 8th arrondissement includes the low-income neighborhood of Les États-Unis, while the old low-income neighborhood of La Duchère accounts for a significant share of the vote in the 9th.

Marseille, however, handily rejected the European Constitution, with 61.2% voting against. While both Paris and Lyon are known for their social liberalism and cosmopolitanism, Marseille presents starker socio-economic contrasts and a bleaker outlook on the future. With a large share of the population living in economically deprived areas, Marseille on the whole is far less affluent, educated and white-collar than either Paris or Lyon. While both Paris and Lyon’s favourable economic outlooks made them particularly receptive to the European Constitution’s content, the southern metropolis has been in economic decline since the 1980s and has long wrestled with poor urbanism, high unemployment, poverty, exclusion and criminality.

The distribution of the vote in Marseille, however, shows that the vote was clearly influenced by socio-economic considerations, like in Paris and Lyon. The YES vote gained the upper hand in only two of the city’s 16 administrative arrondissements: the 6th (51.9%) and the 8th (55.2%). The 8th is made up of Marseille’s most affluent neighborhoods on the hills overlooking the sea, while the 6th includes both the more bobo Cours Julien and older bourgeois areas being overrun by left-leaning young professionals and middle-classes. The vote was also close in Marseille-7 (51.1% for the NO), adjacent to both these two arrondissements, which includes some very wealthy hilly coastal neighborhoods shared with the 8th. In stark contrast, the quartiers populaires of northern or eastern Marseille (which, unlikely solidly left-wing parts of Paris or Lyon, have not seen major gentrification) broke records with their opposition: 78.6% for the NO in Marseille-15, 76.7% in Marseille-16, 76.6% in Marseille-14, 74.7% in Marseille-3, 69.5% in Marseille-13, 68.6% in Marseille-11 and 67.1% in Marseille-10. Even Marseille-1, still quite deprived but somewhat gentrified and trendier, gave only 42.2% support to the European Constitution (two other arrondissements, 4th and 5th, with some gentrification also voted heavily for the NO).

Outside these main cities, the urban areas which voted in favour of the constitution are those, generally, which – regardless of partisan habits – are, on the whole, more white-collar, slightly more affluent, more educated. In western France, major cities with a large population of educated professional middle-classes (with a certain bobo element, but that is not dominant) formed the base of the YES vote. For example, the European Constitution received 59% approval in Rennes and Nantes, 58.2% in Angers, 58% in Bordeaux, 55.7% in Brest, 55.2% in Laval, 55.1% in Quimper, 54.7% in Caen, 51.9% in Tours, 51.3% in Poitiers and 51.2% in La Rochelle. These are predominantly economically vibrant cities, whose populations – largely middle-class (rising property prices play an important role, of course, here), educated and professional – are optimistic about the future and more favourable, as a natural result, to support European integration.

Similar observations can be made for Toulouse (51.3% YES), Grenoble (55.7%), Chambéry (54%), Annecy (60.3%), Dijon (54.4%), Besançon (52.5%), Metz (53.8%), Nancy (60.2%) and of course Strasbourg (62.8%).

Increasingly, it would appear as if the large metropoleis were becoming powerful centres of attraction for the best-paying jobs, the strongest industries and the most highly educated and socially previleged residents. As such, these cities would be the geographic locales of the so-called European ‘elites’ while the silent majority of 2005 – the ‘people’ – are those who have been pushed outside the large cities, (increasingly exclusive places due to rising property prices) and compelled to lower-paying, less prestigious jobs. However, while it is very true that major urban centres across France and Europe have lost most of their old working-class character and been transformed into service and tertiary-driven metropoleis, to call these urban cores the exclusive hunting grounds of the so-called European ‘elites’ would be incorrect.

While the contrast between the votes of these aforementioned cities and the bulk of France is fairly significant, the YES vote is not extremely overwhelming in a good number of these cities. Additionally, other urban cores which are just as large voted against. The emblematic case of Marseille was presented above, but the NO vote eked out a narrow majority in Lille (50.4% NO), Rouen (50.5), Montpelier (51.4%) and Nice (53.5%) to say nothing of Limoges (55.2%) or Amiens (58.6%).

It would be interesting to be able to take the analysis down another level in these cities, given that no one city is identical and that no city is homogeneous throughout. Unfortunately, data by polling station or even infra-urban canton is not available to the wider public. Géoélections presents a map which includes small insets showing details by electoral canton within large cities. The patterns which can be discerned in these cities confirm the predominance of the socio-economic/class cleavage over any partisan predeterminations.

In Toulouse, the YES vote was dominant in the city’s downtown areas which are a mix of older bourgeois (more right-leaning) neighborhoods and more intellectually-oriented bobo or younger middle-class white-collar areas of the city’s downtown areas. Support for the YES extended into the equally well-off southeastern areas of the city, home notably to a large air-and-space university. However, in the city’s southwestern areas, particularly those which include a major ZUS (zone urban sensible, economically deprived ‘inner-city’ neighborhoods defined by the government), the NO vote was predominant.

In Bordeaux, the referendum highlighted a similar contrast between the bourgeois or middle-class neighborhoods on the one hand, which backed the YES, and the economically deprived areas to the north of the city and to the east of the Gironde River – extended into Cenon, Lormont and Bègles (the city’s lower-income working-class suburbs), which backed the NO by solid margins.

In Lille, the YES was strongest in the affluent and older bourgeois neighborhoods downtown, including the Vieux Lille and Lille Centre. However, the NO was very strong in low-income areas such as Lille Sud, Moulins, Fives or Hellemmes.

In Nantes, the NO vote was triumphant in only one canton – a solidly left-wing canton centered largely on a low-income neighbourhood/ZUS. In Nice, the YES vote was triumphant only in the city’s wealthier neighborhoods. In Strasbourg, while the YES avalanche carried every canton, it was noticeably weaker in the quartiers populaires of western and southern Strasbourg (Elsau, Neuhof, Cronenburg, Koenigshoffen) but strong in both northern Strasbourg’s upscale neighborhoods (Robertsau) but also some more left-leaning gentrified bobo/trendy areas downtown (Gare, Krutenau, Neudorf).

In academia-oriented towns, finally, support was high for the European Constitution. In the Bouches-du-Rhône, Aix-en-Provence and its immediate suburbs form a stark contrast to Marseille. Aix-en-Provence, a fairly affluent town strongly influenced by the presence of academia, the YES vote triumphed with 54.9%, and was even stronger in the very affluent white-collar suburbs of the city (sometimes over 60% for the YES). In the Essonne, the famous research corridor around Orsay, Gif-sur-Yvette and Palaiseau endorsed the constitution by a wide margin: 56.8% in Palaiseau, 65.1% in Orsay and 73.4% in Gif-sur-Yvette. In the Val-de-Marne, the referendum highlighted demographic differences between the left-wing strongholds in the east of the department: the research and academia-influenced towns of Cachan (53.9% YES) and L’Haÿ-les-Roses (55.1%) approved the constitution, but it was handily rejected in neighboring Arcueil, Gentilly and Villejuif (over 60% for the NO), three typical banlieues populaires.

At the same time, it would be reductive to reduce the YES vote to some suburbs and urban areas, which concentrate the demographics favourable to a YES vote. It is very important to point out the importance of rural Catholic (clerical) regions of France to the overall YES vote, already in 1992 but even more so in 2005. One would be hard pressed to use only a sociological or class-based perspective to explain the results in the rural inner west (Anjou, Maine, Vendée, Poitou), the Léon, the rural Basque Country, the Jura plateau and especially the Aubrac. These regions remind us of the importance of ideological/partisan considerations in vote choice but also the impact of tradition.

As previously noted, the strongly pro-European tradition of Catholic France has been one of the constants of French politics and attitudes towards Europe since the 1960s at the least. Whether the stability of this tradition (even in an era where the Church is out of politics and its influence much diminished) is due to actual religious considerations or rather the (unconscious?) impact of past religious traditions on an individual mindset has not been established. Whatever the case, however, France’s old religious cleavage continues to rear its head in every election or referendum, telling us that we should be careful not to downplay the role of tradition in contemporary vote choice.

The Sociological/People-Elite View: Geographic Examination of the No Vote(s)

Above it was noted that the NO vote on May 29 was perhaps best described as the NO votes (or the ‘noes’), in the plural, to indicate the complexity and heterogeneity of the NO’s winning coalition, even more so than the YES’ losing coalition. The analysis of Ipsos’ exit polls highlighted the significant differences which existed between those who voted NO on May 29, on ideological issues or even their attitudes towards European integration. A geographic analysis (at a cantonal level unless otherwise indicated) confirms the heterogeneity of the NO vote.

In urban and suburban areas, as touched on above, the referendum showed deep socio-economic cleavages between the affluent privileged neighborhoods or suburbs on the one hand and the quartiers populaires or banlieues populaires on the other hand. This social cleavage in a fairly small geographic environment is most remarkable in Paris, Lyon, Marseille and Lille.

The greater Parisian region is marked by deep social inequalities and stark class divides in a densely populated urban conglomeration. As listed above, the French capital’s most affluent suburban communities proved to be some of the strongest areas for the YES in the whole of France. On the other hand, their social opposites – Paris’ infamous banlieues populaires – ran up some of the strongest margins for the NO. A few minutes only from Neuilly-sur-Seine’s 82.5% for the YES, the working-class or low-income suburbs of the old Red Belt in the 93 (Seine-Saint-Denis), Val-de-Marne or Val-d’Oise were the NO’s strongest points in the region. The NO took 78% in Valenton, 73.3% in Gennevilliers (Hauts-de-Seine), 73% in Drancy, 72.3% in Stains, 72.2% in Bobigny, 69.4% in La Courneuve, 68.6% in Saint-Denis, 67.7% in Aubervilliers, 67% in Garges-lès-Gonesse, 66.6% in Trappes (Yvelines), 64% in Grigny (Essonne) and 62.7% in Argenteuil.

In Lyon, there was a similar contrast at work. The YES vote was very high in the northern outskirts of the city, which include Lyon’s most affluent suburban communities. On the other hand, the NO won by significant margins in the old working-class suburbs of the city, to the east: 69.6% in Vénissieux, 69.4% in Vaulx-en-Velin, 62.4% in Givors and 60.8% in Saint-Fons. The PCF remains a dominant political force in all of these towns.

In Lille, the YES was predominant in the very affluent suburban towns of Bondues or Marcq-en-Barœul. However, the NO was very strong in the city’s working-class suburbs: 68% in Wattrelos, 64.4% in Seclin, 61.5% in Haubourdin, 61.1% in Tourcoing and 60.4% in Roubaix. In Wattrelos and Roubaix, the YES had won by a tight margin in 1992, thus the dramatic reversal between 1992 and 2005 might be due to partisan factors as well, given that these two communities are PS strongholds with only a weak PCF presence.

The same fairly stark class cleavages between poorer, downtrodden suburbia and more upscale suburbs can be observed in Bordeaux (over 60% for the NO in the old working-class suburbs of Bègles, Lormont, Cenon and Floirac), Grenoble (strong opposition in the old working-class Red Belt suburbs of Échirolles, Saint-Martin-d’Hères, Fontaine), Dijon (a stark contrast between upscale Fontaine-lès-Dijon with 41.9% for the NO and downtrodden Chenôve (62.3% NO), Metz (the poor banlieue commune of Woippy with over 62% for the NO, the upscale suburbs all for the YES), Caen (rejected notably in the ville nouvelle of Hérouville-Saint-Clair) and Tours (71.9% for the NO in the PCF stronghold of Saint-Pierre-des-Corps, a cité cheminote).

These towns – all strongly left-wing (oftentimes old PCF strongholds) banlieues populaires with a large multiethnic population living in large social housing projects (cités) or low-income neighborhoods (the share of the population living in areas designed at ZUS are some of the highest in France) – had already been strongly opposed to Maastricht in 1992 (except Roubaix and Wattrelos) but solidified their opposition in 2005. There is certainly some partisan element at work in these areas, especially where the PS rather than the PCF has been politically dominant. The fact that the NO vote is noticeably strongest in those towns where the PCF has retained some electoral and institutional strength to this day is important: demographic factors might be reinforced by local partisan factors.

However, it is clear that socio-economic factors were the key factors in the NO vote for these low-income communities. These towns are marginalized from the rest of France, and their economic outlook is bleak. Unemployment is high (especially amongst the youth, a large share of the population in these deprived suburbs), jobs do not pay much, inequalities and social problems are major problems and criminality is high. The support for the NO vote was a partly of vote of anger, frustration and resentment at their social and economic marginalization. These low-income suburbs do not recognize themselves in Europe as it has been expressed by the EU, and they resent the ‘liberal’ and ‘elitist’ character of Europe as a political project. The NO vote in these communities is obviously a ‘left-wing’ one, based on social and economic considerations, rather than any nationalist or traditionalist sentiments.

Between 1992 and 2005, the swing towards the NO was strongest in the industrialized, historically working-class regions of the country. While in 1992, the attitude of working-class areas was slightly more divided, with a slight penchant towards the NO. However, in 2005, there emerged a clear image of a more homogeneous ‘class vote’ against the European Constitution.

There was a partisan factor at work in these areas, considering that the political leanings of these areas taken as a whole show a traditional predisposition towards the left, be it the PS or the PCF. In fact, taking the analysis down a notch again shows that, in general, while those working-class locales historically dominated by the PCF had already been largely against Maastricht, socially similar areas with a Socialist tradition had shown a more favourable attitude towards Maastricht (with some exceptions). However, in 2005, partisan factors reinforced demographic factors. Discontent with a right-wing government and partisan habits went hand in hand with socio-economic factors. Furthermore, reading the heavy trend solely as the result of partisan voting would be incorrect. In the 13 years which elapsed between these two votes, the social and economic situation of these communities hardly improved: more jobs were lost, more old industries closed their doors, unemployment crept up, income and education levels remained low and their social marginalization in French society deepened.

These regions represent the economically deprived and marginalized France, which were the proud standard-bearers of French industry in the 1960s but which have slowly turned into economically depressed, crisis-stricken territories which have been increasingly ‘invisible’ in French society. There is a deep social malaise in these regions, with a rancorous population frustrated and exasperated by their marginalization in society. This is a population which feels that they have been the forgotten, ‘invisible’ victims globalization, economic integration, European construction and tertiarization. Since the 1980s, they have been upset at the lipservice which the ‘political elites’ – including the PS and PCF – have paid to their situation. Discouraged or angry, they have either withdrawn from politics altogether or have expressed their rejection of the ‘political elites’ by a protest vote (either for the FN or the far-left). In 2005, the NO vote in these territories was a widespread ‘popular revolt’ of an exasperated population which feels forgotten and marginalized. Their NO vote was not only the rejection of a constitution, it was also a rejection of the incumbent ”political elites” (the old bande des quatres as Le Pen styled it in the 1980s) and a vote of despair by a socially disadvantaged segment of the population which has not been able to catch the train to the white-collar, service-driven post-industrial society.

Throughout France’s old industrial territory, the NO vote reached spectacular levels. This was more than a partisan vote, it was a solid ‘popular revolt’, as explained above. Certainly, partisan factors – particularly the historical electoral/institutional implantation of the PCF – played a role, but they only added to or reinforced a vote which was predominantly driven by socio-economic considerations.

In the Nord, the NO reached huge levels in the old mining basin (78.2% in Douai-Sud outside of Douai, 77.5% in Denain, 75.5% in Condé-sur-l’Escaut, 75.4% in Marchiennes and Bouchain, 73.5% in Arleux or 69.7% in Anzin), but its margins were similarly impressive in the small industrial towns in the south of the department or the old steel mills of valley of the Sambre (71.9% in Carnières, 70.3% in Clary, 69.6% in Solesmes; 76.2% in Berlaimont, 73.5% in Hautmont, 71.2% in Maubeuge-Sud outside of Maubeuge proper or 67.3% in Bavay).

In the Pas-de-Calais, the swing towards the NO between 1992 and 2005 was huge, resulting in spectacularly high margins for the NO in the old mining basin. Rejection of the constitution was no less than 85.3% in Rouvroy, 84% in Avion, 82.2% in Divion, 79% in Wingles, 78.4% in Liévin, 77.4% in Bully-les-Mines, 75.9% in Hénin-Beaumont and 71% in Lens. Outside the mining basin, in other working-class cantons, the NO won big as well: 74.4% in Calais, 71.1% in Arques, 68.3% in Lumbres and 64.5% in Boulogne-sur-Mer.

The victory of the NO was overwhelming throughout most of northern France. The north of the country – the Nord-Pas-de-Calais but also Picardy and Seine-Maritime – were the most industrialized and working-class areas of France in the 1960s and the economic crises and downturns of the 1980s hurt all these regions badly. In the Aisne’s core working-class areas, the NO won 79.8% in Tergnier, 71.9% in Hirson, 70.7% in Chauny and 70.2% in Guise. In the Somme, the NO trounced with 77.1% in Friville-Escarbotin, 72.6% in Ault, 72.4% in Gamaches and 70.4% in Abbeville. In the Oise, the NO dominated in the very left-wing city of Creil (67%) but won all of 68.7% in Montataire, a PCF stronghold outside of Creil.

In the Seine-Maritime, the NO vote obviously went beyond the left (just as in the aforementioned departments), but the strength of the NO in the rural regions of the historically clerical Caux and the solidly right-wing Bray were impressive. In the Seine valley industrial conglomeration, once again, the NO vote was impressively massive: 81.3% in Laurent Fabius’ turf of Le Grand-Quevilly (it had actually voted YES in 1992), 77.8% in Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, 76.6% in Le Petit-Quevilly, 72.8% in Elbeuf, 72.4% in Maromme, 68.8% in Lillebonne and all the way to 82.7% in Gonfreville-L’Orcher, the PCF stronghold outside Le Havre (which itself gave 64% to the NO, less than Dieppe’s 68.2%).

The same pattern can be observed in the industrial Ardennes (over 70% against in most of the left-wing working-class cantons in the north of the department), but also in declining small industrial towns in the east of the country which are not necessarily solidly left-wing (the area around Vitry-le-François in the Marne, the Saint-Dizier area, working-class regions in Alsace). In the Pays-Haut Lorrain, a very industrialized and left-wing area, the NO vote was, once again, very high: 73.9% in Homécourt, 73.1% in Audun-le-Roman, 69.9% in Moyeuvre-Grande, 68.9% in Villerupt, 66.8% in Herserange or 66.6% in Rombas.

However, the heavy swing towards the NO in working-class areas was replicated in the Moselle’s mining basin, a very industrialized area but with a much more divided political tradition. The YES had triumphed throughout the mining basin in 1992, but it was heavily rejected in 2005. The NO peaked at 63% in Freyming-Merlebach but reached 60% in Stiring-Wendel, 59.6% in Behren-lès-Forbach, 58.8% in Faulquemont, 56.9% in Saint-Avold and 55.9% in Forbach.

The NO’s dominance was equally as spectacular throughout France’s old industrial bedrock. To ennumerate quickly these regions, they include (but are by no means limited to) Belfort, the Montbéliard-Sochaux-Héricourt industrial basin (Haute-Saône, Doubs), parts of the Jura, old industrial or mining towns in the Saône-et-Loire (Montceau-les-Mines with 64.3% against), the mining or industrial basins of the Nièvre (La Machine, Decize, Guérigny, Clamecy: all well over 60% for the NO), Vierzon (Cher), Montluçon-Commentry (Allier), the Brivadois mining basin (Haute-Loire, Puy-de-Dôme), the Loire mining basin (Firminy, Chambon-Feugerolles: 69.5% against in the latter town), the Gier valley (Loire), the Nord-Isère, the Dauphiné mining basin (66.3% against in La Mure), the Cévennes mining basin (77.3% NO in La Grand-Combe, 65.2% in Alès), the mixed small town industrial-winemaking backcountry of the Languedoc (but also the coastal towns of Béziers or Sète), Carmaux (Tarn, 67.7% against), Decazeville-Aubin (Aveyron, 71.6% for the NO in Aubin), Saint-Nazaire and its poor working-class backcountry in the Brière (Loire-Atlantique).

In Marseille’s industrialized waterfront ‘suburbs’, finally, the NO was just as dominant: 85.2% in Port-de-Bouc, 83.2% in Port-Saint-Louis-du-Rhône, 71.6% in Berre-l’Étang, 71.4% in Martigues and 70.8% in Fos-sur-Mer.

Even if the margins are not as incredible, working-class areas with a right-wing tradition (parts of Alsace, Oyonnax, Cluses-Scionzier) also rejected the constitution by not insignificant margins. Thus, the strength of the NO in working-class areas, while undeniably closely connected with the strength (or past strength) of the left, especially the PCF, also has clear socio-economic roots. As noted above, the NO vote expressed the rejection of a great number of things. Despite the homogeneity of the vote choice in these aforementioned regions, the NO vote likely were NO votes based on a mix of ‘left-wing’ concerns (neoliberal nature of the constitution, fear of free markets, fear of losing social benefits) and some ‘right-wing’ concerns (largely national identity – the fear of Turkish membership or open borders bringing competition for the scarce jobs, but perhaps crime and immigration). The diversity of these areas, especially in terms of their voting patterns in partisan elections, should also suggest prudence. The FN is strong in most but by no means all of these regions, indicating that its discourse does not resonate equally throughout France.

Thus far, the explanations for the NO vote in downtrodden suburbia and depressed working-class areas all seem very ‘left-wing’. Indeed, the general shape of the NO’s map is quite similar to that of the left – but that of the left prior to the mid 1980s (the heavy dominance in the north, some bastions in the east, the famous C shaped string running from the Bourbonnais to the Comté de Nice). At the same time, however, in the noes of 2005, there were a lot of ‘right-wing’ noes.

Ground-zero, seemingly, for the right-wing noes were lower middle-class exurban/outer suburban communities. The Parisian region is reflective of this pattern, which extended into the Oise, Eure, Eure-et-Loir, Loiret, Yonne and Aisne. The YES was extremely strong in the wealthiest, most upscale suburbs of Paris (west of the capital). However, the NO started winning cantons by the confines of the Essonne and Val-d’Oise (the dominance of the NO in Mantes-la-Jolie and parts of the Yvelines is more reflective of downtrodden left-wing suburbia). In the Seine-et-Marne, the patterns are quite stark. While the YES won or the NO won by margins below the national average (54.7%) in the older suburban outskirts nearer to Paris, the NO won by margins above the national average, in some cases in the 60-65% range, in the cantons which are furthest from Paris, often wrongly described as ‘rural’ parts of a very urban region. The NO was equally as dominant in the most distant cantons of the Essonne, the Eure (Vexin), Eure-et-Loir, Loiret (Beauce around Pithiviers, Gâtinais), Yonne (Sens and outskirts) and Aisne (Château-Thierry, Tardenois and Brie).

These regions are often wrongly described as ‘rural’, but in the twenty-first century, there are very few parts of France which fit the old definition of ‘rural’ (farmers, countryside, no urban influence, small villages). The aforementioned regions are under the heavy suburban influence of Paris. In recent years, these rapidly growing areas have become home to distant exurban communities.

High property prices in the urban cores, urban decay in the old suburbs, white flight have forced them to live further and further away from their workplaces in the downtown cores. These transformations of the Western urban landscape, which is not uniquely franco-français, have had major social and political impacts. Those who have been ‘forced’ to move away from the downtown cores did not do so by choice, their low incomes and lower-paying jobs (there are, obviously, few young professionals or cadres sups in these exurbs, but lots of middle-aged employees) meant that they could not afford to live in increasingly costly downtowns and inner suburbs. Clearly, white flight and security concerns motivated some to ‘escape’ the old proletarian suburbs of the 93, but they probably did not particularly wish to live where they may live today.

The French term for this phenomenon is the périurbain subi (the ‘suffered’ or ‘constrained’ suburban-exurban life) – as opposed to a périurbain choisi (the ‘chosen’ suburban lifestyle). The expression périurbain galère (the French idiom la galère refers to a particularly tough or unfavourable siutation) is a good expression of their lifestyle. By their lower education levels (most have a Bac or trades certificate) they can only rarely aspire to higher paying jobs. They are forced to a long commute to work, and suffer from public transit strikes or traffic jams. A lot those who suffer the périurbain galère struggle to make ends meet: mortgage payments on their houses or car(s) and rising gas prices.

This is a politically apathetic population, which nonetheless turns out in fairly solid numbers (but below average numbers) in presidential elections or the 2005 referendum. While exurbia is core right-wing territory where the left is perennially weak, its voting patterns are bit all over the place. The FN carries a natural appeal to a lower middle-class, middle-aged population with low paying jobs and lower education levels. Furthermore, exurban lower middle-class voters often seek political authority and are concerned by immigration or criminality (the old ‘halo’ effect, first theorized by Pascal Perrineau after the 1984 elections, comes back). Their votes also express a rejection of the ‘political elites’, especially the “bobo gauchiste bienpensant” (a Eurofederalist, socially liberal/tolerant leftist intellectual who patronizes lower income petites gens like them – whether or not this exist is a subjective matter).

In 2005, exurbia rejected the constitution by very solid margins. Partisan factors, such as the influence of the FN with these voters, certainly played a role, but the dominant note must have been socio-economic. The NO vote expressed the fears and insecurities (perhaps also the despair) of a non-urban middle-class, concerned by uncertain job security (fear of losing their job), low wages and incomes, high costs of living but also ‘right-wing’ concerns about the loss of national identity, immigration or security.

This ‘type’ of NO vote was most important around Paris, but also had a clear influence around the other metropoleis of France: Lyon, Marseille, or Nice.

In Lyon’s exurbs (which spread out into the Ain and Isère), the constitution was rejected by consequential margins. The NO vote was 55.9% in Meyzieu (Rhône), 65.2% in Pont-de-Chéruy (Isère), 54.7% in Montuel (Ain), 58.6% in Crémieu (Isère) and so forth. In the Nord-Isère, a phenomenon of ‘urban decay’ or ‘urban crisis’ is also at work, in large post-industrial towns which have wrestled with crime, economic decline and marginalization by the white-collar metropolis of Lyon. Throughout the north of the department, the constitution was rejected. A similar phenomenon mixing exurban growth with existing large/medium-sized towns extends into the Loire, northern Ardèche (the old textile town of Annonay) and Drôme (Romans-sur-Isère). The NO won consistently 55-60% in these regions.

The Rhône valley has turned into a giant semi-urban behemoth, joining the southern metropolis of Marseille with Arles, Avignon, Nîmes and Avignon. There is a solid far-right tradition predating the FN in this region, which has been maintained by the FN to make the low lying plains in the Gard, Vaucluse and Bouches-du-Rhône a core far-right stronghold. These ideological and partisan factors, mixed in with social realities (once again, a predominantly lower middle-class, post-industrial population hit by urban decay or economic difficulties), contributed to a very overwhelming NO vote in 2005. The FN strongholds of Saint-Gilles (Gard, 68.5% NO), Vauvert (Gard, 68% NO), Beaucaire (Gard, 69.7% NO), Bédarrides (Vaucluse, 69.8% NO), Orange (Vaucluse, 62.6% NO), Bollène (Vaucluse, 70.2% NO) and Pierrelatte (Drôme, 65.9% NO) rejected the constitution by a huge margin. The FN’s political and electoral influence certainly played a role, but the elements which explains the FN’s strength in these cantons were also central to vote choice. The FN’s clientele in this region is structurally right-wing and conservative, socially it is a largely petit bourgeois electorate of shopkeepers, small business owners and lower middle-classes.

The constitution was also heavily rejected in more exurban communities outside Marseille where the FN is strong. In Vitrolles, an old working-class town hit by rapid urbanization and subsequent urban decay, the NO won 70.2%. The NO also won 70.7% in Marignane, 66.5% in Les Pennes-Mirabeau, 65.1% in Aubagne, 63.9% in Brignoles (Var) and 62.4% in Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume (Var).

In the Alpes-Maritimes, while the YES found bases of support in upscale seafront resort communities or even affluent backcountry cantons (57.2% in Le Bar-sur-Loup), the NO vote was very strong in less affluent, outer suburban/exurban cantons of Nice: 69.4% in Contes, 68.7% in L’Escarène, 64.8% in Carros and 60.8% in Contes. The results showed rather similar patterns of rejection in other exurban areas across the country, notably Toulouse’s outer suburban ring.

Finally, rural areas besides those which are more affluent and those with a Catholic tradition, generally opposed the constitution. It is hard to speak of purely ‘rural’ areas, given that most rural areas are nowadays a collection of small towns rather than a patchwork of small farms. A number of communities could be described as semi-rural, lying outside the direct influence of major urban centres, but with smaller towns being the main source of jobs. A number of these semi-rural communes have become some sort of hinterland between important small or medium-sized towns. They are fairly isolated from the main road networks, and many of these semi-rural communities offer very few jobs, forcing inhabitants to commute to a smaller town (referred to as petits pôles or pôles moyens by Insee). The average age of the population in these towns is very quite high, and in terms of active socio-professional categories, ouvriers and employees dominate.

These rural or semi-rural areas are devitalized, with few job opportunities and placed in a situation of socio-economic disadvantage. Some of these communities used to be small manufacturing or industrial centres, which were hit particularly hard by successive economic crises since the 1980s. There is a forgotten “rural crisis” of sorts in many parts of France, with many of these demographically (and economically) declining communities fearing the gradual loss of local public services (a local post office, a local school and so forth) and their extreme marginalization in a country dominated demographically, economically and politically dominated by urban or suburban areas. The political expression of this “crisis” takes a number of forms: removal from the political process, a protest vote for the far-left or the FN or maintaining a traditional vote for either the right or the left.

In 1992, “rural communism” – those more rural parts of France with a strong Communist tradition (Allier, Cher, Indre, parts of the Limousin, Lot-et-Garonne, Trégorrois/Monts-d’Arée) heavily rejected Maastricht, but traditionally Radical or Socialist rural areas (Rouergue, Lot, rural Cévennes, Landes, Pyrénées, Diois) had tended to vote in favour of Maastricht. In 2005, however, all these strongholds of “rural leftism” voted heavily against the constitution. Partisan factors certainly played a role, given that partisanship appears to be have been a more decisive factor in vote choice than it did in most urban areas. However, left-wing concerns about the impact of the constitution on social policies or the vitality of local and public services certainly contributed to the significant NO vote. Many of these hotbeds of “rural leftism” are fairly deprived economically, and they have suffered from demographic decline, an aging population and the loss of local jobs.

In eastern France, these types of semi-rural or rural areas voted heavily the European Constitution in 2005. In the Bas-Rhin (Alsace), for example, the NO won in l’Alsace bossue, the Vosges and parts of the Fôret de Haguenau. While there is an amusing confessional pattern to come out from this map (the places where the NO vote was strongest are largely Protestant), the main explanation is that these are semi-rural cantons, isolated from Strasbourg or Metz. This region, one of the FN’s strongest regions in the country, is one of economically marginalized small towns with a large working-class population (ouvriers and employees) who work in neighboring petits pôles or pôles moyens. The same phenomenon was replicated throughout Alsace but also most of Lorraine and parts of Champagne and Burgundy.

These are the regions where Bernard Schwengler, a specialist of the FN vote in Alsace, identified the little-known phenomenon of l’ouvrier caché (the ‘hidden’ worker/working-class), as explained in this article.

The fact that Alsace, taken as a whole unit, combines a strong pro-European outlook with one of the highest votes for the far-right in the country may appear very paradoxical. However, at a cantonal level, the correlation between the 2002 Le Pen vote and the NO vote in Alsace was actually much stronger than in metropolitan France as a whole (0.62 in Alsace, only 0.36 in metro France).

This examination of the NO revealed four main strongholds of the “noes” in 2005. Firstly, the (in)famous banlieues populaires of France’s major cities, especially Paris, where the NO expressed the rejection of a Europe in which they did not recognize themselves. Secondly, almost throughout the entirety of the old industrial proletarian heartlands of France (particularly left-wing ones), where the NO vote expressed the social malaise of an economically, socially and politically disadvantaged and marginalized population still hurting from the deindustrialization of the 1980s-1990s. Thirdly, the growing outer suburban and exurban ‘lower middle-class’ France, where the NO vote expressed the fears of a non-urban middle class which felt worried, isolated anfd forgotten in the rising tide of globalization and economic integration perfectly embodied by the European Constitution. Finally, the NO was dominant in most of semi-rural or rural France, expressing the dissatisfaction of poor, isolated and demographically depressed regions. The common thread was a rejection of the political elites (particularly the incumbent ones on the right…), of the economic liberalism and globalization symbolized by the European Constitution; and a protest against the socio-economic marginalization resented by all of these regions and voters.

Top Factors in Vote Choice: Partisanship or sociology?

Of the two perspectives on the issue of the 2005 referendum – the circumstantial view (placing the referendum in context, the vote as driven by ideology, partisanship or public opinion) or the sociological view (the vote as driven by socio-economic considerations, class status and income, highlighting a people-elite divide), which can best explain the results of the 2005 referendum?

The following table compares a number of partisan/political and socio-demographic variables to the NO vote in the 2005 referendum, by Insee canton in metropolitan France and, in parentheses, France as a whole including the DOM-TOMs. Given the nature of vote choice in the DOM-TOMs, especially on the European issue in 1992 and 2005, it is best to consider only metropolitan France.

The results are expressed as correlation coefficients, either negative or positive, with 0.3/-0.3 and up/down indicating a medium correlation and 0.5/-0.5 and up/down indicating a strong correlation. When available, the correlation coefficient for the same variables compared to the NO vote in 1992 is given.

NO vote vs. variable



Pro-EU Right 2002 (Chirac + Bayrou + Madelin vote in 2002) -0.72 (-0.68) -0.13 (-0.23) – Balladur + Chirac 1995
UMP/Right R2004-R2 (Moderate right/UMP vote in runoffs, 2004 regionals) -0.55 (-0.5)
Eurosceptic 2002 (Gluckstein + Laguiller + Besancenot + Hue + Chevènement + Saint-Josse + Mégret + Le Pen) 0.80 (0.75) 0.40 (0.53) – Laguiller + Hue + Villiers + Le Pen
Eurosceptic Left 2002 (Gluckstein + Laguiller + Besancenot + Hue + Chevènement) 0.54 (0.59) 0.33 (0.38) – Laguiller + Hue
Eurosceptic Right 2002 (Saint-Josse + Mégret + Le Pen) 0.49 (0.54) 0.19 (0.33) – Villiers + Le Pen
R. Hue (PCF) 2002 0.54 (0.55) 0.39 (0.40) – Hue 1995
J-M. Le Pen (FN) 2002, first round 0.28 (0.36) 0.12 (0.25) – Le Pen 1995
Median Household Income (2006) -0.58
Cadres, prof. intell. sup. (% of labour force, 2006) -0.59 (-0.52) -0.46 (-0.36) – 1990
Ouvriers (% of labour force, 2006) 0.47 (0.45) 0.32 (0.29) – 1990
Employees (% of labour force, 2006) 0.31 (0.23) -0.22 (-0.25) – 1990
Unemployment rate (% of labour force, 2006) 0.38 (0.07) 0.31 (-0.12) – 1990
Cadres, prof. intell. sup. (% of population, 2009) -0.59 (-0.52)
Ouvriers (% of population, 2009) 0.36 (0.36)
Employees (% of population, 2009) 0.10 (0.06)
No diploma (% of labour force, 2006) 0.41 (0.18)
University diploma (% of labour force, 2006) -0.61 (-0.51)
No diploma (% of population, 2009) 0.48 (0.17) 0.47 (0.05) – 1990
University diploma (% of population, 2009) -0.62 (-0.53) -0.50 (-0.39) – 1990

The preceding table reveals the importance of a good number of variables. It is rather impressive the number of very strong correlations (considering that very few political correlations breach the ‘strong’ level) which appear in this table.

The correlation between the vote for the candidates of the “pro-European right” in 2002 and the YES vote is very reflective of the nature of the YES vote in 2005 – a vote which came predominantly from the ideological centre-right. The correlation between the “Eurosceptic vote” in 2002 and the NO vote in 2002 is also extremely strong, especially when considering that the correlation between the “Eurosceptic vote” in the 1995 election and the vote against Maastricht was nowhere near as closely correlated. This little statistic shows how the 2002 presidential election was truly the epitome of protest voting. In 1995, the “pro-European” candidates (Chirac and Jospin especially) certainly received the support of a significant minority of voters who had voted against Maastricht in 1992. In 2002, however, it appears that a much smaller share of those who would go on to vote NO to the European Constitution three years later backed “pro-European” candidates.

Both the share of the vote by canton for Eurosceptic left-wing candidates and Eurosceptic right-wing candidates in 2002 correlate well with the NO vote in 2005, indicating that while the NO vote was on the whole more left-wing it also had a significant element stemming from the far-right. On the other hand, the correlation between Le Pen’s first round vote in 2002 and the NO vote is weak. Unsurprisingly, the PCF vote (Robert Hue in 2002) is more closely correlated with the NO vote.

The strength of the correlations, be they positive or negative, between socio-demographic indicators and the NO vote is quite impressive. However, should we be careful of implying direct causation between some of these indicators and the NO vote? After all, variables such as the percentage of CPIS or the median income by canton could be assumed to have a strong correlation with the “pro-European right” vote in 2002 and its impact on the NO vote might be cancelled out if the right-wing vote is controlled. However, the correlations between these socio-demographic statistics and the NO vote is much stronger, in all cases, than the correlations between these same statistics and the “pro-European right” vote in 2002. For example, median income had a positive correlation of only 0.22 (weak) with the right-wing vote in 2002, but a much stronger correlation of 0.58 with the YES vote. Similarly, the correlation (in metro France) between the share of CPIS or manual workers in the labour force of a canton and the right-wing vote in 2002 is weak, in both directions (0.16 positive correlation with CPIS, -0.1 negative correlation with manual workers).

It must be pointed out, however, that in the Île-de-France (IDF) region alone, the correlations between the right-wing vote in 2002 and these socio-demographic numbers is much stronger: 0.82 with CPIS, -0.74 with manual workers and 0.85 with median income. In the region, the correlation between the YES vote and the right-wing vote in 2002 is 0.90! That being said, the correlations between the socio-demographic variables and the NO vote is still a bit stronger than that with the right-wing vote: -0.95 negative correlation between the CPIS (!) and the NO, 0.9 with manual workers and -0.89 with median income.

In France as a whole, the percentage of CPIS, the median income and the percentage with a university diploma in a given canton had a negative impact on the NO vote. The higher the share of CPIS and university graduates and the higher the income, the lower the NO vote. Of course, this correlation is imperfect, but it is remarkably strong, and is even stronger in urban areas, as the separate numbers for IDF show.

On the other hand, the percentage of ouvriers and the percentage of the population with no diploma had a positive impact on the NO vote. The higher the share of ouvriers and inhabitants with no diploma in a given canton, the higher the NO vote. Once again, this correlation is imperfect but nonetheless impressive, and would likely be much stronger in urban areas.

The unemployment rate (in 2006) and the percentage of employees by canton had a positive impact on the NO vote, but it was not particularly strong. It is quite interesting to point out that in 1992, the percentage of employees actually had a negative impact (although, again, not extremely significant) on the NO vote. Does this reflect the changing attitudes of this lower middle-class socioprofessional category, found largely in smaller urban and most suburban areas, towards European integration between 1992 and 2005? The YES’ narrow victory in 1992 which became a significant victory for the NO in 2005 was due largely to the changing attitudes of the provincial and suburban middle-classes.

From these numbers, which of the two approaches to understanding the 2005 referendum holds the most merit? In reality, both hold keys to understanding the final result. The circumstantial explanation and the impact of the incumbent government’s unpopularity should not be understated, and neither should the weight of partisanship and 2002 vote choice. However, the 2005 referendum did reveal a major, significant schism between some kind of ‘elite’ and some kind of silent majority/’people’. The NO’s victory expressed more than just rejection of a government which had terrible ratings. It expressed the disillusionment, frustration, anger, fears and resentment of a wide swathe of the French electorate. The NO vote spoke volumes about a number of important social, economic and political malaises which existed in French society in 2005 and still exist in 2012.

Furthermore, partisanship and vote choice are the outputs/end products of a model in which socio-demographic situation or social class are inputs. A vote for the “pro-European right” in 2002 was an output, which was the result of the input of variables which include class.

Therefore, the 2005 referendum was neither a pure circumstantial affair driven by time-dependent public opinion on a government and partisan considerations, nor was it a purely sociological ‘people’ vs. ‘elite’ battle. Both factors played a role in the final result, even if the socio-demographic explanations of the result could hold more weight. Regardless of what explanatory method one prefers, the results of the 2005 referendum revealed a wealth of information on the state of French society, on the concerns or aspirations of French voters or about the different “types” of left and right-wing voters.

The Attitudes and Values of YES and NO voters

The CEVIPOF’s Panel électoral français from 2007 broke down its questions, which include some very interesting questions about the values, attitudes and subjective social situation of the interviewees, by the vote in the 2005 referendum. The YES and NO vote were further divided into a ‘left-wing’ and ‘right-wing’ category (leftist YES, leftist NO vs. rightist YES, rightist NO). This table presents the most interesting questions from this vast resource.

The CEVIPOF’s PEF, one of the best resources for quantitative data on politics and elections in France, is a massive opinion poll. The data used in this table come from 4,006 phone or in-person interviews held between May 9 and 23, 2007 (after the May 6 runoff).

Issue or question (answer, % nationally) YES (left / right) NO (left / right)
How do you make out with your income? (% answering easily or very easily, 46% overall) 56% (51% / 62%) 39% (42% / 39%)
“We can trust most people” (% agreeing, 24%) 32% (33% / 32%) 22% (30% / 16%)
State should trust business & give them more liberty (% agreeing, 48%) 59% (42% / 71%) 40% (29% / 53%)
Priority to improving salaries (% agreeing, 68%) 55% (73% / 42%) 72% (84% / 57%)
EU membership (% saying it is a “good thing”, 50%) 77% (74% / 82%) 30% (33% / 28%)
EU: Less social protection in France (% who fear, 68%) 54% (66% / 46%) 79% (86% / 73%)
EU: More unemployment in France (% who fear, 68%) 52% (57% / 48%) 79% (74% / 83%)
EU: Losing culture and identity (% who fear, 50%) 36% (34% / 36%) 61% (49% / 72%)
EU: More immigrants (% who fear, 48%) 40% (34% / 43%) 56% (37% / 74%)
Globalization (% saying it is a good thing, 24%) 39% (27% / 47%) 12% (11% / 15%)
Fearing the future (% saying that they sometimes fear the future, 62%) 54% (56% / 50%) 66% (67% / 64%)
Parental authority (% saying that nowadays parents have no more authority, 57%) 55% (44% / 60%) 59% (51% / 65%)
Social justice (% saying we should take from the rich to give to the poor, 57%) 49% (70% / 35%) 60% (77% / 42%)
Too many immigrants in France (% agreeing, 48%) 44% (32% / 51%) 54% (37% / 73%)
Reestablish death penalty (% agreeing, 36%) 28% (21% / 30%) 43% (24% / 55%)
Ban immigration from East European workers (% agreeing, 36%) 28% (25% / 31%) 42% (30% / 53%)
Democracy in France (% saying it doesn’t work well, 36%) 24% (28% / 18%) 42% (43% / 39%)
“European Union” (% with positive opinion of the word, 68%) 90% (87% / 92%) 46% (52% / 41%)
“Profit” (% with positive opinion of the word, 57%) 65% (54% / 73%) 49% (38% / 62%)
“Privatization” (% with positive opinion of the word, 40%) 51% (32% / 65%) 32% (17% / 50%)
Attention of politicians to what people think (% saying politicians care enough/a lot about what people think, 28%) 39% (29% / 48%) 21% (17% / 26%)
Trust in the justice system (% tend to trust, 56%) 64% (62% / 66%) 48% (51% / 47%)
Trust in political parties (% tend to trust, 34%) 41% (35% / 49%) 30% (28% / 39%)
“Politicians are corrupt” (% often or sometimes, 83%) 80% (82% / 78%) 88% (89% / 85%)

The crosstabs of CEVIPOF’s 2007 PEF reveals some interesting additional information about the attitudes and values of YES and NO voters. While the answers on a good number of these questions seem to be divided more along partisan lines than vote choice in 2005, there are some generalizations which can be made about who voted which way.

Left-wing YES voters broadly shared the political outlook of left-wing NO voters on some broad issues (concerned about wages, unemployment, social justice, moral and cultural liberalism/tolerance), but they were far more open than left-wing nonistes to globalization, economic competitivity, economic liberalization and (of course) European integration. Left-wing YES voters were even more morally and culturally liberal/tolerant than leftist nonistes. On economic matters, even when there was broad agreement on the left, those left-wingers who opted for the YES in May 2005 are more open to economic liberalism than those who voted for the NO: the percentage of left-wing YES voters who took the ‘economically liberal position’ on free enterprise, social protection, unemployment, globalization, social justice, profit or privatization was higher – or much higher – than among left-wing NO voters. Finally, left-wing YES voters trusted others, public institutions, the justice system, political parties and politicians more than their noniste counterparts, sometimes more than even the French electorate as a whole.

Right-wing YES voters agreed with right-wing NO voters on some issues (authority, some measures of economic liberalism) but there were major differences between these two ‘rights’ (which includes the far-right) on other matters. Those right-wingers who backed the YES were far more economically liberal and, to a certain degree, more morally and culturallty liberal than those who did not. Like those left-wingers who voted YES, these voters were more trustful of others, institutions, the judiciary or politicians. As expected, those right-wingers who voted YES said that they could make ends meet far more easily than right-wingers who voted NO.

Left-wing NO voters represented the “authoritian left” quadrant of the political spectrum. On economic matters, despite agreement on some matters, their positions were even further to the left than among left-wing YES voters. Very few had positive impressions of the words profit or privatization, for example, while a sizable minority of left-wing YES voters held a more positive view of these two politicized terms. Comparatively, however, some left-wing NO voters opted for the more authoritarian position on moral or cultural issues. They appeared slightly less receptive than left-wing YES voters on issues such as immigration.

Right-wing NO voters held very conservative outlooks on moral or cultural issues, and appeared considerably more nationalist than right-wing YES voters. This was very much a “law and order”-type electorate which supported stronger authority and were concerned about immigration. A significant share of the right-wing NO vote was formed by the far-right and FN voters, which explains the overlap between the attitudes of FN/Le Pen voters in 2007 and right-wing NO voters.

The common thread in the NO votes was, of course, a distrust in public institutions (including the justice system) as a whole, in politicians and parties but also a certain lack of trust in other people. To a certain extent, NO voters felt “alone in the world” and had, in general, a far more pessimistic view of the country’s social, economic and political situation (and the country’s future).

The impact of the European Constitution’s rejection by French voters in 2005 was not only immediate, but also long-term. The 2005 referendum was a much more complex issue than yes and no, with these two ballots expressing much more than just agreement or disagreement with the actual question presented to voters. The vote on May 29, 2005 was driven by a wide variety of factors, from very circumstantial factors to more fundamental sociological/socio-demographic factors. Beyond the headlines and the spin, the intricacies of the 2005 results show how complex the issue was.

Reflections on the 2012 Presidential election

I haven’t talked about the 2012 presidential election in France (April 22/May 6) in much detail yet, largely because I prefer to analyse elections after the fact, because any analysis prior to any votes being cast is going to be based on a successions of polls, hearsay, personal opinions, and the usual political shenanigans and platitudes. There is also the fact that I personally can’t bring myself to care all that much about the campaign itself, though I anxiously await the results of the first round to develop some solid analyses and draw up some detailed maps of the results which will tell us, better than anything else, what exactly happened.

That being said, having been called upon by a good friend of mine who has dedicated himself to tracking (in French, naturally) the polls and patterns of this campaign  to offer my analysis and point of view on a few matters of relevance to this campaign and the patterns which have emerged in the polls thus far. I felt it reasonable to put together a post with a few personal reflections and observations of the campaign (and the polls) thus far.

Voting intentions for the first round of the 2012 French presidential election (source: sondages2012)

My friend’s blog has developed an aggregate tracker of all polls published, which he can explain far better than I can. I have copied the graphical representation of this tracker since May 2011 on the right of the screen. The main trends since December 2011, which is when the campaign entered the “serious” part, have been as follows:

On the left, François Hollande (PS) has seen his poll ratings drop by a not inconsequential amount though not for that matter at an alarming pace. He had a brief bump in early February, following a very successful campaign rally at Le Bourget. The indicator pegs him at 27.3%.

On the right, Nicolas Sarkozy (UMP) saw his poll ratings grow at a steady and fairly rapid pace between late January and this week. He started gaining at a steady pace following the official announcement of his candidacy on February 15, and maintained his dynamique following a successful rally at Villepinte and the tragic shootings in Toulouse. Symbolically, Sarkozy has now surpassed Hollande in most polls for the first round. The indicator pegs him at 28.4%.

On the far-right, Marine Le Pen (FN) has seen her support drop about at the same pace as Nicolas Sarkozy increased his support. She is a long way from her headline-making peaks of the summer of 2011, when was roughly tied with Sarkozy. She is pegged by the indicator at 15.3%, which would be a strong showing for the FN but certainly an underwhelming performance for her considering her string of successes in 2011.

On the left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon (FG) has been the top mover-n’-shaker of the first round thus far. Now pegged at 13.5% by the indicator and polling as high as 15% in some polls, Mélenchon began a phenomenally rapid surge in early March, a surge which has yet to peter out though it is stabilizing at a ceiling of 13-15% for him. Explanations for this surge abound, and the answers are not as simple as the graph may indicate. Mélenchon’s dramatic emergence in this race, moving up from the second tier to the first tier and rivaling Marine Le Pen for third place has been the most important event of a rather uneventful, uninspiring and stale campaign thus far.

In the centre, François Bayrou (MoDem), after a successful rapid emergence in the first tier in December following his official announcement and the launch of his trademark industrial nationalism shtick (produire français) has failed to take his early dynamique any further despite a lot of potential openings for him since then. After stabilizing at a fairly decent 12-14%, he has since shed support at a fairly alarming pace, the indicator now pegging him at only 10.9%.

In the second tier, Eva Joly (EELV) has continued her slow descent into the abyss with an unabated and general decline in all polls from a strong 4-6% base in December to a stable 1.5-3% range today, the indicator placing her at 2.2%. None of the other four candidates (the DLR’s Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, the far-left’s Nathalie Arthaud and Philippe Poutou and the LaRouchite Jacques Cheminade) have been capable of gaining relevance – or even support consistently above 1% – since the serious things began. Their last chance will be the two-week long official campaign, where official television ‘spots’ by each candidate are run.

Based on these general trends, what are the main things we can take away from this and what are the explanations for these events?

1. Why the Mélenchon surge?

Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s surge, as aforementioned, is probably the most dramatic event of what has been a fairly boring and stale campaign. With support somewhere between 12 and 15%, Mélenchon could potentially place third.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a former Socialist cabinet minister and traditionally one of the top figures of the party’s left-wing, left the party following the chaotic Reims Congress (2008) to create the Left Party (PG) which claims to emulate the German Linke. Although the PG as an individual political party has an extremely limited base, it has the sizable benefit of having as its leader a dynamic, charismatic and assertive man who has proven capable of reinvigorating the left of the PS. In 2009, the PG allied with the Communist Party (PCF) – whose infrastructure, grassroots and traditional core electorate is much larger than that of the PG but which is totally devoid an inspiring, charismatic dynamic leader – to form the Left Front (FG) which achieved some success in both the 2009 European and 2010 regional elections.

The FG serves the interests of both partners. For the PCF’s leadership, an alliance with Mélenchon is a golden opportunity for them to regain political relevance and touch a wider base. In the 2007 presidential election, the PCF’s candidate, Marie-George Buffet – one of those boring party apparatchiks with which the PCF abounds – won a disastrous 1.9%, placing the party’s very survival into question. The FG, from the PCF Politburo’s point of view, is a terrific lifeline for them and allows them to reach out to voters who would not have considered voting for a party apparatchik like the party’s current boss, Pierre Laurent. For the PG, the FG is the tool with which Mélenchon can put his hands on a rather well-oiled political machine to further his political ambitions (the leadership of the “left of the left”).

Mélenchon was always going to perform much better than Marie-George Buffet (1.9%) in 2007, which is one of the main reasons why the bulk of the PCF’s base embraced him. However, beginning in January, he started creeping up from behind – without many observers taking note of it – largely because it was not a very dramatic boost, only slowly moving up from 6% to 8-9%. In early March, his surge began. The first signs of the surge actually happened prior to his massive rally at La Bastille in Paris, which is often cited as the moment at which his candidacy really took off.

What can explain this surge?

Firstly, there is his personality. He is charismatic, dynamic and extremely assertive. Besides his tendency to go on slightly amusing rants against journalists he has a grudge against, his demeanor and style – forcefully and passionately defending his political positions – seems to have convinced many left-wing voters who have been disappointed by Hollande, known for his more moderate tone. Though Hollande’s image as being “soft” is not entirely correct, it is not entirely false either. During the PS primary, Hollande’s main weakness was on his left, where he was open to criticism for his ‘softness’ and ‘weakness’. For a lot of left-wing voters who are very motivated by the urge to defeat Sarkozy and to dramatically change courses, Mélenchon can appear as a far more assertive and dynamic candidate than the “soft” Hollande whose campaign has been hesitant and fairly quiet since his successful outing at the Bourget.

Mélenchon has seen his ‘image’ improve considerably, though it is up for debate whether this is the result of the surge or if it is indeed a cause of the surge. In the past, his image as an angry, bitter man known for his tirades and bad temper against journalists gave him a fairly negative or at least polarizing image in the wider public opinion. However, voters seem to have rediscovered his charisma and dynamism, and in turn have judged him more favourably.

Mélenchon, to conclude on this point, has all the qualities needed for a successful candidate: charisma, a strong talent for the oratory, dynamic and appearing as a fairly honest person who believes in what he preaches, and who can convey his message forcefully and successfully. Hollande’s charisma is not horrible, but he certainly doesn’t have Mélenchon’s appearance as a skilled orator.

Secondly, there is the rhetoric. Mélenchon has successfully claimed the mantle of the anti-system/anti-establishment, somewhat ‘revolutionary’ candidate on the left of the spectrum.

There is a certain appetite and indeed some room in France, especially on the left and especially in times of economic crisis, for a candidate who takes a very anti-system message on issues such as the banks, high earners, tax evaders, austerity measures, social policies and defending the welfare state. Foreign observers are quick to note with some amusement how French voters always stand out in western Europe for their pronounced skepticism towards capitalism and globalization, and their penchant for economic populism and watered-down protectionism. It is hard to quantify (and I love quantifying stuff), but it is not unreasonable to claim that Mélenchon has taken on a stature as a forceful anti-system advocate for economically populist propositions (measures such as increasing the minimum wage to €1700, a ‘100% tax bracket’ on revenues above €360,000, a cap on maximum salaries) which tend to be popular in times of economic crisis.

Related to this above point, Mélenchon has likely become one of those candidates who is attractive to protest voters – those who “vote with their middle finger”. His whole rhetoric, standing outside the system and his tirades against big business and corporations, makes him a natural fit for these anti-system protest voters who in the past have flirted with the Le Pens but also, in 2007, with François Bayrou with his image as the “respectable” but still outsider, anti-system candidate.

In an Ipsos poll, 31% of his voters cited a “desire to reflect my discontent” as one of three main vote motivators – which is quite a bit above the national average (23%), but also far below the average for Marine’s voters (46%). He is not entirely a protest candidate. 22% of French voters cited “rejection of other candidates” as a vote motivator, but only 6% of Mélenchon’s voters cited this as a voting motivator (against 23% for Le Pen). For 78% of Mélenchon’s voters, his ideas or proposals were one of the top three voting motivators – the highest of any candidate besides Eva Joly. At this point, Marine Le Pen remains much more of a protest candidate than Mélenchon, but Mélenchon certainly has a base of support with these heterogeneous protest voters.

2. Where is Mélenchon’s surge coming from?

According to Ipsos, whose polling saw Mélenchon jump from 9.5% on March 3 to 13% on March 24, the vast majority of his gains come from voters who have switched their allegiance from another candidate. Ipsos estimates that Mélenchon gained 2% (out of 3.5%) from François Hollande, 0.5% from François Bayrou, 0.5% from Marine Le Pen and 0.5% from ‘other candidates’.

It seems quite reasonable that part of Mélenchon’s surge in the past few weeks came from voters who had previously supported Hollande. My theory on this matter is that Mélenchon gained the support of a fraction of the left-wing electorate which is very much anti-Sarkozyst and lying on the left of the PS. These voters may have supported Arnaud Montebourg in the PS-PRG’s open primary in 2011, but opted to support Hollande following his victory for reasons including party unity, ability to defeat Sarkozy and perhaps convinced by some of his left-wing planks (the 75% tax bracket).

However, these voters were likely frustrated by Hollande’s “soft” image following the Bourget, his inaudible campaign and in general his more centrist and moderate image which might have prompted some to support Montebourg or Martine Aubry back in the primary. For these voters, either from the left of the PS or on the fence between the PS and the “left of the left”, Mélenchon likely proved an attractive candidate who talks about the left-wing themes they want to hear and takes a forceful posture against Sarkozy. The media narrative about the inevitability of a Hollande-Sarkozy runoff, and how Hollande is the favourite dog in that race likely reduces the risk, for these voters, of voting for a candidate other than the top two. There is still a tendency on the left for the vote utile (‘useful vote’, aka voting for one of the top two contenders, not the also-rans) since the 2002 disaster, for it is not as prominent today with the narrative and appearance of Hollande’s inevitability. It is thus less risky for these voters, not too impassioned by Hollande but very determined to defeat Sarkozy, to vote for a candidate (Mélenchon) closer to their own views (which are likely to the left of Hollande) while still voting for Hollande without many second thoughts in the runoff.

Indeed, polls shows that about 85% of Mélenchon’s voters will vote for Hollande over Sarkozy in the runoff, with about one in ten of his voters likely to abstain and only a tiny fraction which will vote for Sarkozy. From this quantitative point of view, Mélenchon’s surge is not really a problem for Hollande (as long as it stabilizes at where it is now, 13-15%). However, from a qualitative point of view, one could argue that Mélenchon’s surge forces Hollande to tack left in the first round and perhaps in the runoff, in the process running the risk of losing more centrist voters who might edge towards Bayrou.

It is slightly more surprising to see Ipsos estimate that Mélenchon gained 0.5% from both Bayrou and Marine Le Pen. From a purely ideological point of view, Bayrou and Mélenchon do not have much in common – if anything at all. Marine Le Pen and Mélenchon are sworn enemies and polar opposites, especially after Mélenchon savaged her in a televised debate. However, ideology isn’t everything in the wonderful world of politics. We will come back to the issue of Marine vs. Mélenchon in more details later.

As for Bayrou’s voters switching to Mélenchon, it must first be said that this is only a small fraction and you could very well sketch it up to margin of error problems in the polls. If we are, however, to assume that some Bayrou supporters have switched to Mélenchon, what could be the cause? The most likely option is that Bayrou, in his December surge, picked up some of the voters who had backed him in 2007 not because of centrist-UDF traditions but rather because of Bayrou’s 2007 image as the “respectable” anti-establishment candidate. His whole “industrial nationalism” shtick (produire français/made in France), which is certainly very distant from the traditional internationalism of the UDF, might have been a factor in attracting some non-centrist ‘protest-type’ voters to Bayrou in December. When his campaign started to founder, however, he might have lost these fickle voters to Mélenchon who, while not hammering the industrial nationalism stuff, does in some regards come close to the contemporary political style of Bayrou or the 2007 image of Bayrou as the “anti-establishment candidate of the establishment”.

According to an Ifop study on the dynamique Mélenchon, Mélenchon attracts the support of 11% of Bayrou’s 2007 voters.

3. Marine Le Pen vs. Jean-Luc Mélenchon

It might be tempting and indeed obvious to connect Mélenchon’s surge with Marine Le Pen’s steady erosion of support (see the graph above). This theory brings us, incidentally, to the media’s favourite theory (and my pet peeve): that the FN’s rise to prominence in the 1980s was fairly directly correlated with the PCF’s decline. Certainly if you only look at graphs, the FN grew at the same time as the PCF declined. Hence, the story goes, Mélenchon might be attracting some old left-wing/Communist voters who had taken to voting for the Le Pens in recent years.

One cannot really dispute the idea that the FN attracted traditionally left-wing voters, usually lower middle-class or working-class, who were disappointed by the economic crises and corruption scandals of the Mitterrand years and attracted by the working-class, anti-immigration populism of Jean-Marie Le Pen and the FN. In past posts, I have talked at some length about the idea of gaucho-lepénisme which denotes a certain category of traditionally left-wing voters who vote for the FN in the first round but tend to vote for the left in the runoff. The 1990s, especially the 1995 presidential election, was perhaps the peak of gaucho-lepénisme, which subsequently declined a bit in 2002 but might have had a little renaissance of sorts in 2010-2011.

Let us be careful, however, about equating gaucho-lepénisme with some concept of a “communists for Le Pen” phenomenon. The media loves to claim that there exists a strong correlation between a Communist tradition and a strong FN base, while Communist sympathizers categorically deny any such correlation (often using the 1984 European elections as proof!). Neither side is entirely correct, because the issue can’t be black and white.

There are certainly grounds for PCF voters to switch to the FN: two protest parties, both attracting support from “unhappy” protest/anti-system voters, both speaking out against the big corporations and those who prey on the working poor. People vote the way they do for all kinds of reasons, and switch partisan allegiances in a manner which may appear crazy or contradictory. Thus, there is certainly a small minority of PCF voters who flirt with the FN on occasion. In 2002, 5% of Robert Hue’s 1995 voters voted for Jean-Marie Le Pen as did 7% of PCF sympathizers. In 2007, again, 7% of PCF sympathizers voted for Jean-Marie Le Pen. In 2010, only 1% of PCF-PG sympathizers voted for the FN though 6% of those who had voted for the FG in the 2009 European elections voted FN.

However, the FN’s gains in working-class areas since the late 1980s have been most important in right-wing working-class areas (they certainly exist) or left-wing working-class areas where the PS has tended to be the dominant party. Using a sample of 122 working-class municipalities with a significant population, there was, in 1995, a strong negative correlation of -0.56 between Hue and Le Pen, which was carried on to 2002 (-0.48) and 2010 to a lesser extent (-0.32). There was, in addition, a strongish negative correlation of -0.36 between the FN’s 2010 performance and Robert Hue’s 1995 performance. This is, of course, only a limited sample, but in these core working-class areas (the sample includes PCF, PS and right-wing dominated locales), the FN clearly performed much better in traditionally right-wing working class areas (Cluses-Scionzier, Oyonnax, Moselle’s mining basin, Mazamet or the Yssingelais for example) while its performances in historically Communist working-class areas was rarely very strong and much more often average, mediocre or even weak.

In the Nord-Pas-de-Calais, for example, the FN’s “new” working-class bases have historically been municipalities where the PS, not the PCF, dominated politics. Hénin-Beaumont, was just as left-wing as other surrounding mining basin communities, but the PCF has not been particularly strong there since the 1980s. Lens, Halluin, Roubaix or Tourcoing are other examples of PS-dominated working-class or working poor communities where the FN is strong. In contrast, the Communist strongholds of the mining basin in the same region (Divion, Auchel, Carvin, Avion, Denain, Saint-Amand-les-Eaux, Somain, Marchiennes) have not really distinguished themselves by particularly strong FN performances – even in the Marine-mania of 2010. The same results can be observed in Meurthe-et-Moselle and Moselle, where the PCF’s strongholds are weak points for the FN while working-class areas of Socialist or right-wing tradition tend to distinguish themselves by strong FN performances.

The traditionally Communist regions where the FN has tended to be strong tend to be inner suburban “red belt” municipalities (notably in Paris’ red belt but also the Rhône or Isère), where the presence of large immigrant communities might lead some old Communist supporters to switch allegiances to the FN. In addition, a lot of these inner suburban ‘red belt’ communities are no longer working-class areas but rather lower middle-class areas with large population of low-level employees, some public servants, other working poor, unemployed workers and so forth. The PCF’s lingering support in these inner suburbs as compared to “mining basin” urban areas (in the Nord or Lorraine) might be more the result of family tradition, local party infrastructure and Communist machinery than any remaining attachment to the parti du prolétariat.

Communist voters who abandon the party are more likely to switch their allegiances to the PS, or, between the 1990s and 2010, the far-left. Indeed, between about 1995 and 2007, the far-left – both Arlette Laguiller’s LO and later Olivier Besancenot’s LCR – was an attractive left-wing protest option for some working-class voters. In 2002, the far-left combined won 16% of the vote amongst ouvriers against only 3% for Robert Hue. In 2007, the far-left combined won 12% of their vote against only 2% for Marie-George Buffet. In 2002, 19% of those who had voted for Robert Hue in 1995 voted for either Arlette or Besancenot, while 11% voted for Lionel Jospin and only 5% for Jean-Marie Le Pen.

All this spiel can usefully point out that the correlation between PCF decline and FN gains is not as perfect as the old myth would like to make you think. But what about the links between FN decline and “left of the left” gains? The quantitative data on this is sparse, but very few people who vote FN tend to go back to vote for the PCF or the “left of the left”. In 2007, only 3% of Le Pen’s 2002 voters voted for one of the three far-left candidates and next to none of his 2002 voters voted Buffet. Same story in 1995, 2002 or 2010. If a Le Pen voter was to switch to the left, it would be to the far-left.

It is hard to see that much of Mélenchon’s gains came from voters who had once flirted with the possibility of voting for Marine. There is certainly some overlap, but I subscribe to the view that Mélenchon’s gains and Marine’s recent decline are not really correlated in any significant manner. Marine Le Pen’s decline is much more closely linked to Nicolas Sarkozy’s gains.

Ifop’s aforementioned study, to which we will come back to in more detail, showed that 3% of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s 2007 voters are opting for Mélenchon, which is very negligible. If you could ask Le Pen’s 2002 voters, I doubt the percentage would be significantly higher – considering that in 2007, Le Pen’s electorate had kept a lot of the working-class votes but shed a lot of the more middle-class or white collar votes of 2002.

It seems as if Mélenchon’s gains come on the backs of those voters who had abandoned the PCF in favour of either Arlette or Besancenot between 1995 and 2007. Given that in the absence of either of those two emblematic leaders of the far-left, their parties have been reduced to their “real” base (0.5-1%), Mélenchon has likely garnered the support of voters who voted for the far-left in the past two or three presidential contests.

Ifop’s study showed that Mélenchon stood at 63% support amongst those who had voted for Besancenot in 2007 – up 25 points from their first study on the Mélenchon vote. This is probably a small sample size, but it is not crazy to assume that Mélenchon’s surge came, in large part, from people who had voted for Besancenot in 2007 but who had put their votes “on the market” this year. It is not unreasonable, in this case, to assume that a small but significant share of the electorate shifted their sympathies from Arlette/Besancenot in 2007, Marine in 2011-2012 and abandoned Marine in favour of Mélenchon – perhaps as Marine Le Pen’s campaign was “back to basics” in terms of rhetoric (the old rhetoric on Islam, immigration, security; rather than her new working-class populism).

4. Who is voting Mélenchon?

Is Mélenchon ‘catching’ a working-class electorate, recreating the proletarian electorate of the PCF in the 1970s-1980s? Or is he instead appealing more to solidly left-wing public employees? The Ifop’s study on the Mélenchon phenomenon, very interesting and quite detailed, gives us a few answers.

In basic terms, Mélenchon’s electorate is more masculine than feminine and is heterogeneous in its age, appealing both to young voters (18-24) and older voters (50-64). He seems to have scored the most points with the youngest voters, with his support in Ifop’s March 13-27 pegged at 16% with those 18-24 against only 6% in its previous study between January 9 and February 8. These young voters likely come from Hollande more than any other candidate (perhaps Bayrou), but some might also be drawn from previous apathetic voters who were motivated by Mélenchon’s campaign.

Ifop offers us a very detailed analysis of his electorate by socio-professional category. There are certainly some cases of small samples, but the results are quite interesting. In table form, translated into English, it gives:

Socio-professional category  % Mélenchon, Ifop Mar 13-27 (avg. 13%) vs. Ifop Jan 9-Feb 3
Artisans, merchants, farmers and business owners 10% +5
Liberal professions (some doctors, lawyers etc) 11% +6
Cadres (middle management) of businesses (engineers, admin, commercial, financial analysis etc) 9% +4
Cadres (middle management) of the public sector (middle-level public servants, some doctors, professors, school administration, artists, librarians) 17% +9
White collar professionals (professions intermédiaires) of the public sector (public servants, teachers, social workers, healthcare sector) 19% +5
White collar professionals (professions intermédiaires) of businesses (representatives, salesmen, supervisor, technicians) 15% +4
Public sector employees and police/military 12% +5
Business employees (private sector workers, employees, secretaries) and commerce employees (cashiers, sellers) 12% +5
Direct services to individuals (concierge, hairdresser, childcare, housewives etc) 8% +1
Qualified workers 15% +6
Non-qualified workers 20% +10

Mélenchon is catching a very diverse electorate, performing best in the most left-leaning categories and not doing as well in the most right-leaning categories. The core of Mélenchon’s base is made up of public servants, especially those which form a sort of weird left-leaning petite bourgeoisie (though that is not the correct word, you get the point). He appeals to a middle-class electorate, which is concerned about things such as unemployment, cost of living, salaries, poverty and public services. As you can see in the above table, he performs very strongly with professionals and middle-level managerial types in the public sector, a category which includes teachers, social workers, healthcare workers, professors, healthcare and education professionals, school administrators, employees in state enterprises or similar professions. This was Mélenchon’s base before his surge, which gave him a strong footing with ouvriers – especially non-qualified workers. Mélenchon is not recreating the PCF’s old proletarian electorate entirely, but he is doing so in part. Hammering on the leftist rhetoric likely gained him some support or sympathy with unionized workers, who are concerned about losing their jobs or the cost of living or salaries.

Still, Mélenchon’s electorate is much more white-collar than the old PCF’s electorate in the 1970s and 1980s would have been. It is hard to quantify, but he might be attracting some support from particularly left-leaning bobos who are public employees. This is not a particularly ‘revolutionary’ electorate or a ‘protest vote’ electorate, but some might feel Hollande is too soft or too centrist. Furthermore, the collapse of Eva Joly’s candidacy might be attracting some “red greens” to his tent.

Ifop’s study also looked at what were the top policy priorities for Mélenchon’s electorate, compared to the French electorate as a whole. Clearly, Mélenchon’s voters are far more concerned than the average voter about salaries/cost of living (76% vs 54%), poverty (68% vs 52%) and saving public services (52% vs 32%). They are also concerned about matters such as education, healthcare, unemployment or the environment. But compared to the average voter, they are not really concerned as much by the reduction of the public debt (Sarkozy’s voters tend to rank this as one of their top priorities), insecurity/criminality (27% vs 43%) or illegal immigration (12% vs 36%). Marine Le Pen’s voters are disproportionately concerned by such issues, but for Mélenchon’s voters, the top priority are largely middle-class public sector preoccupations (very ‘social’ in nature, rather than ‘moral’ or ‘law and order’). Of course, some of Marine Le Pen’s voters are concerned by ‘social’ issues like these, but her electorate is by far one which is concerned by issues such as immigration or criminality.

5. Nicolas Sarkozy’s gains and a potential runoff victory

The gains made by Nicolas Sarkozy since he announced his candidacy is the second most notable story of this campaign thus far. Once performing extremely weakly in the first round, with only 22-24% support, he has now increased his support to a stronger 27-30% range. He is polling below his first round result in 2007 (31%) which had been a very good result, but he has certainly made up lots of ground. Even in the runoff, where he still trails by a large margin, he has cut Hollande’s lead pretty significantly. From a fairly crazy 20 point gap (60-40), he now trails by a smaller (though still fairly big) margin of 6-10 points.

The graph shows it clearly: Sarkozy’s gains have come at Marine’s expense. Marine Le Pen polled between 16-20%, which could have won her a result higher than her father’s historic 2002 showing (16.9%). She is now down to 13-16%, which would still be a very pleasing result for the FN after the 2007 routs, but underwhelming considering their successes in 2011. Worst, Marine Le Pen is now left fighting Mélenchon for third place.

Nicolas Sarkozy kicked off his campaign on a very right-wing note by placing emphasis on issues such as immigration, security, law and order. In this way, he plays upon the concerns and preoccupations of FN voters. His entourage has made it very clear that Sarkozy’s strategy for underdog reelection is faire campagne “au peuple”, which roughly means a very populist campaign oriented towards the lower middle-classes and working-class.

Sarkozy’s gains with traditionally left-wing or frontiste workers had been, in 2007, one of his main advantages. In 2007, he had already played a similar game with the rhetoric about work, effort, merit and so forth which appealed to FN voters and some working-class voters. However, during his presidency, he lost significant support with this same electorate which became very much anti-Sarkozy by cause of his image (too close to rich people and money), corruption and economic troubles. He is clearly aiming to reconquer the sympathies and vote of those who had voted for him in 2007 (working-class voters, old FN voters) but who had abandoned him in droves beginning in 2009-2010.

Thus far, he has had some success. His standing with ‘CSP-‘ voters (lower socio-professional status) has improved rather significantly since 2011, and while it is still not good enough to win, it gives him reason to hope. With FN voters, he clearly has had some success in ‘poaching’ votes from Marine Le Pen. She peaked too early, banking on the fickle support of unhappy right-wing voters who have jumped back to Sarkozy’s vessels, either convinced by his rhetoric, his new image (for the seven hundredth time) or sympathy for a president who isn’t perfect but who “has done a good job”. Because she peaked too early, she now faces a decline in support as voters look twice on her, especially on her weak points (experience, economic/fiscal policy, foreign policy).

Nicolas Sarkozy banks on three first round results to give him a boost ahead of the runoff: clearly outpolling Hollande, winning over 30% and perhaps winning more than he won in 2007 (31%). It would give him a media narrative as a “comeback kid” who has overperformed expectations (historically, ‘first round boosts’ in runoffs are given to those who have overperformed expectations – such as Jospin in 1995) and who has patched his 2007 electorate back together.

Secondly, to win in the runoff, Sarkozy needs to perform very well with those who voted for Marine Le Pen in the first round. He needs at least two-thirds of their votes, whereas he now wins at most a bit over half of their votes. The problem is that, as Sarkozy eats up her electorate, her base becomes, like her father’s 2007 base, much more working-class/protest voting than otherwise. As in 2007, Sarkozy’s gains with the FN this year have likely proven strongest with the FN’s old base with exurban voters, the petite bourgeoisie and CSP+ (higher socio-professional status). In contrast, she hangs on to a CSP-/working-class electorate which is far more reticent towards Sarkozy and could prefer to vote for Hollande or not vote at all in the runoff.

Ifop had an interesting article which included some observations on vote transfers from Marine’s electorate. Unsurprisingly, those Marine voters who were most likely to go for Sarkozy in the runoff were CSP+ voters, while Marine’s ouvriers were far more resistant of Sarkozy, leaning in large part towards not voting at all or going for Hollande.

Beyond that, Sarkozy also needs to reconquer votes on the centre-right if he is to win in the runoff. This likely means outpolling Hollande  by a comfortable margin with Bayrou’s first round supporters. Bayrou’s campaign has been a flop, following a successful entrance in December, where he took some centrist votes from Hollande (former Borloo votes?) and Sarkozy. He has been squished out of a polarized left-right fight, hurt by his lack of charisma and the boredom he generally inspires. He has lost some anti-Sarkozyst moderates to Hollande, but has also failed to cash in from any potential dissatisfaction with UMP moderates from Sarkozy’s right-wing populist campaign. He is probably keeping a more centre-right-UDF style electorate at this point, having lost those left-wing, bobo and anti-system votes he had won in 2007.

Sarkozy has not concerned himself all that much with his problems with moderate and centre-right voters, who have proven, in the past at least, to be clearly unhappy with Sarkozy and the UMP’s right-wing rhetoric and focus on controversial issues such as immigration or criminality. In his present state, it is imperative that Sarkozy regains the support of at least some of these voters, some of whom are attracted to Hollande’s image as a calm, reasonable and fairly pragmatic candidate. Sarkozy should play on his strengths – and Hollande’s weaknesses – that is, his “presidential image” as the best possible leader to deal with the economic crisis and the debt/deficit. In this way, he could appeal more to centre-right voters… but he must resist any urge to go “too far” on the debt reduction theme as to prevent any losses on his right with populist voters hesitating between Marine, him and abstention.

Nicolas Sarkozy remains in a very tough spot for the runoff. In polls, he seems to have “peaked” in the runoff thus far. He has not polled any better than 47%, and consistently polls in a small 45-46% window. This would represent a fairly decisive defeat, a margin which would, if played out on May 6, be much larger than Giscard’s 1981 margin of defeat against Mitterrand. There is, especially on the left, a very strong anti-Sarkozyst element which will be very difficult for him to break.

2012 will most likely resemble 1981 out of any presidential election, rather than the incumbent reelections of 1988 and 2002. In 1988, an incumbent president was reelected because he benefited from a cohabitation which turned him into the “opponent” to an unpopular “incumbent” Prime Minister. Mitterrand no longer took the blame for unpopular government policy, because he was no longer the government. In contrast, he could brand Chirac as a sectarian, divisive right-winger, appearing as a ‘uniter’ against ‘the divider’. In 2002, we all know why Chirac was reelected, but even then, he semi-successfully played on his non-incumbent image to underline the left’s weakness with voters on issues such as immigration and security which played to Le Pen’s strengths and to Jospin’s weaknesses. In 1981, by contrast, an incumbent president was really the incumbent (like Sarkozy), bore the brunt of unpopular policies (Sarkozy perhaps even more so, because of his centralist style) and faced trouble within his own majority (Sarkozy’s problems with his right and ‘left’). On the left, a candidate who had some rivals on his left (Marchais > Mélenchon?) but who could nonetheless play a somewhat left-wing but still fairly moderate campaign which appealed to more centrist, moderate middle-class voters (like Hollande) who were hurt by the economic crisis or unhappy with the incumbent.

I do not plan on making any more detailed posts on the election on this blog until the first round. However, I might write a fairly detailed ‘preview’ of the first round for my other blog, World Elections.

Political Profile: Vendée

In the run-up to the presidential and legislative elections of April-June 2012, this blog will look at some of the most interesting departments, profiling their political preferences, past and present. The second department to be profiled is the Vendée.

The name Vendée is due to mean something to almost all students of French history and society. In history, the name Vendée is intricately connected with the counter-revolutionary conservative, monarchist and clerical chouannerie (1794-1800). To contemporaries, the Vendée can evoke the image of a backwoods rural, mystical and very conservative bulwark. The man which has represented the Vendée in the French political arena, Philippe de Villiers, has conformed to this stereotype and broad image of his department. Once again, the reality is not that simple. The Vendée is not a cohesive bloc and the nature of its conservatism is often misunderstood or misinterpreted.


Geographic map of the Vendée (source: CG85)

Traditionally, the Vendée can be divided into three broad regions. Entering the Vendée from the Charentes, one meets the marais poitevin, a large area of marshland which covers the far south of the Vendée (Luçon, Chaillé-les-Marais), northern Charente-Maritime (Marans) and parts of the Deux-Sèvres (Niort). The area in its two thirds is now composed of dried marsh largely used for agriculture, while a third of the marsh remains a wet marsh noted for its canals and maze of islets.

Moving further north, one enters the plaine poitevine (or plaine vendéene), often referred to simply as ‘the plain’. The plaine is an exceptionally flat openfield region, devoid of trees and hedges. The cereal and wheat plains of the plaine resemble those of the Beauce in Eure-et-Loir more than they do their immediate neighbor to the north.

The two-thirds of the Vendée are covered by le bocage vendéen, which is the department’s most well-known region and the region from which the political and social stereotypes stem from. More hilly, but not mountainous (the highest peaks are roughly 290m), the bocage’s landscape is famous for its mystical maze of fields divided by hedges and isolated from main roads. André Siegfried described the bocage as a rugged, charming landscape breaking the monotonous plains, a mysterious region of trees, high edges and hidden lanes hiding houses and farms. In another stark contrast to the cereal fields of the plain, the bocage is largely a land of breeding and grazing (élevage) of granivorous and herbivorous animals.

The bocage can be treated be as a homogeneous ensemble for our non-geographic purposes, but it is still worthwhile to point out its two main regions and the non-bocage islands within the northern two-thirds of the Vendée. The bocage is subdivided into the more hilly and even more mystical haut bocage in northeastern Vendée (Montaigu, Les Herbiers, Mortagne) and the flatter bas bocage. The bocage does not cover the entirety of the department.

In the northwest confines of the department on the border with Loire-Atlantique, the marais breton, which is Breton in name only, is a dried marshland similar to the marais poitevin. The island of Noirmoutier, whose landscape resembles that of the plain, is often attached to this region. A smaller marshland exists around Les Sables-d’Olonne. Around Chantonnay, surrounded by the bocage on all sides, the flatter and fairly tree-less fields of the plains can be found at a smaller scale, forming what can be called the limestone island of Chantonnay.

Limestone because these three geographic regions form three geological regions. The marais poitevin is a quaternary region (terrain quarternaire), the plains a jurassic limestone (calcaire) while the bocage forms the southern reaches of the much wider Armorican Massif (massif armoricain), which covers all of Brittany and most of the inner inland west. The massif armoricain‘s dominant rock is granite, as opposed to the limestone of the plains. The border between the plain and bocage is often defined as part of the boundary between western France and the rest of France.

Two other regions can be added to our overview of the Vendée’s geography in a political context: the coast and the region of La-Roche-sur-Yon. The coastal region forms a fairly cohesive bloc nowadays, and politically it is important to differentiate it from both the bocage and the plains-marshland. A region of sand dunes and sunny beaches, the Vendéan coast is nicknamed the ‘Côte de Lumière’. The island of Noirmoutier but also L’Île-d’Yeu, 25km off the coast, are often included in the coastal region. Finally, in a day and age where true rural areas are few and far between, it is important to differentiate the Vendée’s political capital, La-Roche-sur-Yon from its neighbors in the bocage. An artificial city built from scratch by Napoléon, its political impact has been fairly minimal in the past, but for our purposes, we must insist on the place of the city but also its suburban belt, which forms a circle all around it, extending south to the border with the plains, north to the confines of the departments and east to Les Essarts.

Political Representation and Institutions

The Vendée has been represented by five deputies since 1986, and its constituencies were not altered by the Marleix redistricting of 2009, meaning that the Vendée will continue to use the Pasqua redistricting of 1986. The Vendée has been redistricted only thrice since Napoleon III was defeated at Sedan: in 1875, in 1958 and in 1986! Between 1875 and 1958, the Vendée returned six deputies (two deputies apiece from the three arrondissements of La Roche, Les Sables and Fontenay-le-Comte) but this fell to only four deputies between 1958 and 1986.

The Vendée’s constituencies in terms of their coherency and homogeneity are a mix of good and bad. Charles Pasqua drew up a coherent coastal constituency (the third constituency) which the two insular cantons and the coast as far south as Les Sables. The coast, as mentioned above, forms a cohesive political and economic bloc and splitting the coast into two or more constituencies would hardly have made sense. That was the way it was in 1958 as well. Of course, from the right’s perspective, keeping the coast together was not something which was tough to do: it was politically advantageous to build such a constituency. In the northeast, the fourth constituency, is also fairly coherent, centered in the haut bocage and its surroundings.

Similar comments can more hardly be made, however, for the first and second constituencies. In the purest French tradition, and remiscient of Saskatoon and Regina in Canada, the current map splits the city of La-Roche-sur-Yon’s two overpopulated cantons into two different constituencies. The northern canton joins Challans, Les Essarts, Palluau, Le Poiré-sur-Vie and Rocheservière while the south joins Chantonnay, Mareuil-sur-Lay-Dissais, La Mothe-Achard, Moutiers-les-Mauxfaits and Talmont-Saint-Hilaire. Splitting these cities is not indispensable; a more coherent constituency, both socially and economically, could be created by reuniting the city and adjoining suburban cantons to such a seat. It could end up a bit oversized, but that’s largely because the two urban cantons are oversized. Of course, a coherent urban constituency both in 1986 and 2009 would have run contrary to the right’s political desires.

The Vendée has returned a delegation dominated entirely by the right in every legislative election since 1993. The Vendée has three senators, who were last elected in 2004. The Vendée has never elected a PS Senator in its history and all three senate seats are held by the right.

The Vendée’s general council has 31 members, renewed by halves every four years up till this point. The right has governed the general council with an overwhelming majority since the Liberation, and while it has been governed by republicans, the Vendée’s general council – as far as I am aware – has never been led by the left. The right currently holds 26 seats to the left’s 5 seats, which is roughly where the left’s ceiling has stood since the 1990s. The general council is overwhelmingly dominated by divers droite members (DVD), right-wing independents, largely rural-based, who hold 19 seats against only 1 for the UMP and 4 for the MPF. The president of the general council since 2010 is Senator Bruno Retailleau (DVD).

The Vendée’s 31 cantons exhibit an acute case of malapportionment. La Roche-sur-Yon is divided into two cantons (Nord and Sud) which also include neighboring suburban communities. The Nord canton has a population of 44,943 – about 25,000 over the theoretical ideal number of 20,000 – while the Sud canton has 33,944. Other cantons also exhibit such malapportionment: the canton of Les Sables-d’Olonne has a population of 47,026, Saint-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie has 44,383 and Montaigu has 31,735. On the other hand, a handful of rural cantons are massively underpopulated: 4,699 in L’Île-d’Yeu, 8,531 in Chaillé-les-Marais or 8,501 in Sainte-Hermine. Besides the division of La Roche into two cantons sometime in the past, the cantonal map of the Vendée in 2012 is identical to that of 1912.

The Vendée has 17 seats in the regional council of the Pays de la Loire, which is governed by a Vendéen, Jacques Auxiette (PS). 10 seats are held by the left, split between 6 PS, 2 EELV, 1 PRG and 1 ecologist. 7 seats are held by the right, split between 3 UMP, 3 MPF and 1 NC.

Overview of Recent Elections


Results of the 2007 presidential runoff by commune

The Vendée is a right-wing stronghold at all levels of government. In 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy (UMP) won 57.06% of the vote against 42.94% for Ségolène Royal (PS), making the Vendée 4% more right-wing than nationally. The fourth constituency (60%) and the third constituency (62%) often tend to be the most right-leaning constituencies.

No left-wing presidential candidate has won a majority of the votes in the Vendée. François Mitterrand (PS) came closest to doing that in his 1988 landslide re-election, when he took 46.06% to Jacques Chirac’s 53.94%. This gives the impression of a long-time right-wing stronghold, but when we expand our analysis to presidential elections since 1965, we find that the Vendée has trended sharply towards the left since 1965. In 1965, when Charles de Gaulle won 71.15% of the vote in the Vendée, the department was 16.65% more right-wing than France. In 1974, it was 16.27% more right-wing and in 1988 it was only 7.92% more right-wing. The major shift took place between 1995 and 2007. Chirac won 60.5% of the votes in the Vendée in 1995, 7.82% more than his national result.

On April 22, 2007; the Vendée gave Sarkozy 29.7% of the vote, less than the 31.18% he won nationally. An underperformance due, of course, to the native-son candidacy of Philippe de Villiers (MPF) who placed fourth with 11.28% (he won 2%) nationally, a result far below that which he won in his first presidential candidacy in 1995, when he won his home department with some 22% of the vote. Royal won 21.7%, against 25.9% nationally. François Bayrou (UDF) outperformed his national average in the Vendée, with 20.77% of the vote against 18.6% nationally. Jean-Marie Le Pen won only 6.46%, below his 10.4% nationally. In 2002, Jacques Chirac won the Vendée with 24.9% against 14.8% for Lionel Jospin and 11.8% for Jean-Marie Le Pen. In 1995, it was de Villiers who won the Vendée with 22%, with Edouard Balladur placing second with 20.2%. Chirac won 18.2%, placing fourth behind Jospin (19.5%).

In European elections, the Vendée stands out the most from the rest of France, having voted for right-wing lists supported or led by Philippe de Villiers in all Euros since 1994. Even in 2009, when de Villiers’ MPF-CPNT lists performed poorly nationally, he won 33% of the vote against 22.5% for the UMP. The PS placed a distant third with 12.8%, against 11.9% for their Green rivals.

In the 2010 regional elections, the UMP won 37.8% (against 32.8% in the region) against 34.9% (against 34.4% in the region) for the PS in the first round. The EELV list, with 10.6%, underperformed its regional showing of 13.6%. The FN list, with 6.8%, also underperformed its regional average (7%) as did a PG-PCF list which won only 3.55% against 5% in the region. In the runoff, the left won 50.29% to the right’s 49.71%; while in the region as a whole the left was victorious with 56.39% of the votes.

The Vendée’s political inclination can still be summarized as being heavily right-wing, with a strong base for its favourite son’s party, the MPF. However, the left has tended to break into the right’s historical hegemony at all levels. Yet, treating the Vendée as an homogeneous entity is still incorrect.

Regional Voting Patterns


% vote for Nicolas Sarkozy, 2007 runoff; divided by geographic region

Voting patterns in the Vendée are pretty heavily regionally-based, with our aforementioned geographic regions often carrying a pretty clear and consistent political orientation, which in some cases has hardly changed since the days of André Siegfried, whose political description of the Vendée and the rest of western France in 1913 remains one of the greatest books ever written about elections and political behaviour in France.

The Vendée straddles the border of western France and the rest of France. This border is formed by the line dividing the plaine from the bocage, a line which is not only an artificial man-made border which in the end means little on the ground but is a crucial line which divided, in the past at least, two worlds. We touched on some of the distinctions between these two geographic regions of the Vendée in our geographic overview of the department. From a political standpoint, there are a number of additional distinctions to make about this line which divides these two regions.

Google Earth images of typical regions of the Plaine and the Bocage; both examples in the Vendée (source: Google Earth)

The line acts a natural boundary for three main socio-political or demographic factors: type of settlement, form of agriculture and religiosity. The divide, which is of course also a geological divide, separates nucleated population from dispersed population. The population of the marais and the openfield plain have traditionally been nucleated, in that the bulk of the commune’s population lived in a cohesive village and not dispersed throughout the commune’s legal boundaries. On the other hand, the bocage is very much a country of dispersed settlement. Our description of the bocage’s landscape above, as being a mystical-like maze of hedges, lanes and isolated farms, should make this seem obvious. Dispersed populations tend to live all over the commune, concentrated in tiny groupings of 3-5 farmhouses on an isolated lane or road while comparatively few people live in the commune’s main town.

While speaking in such terms in this day and age, when the bulk of population is just ‘urban’ in a way or another, is anachronistic and archaic; the effects of historical settlement patterns in forming political traditions should not be underrated. Nucleated settlements, with communal life were much concentrated into a village life, made social interactions easier and far more common. The nucleated populations were more open to new political ideas, such as republicanism or socialism, and also more resistant towards hierarchical institutions including nobility or the church. On the other hand, dispersed populations seldom had the chance to congregate and the natural isolation of habitats made such congregations difficult. In turn, newfangled political ideas faced a much tougher crowd, one which was individualistic but also far more loyal to traditional social actors including nobility or the church.

The second main divide between the two Vendées is found in the form of agriculture (le mode de faire-valoir agricole). The cereal-growing openfields of the plain has historically been a land of smallholdings, where individual farmers owned and worked their land. Of course, agriculture is no longer the employer it was a hundred years ago and the remnants of agriculture have been mechanized or concentrated into larger farms. The social relations which agriculture used to breed a hundred years ago are no longer relevant in regions such as western France. But, again, we should not underestimate the importance of these traditions in forming political traditions which have survived to this day.

On the other hand, the bocage was very much a country of grande propriété: large properties owned by a single individual or nuclear family, traditionally a noble or aristocrat. However, the bocage was at the same time a land of big property and petite exploitation indirecte which meant that while a rich noble owned the bulk of the land in a commune, he did not work his land himself and instead delegated that task to sharecroppers or farmers who worked their own tiny parcel under contract with the landowner. Thus, the bocage is a land of sharecroppers, farm workers and tenant farmers. In 1942, faire-valoir direct (often smallholders or at least those who owned and worker their land) represented only 30% of the land in the Vendée, the third lowest in France (tied with the Nord). Tenant farming (fermage) represented 44% and sharecropping (métayage) represented 26% of the land.

What can be the political and social implications of such an economic setup? André Siegfried defined the political regime of the bocage as a hierarchy in 1912. Sharecroppers and tenant farmers, timid and respectful of established hierarchy, lived in fear or at least apprehension of the landowner who, despite the patriarchal twist which their relations naturally took, could still evict a sharecropper or farmer or not renew a lease. In the bocage, the old nobility of the Ancien Régime remained socially, economically and politically predominant well into the twentieth century. However, Siegfried distinguished the Vendéan aristocracy from that of Anjou. The nobility of the bocage, Siegfried wrote, was rougher in its manners, lifestyle and culture. He wrote that there were amongst its members “plenty of boorish types, drinkers and gamblers; and especially a lot of mediocrity”. But at the same time, Siegfried noted that despite this, the aristocracy was local, rural and prestigious. Traditions of hierarchy and respect for authority made them respected figures of authority.

% of girls attending private (religious) schools in 1911-1912 (source: A. Siegfried, Tableau Politique de la France de l'Ouest)

The third factor, and one which is still relevant to this day and age, is that of religiosity. The role of religiosity in shaping one’s political behaviour in France need not be emphasized. The divide between the plain and bocage is also one of religiosity. Nucleated populations were more resistant to the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Thus, the plaine poitevine became an anti-clerical region, resistant of the church and the hierarchy which it entailed until the 1960s. On the other hand, the bocage is one of the most clerical regions of France. The Catholic Church remained a dominant social and political actor well into the 1950s and 1960s in the Vendée and the influence of Catholicism (clericalism) can still be felt to this day in the bocage. The chouannerie of 1793 was very much led by the clergy rather than the aristocracy. Siegfried noted that in contrast to the Anjou, the clergy was the dominant social and political actor over the aristocracy.

The priest in the Vendée commanded tremendous political influence and authority. His word, united to that of the aristocrat, carried a great meaning and was always ensured a receptive audience. Siegfried cited fear, respectful affection, habit and devotion as the main factors in explaining the attachment of the Vendée to its priests and clergy. In 1912, the alliance of “church and castle” was far more powerful than whatever republican institutions existed on the ground, the high attendance rates of private schools is but one proof of this. While the remnants of French aristocracy only serve to provide fodder for Point de Vue in this day and age, the church maintained its direct conservative political influence over the Vendée until the 1950s or 1960s. While society has been extensively secularized and fundamentally transformed, it is undeniable that such a clerical tradition has shaped political opinions even in 2012 in a significant way.

The Marais and the Plaine

What remains of the republican traditions of the plain and the marais? Using the above map showing the vote for Nicolas Sarkozy in the 2007 runoff divided by commune, we can see that, outside of the coastal region, the plain and marais have retained their left-wing traditions. Only a handful of communes in the inland regions of the plain and marais gave Sarkozy a result similar to or above his departmental average (57%). The old republican stronghold of Fontenay-le-Comte gave him only 50.6% of the vote, and Royal won Saint-Hilaire-des-Loges with 54.4%. At a municipal level, Fontenay-le-Comte was the preserve of Gaullist deputy André Forens, who served as mayor between 1965 and 1981 and again between 1989 and 1995. Since 1995, however, the left has held the mayor’s office, first in the person of Jean-Claude Remaud (PRG, ex-PS) who was badly defeated by a PS candidate in 2008.

At a more macro cantonal level, Chaillé-les-Marais, located entirely in the marais, has almost always been the most left-wing canton. It is the only canton where the PCF was truly a potent political force for quite some time and it was won by Lionel Jospin even in the 2002 rout. Nicolas Sarkozy took 48.8% of the vote in the canton. He also lost neighboring Maillezais, a mixed plaine-marais canton, with 49.7% of the vote. He won 50.6% of the vote in the canton of Saint-Hilaire-des-Loges, 50.9% in the canton of Fontenay-le-Comte, 50.6% in Sainte-Hermine (mixed plaine-bocage), 51.8% in Mareuil (mixed) and 54.1% in Luçon (mixed plaine-marais-coastal). In 1912, these cantons had all been defined by Siegfried as strongly left-leaning (which meant something different in 1912).

The marais, a Bonapartist stronghold until the 1880s, transformed into a left-wing, anti-clerical republican stronghold similar to other “left-wing Bonapartist” regions such as the Charentes but unlike “conservative Bonaparist” regions such as Normandy. Siegfried noted that from its Bonapartist days, the marais had retained an appetite for populism and ‘la manière forte‘ (‘the hard way’, in a non-authoritarian way) which went a bit against the desires of the rule-bound parliamentary opportunist republicans of the era. It would be interesting to speculate about the veracity of Siegfried’s description of the attitude, and explore whether it might explain why places like Chaillé-les-Marais flirted more than once with the PCF and later carried some attachment to Gaullism.

The plaine, as Siegfried described it, a region of smallholders attached to their private property, was not particularly inclined towards Marxism or socialism in its pure form. Indeed, the plaine was long a Radical stronghold and only developed a strong attachment with the SFIO and PS at the point where French socialism replaced the Radicals in the old radical strongholds in both style and substance.

In understanding the left-wing tradition of the plain and marais, one should perhaps not understate the influence of the neighboring cities of La Rochelle and Niort on the region. Both have had an influential Protestant community, and Protestants have often been recognized as being key drivers of republicanism in early modern France. Niort and its cooperative movement has long been a Socialist stronghold, while La Rochelle’s republicanism shone on its surroundings. Both the plain and marais were closely attached to Niort and La Rochelle, in some cases some parts of the Vendée are becoming suburbs of both these cities…

The Vendée’s gradual trend to the left since the 1970s has not come primarily from the old left-wing regions of the plains or the marais. Indeed, in most of the old republican bastions of the Vendée, Nicolas Sarkozy either performed as well as, slightly better or just slightly poorer than Jacques Chirac had in 1995 – when Chirac won 60% to Sarkozy’s 57% in the department. Chirac won 52% in Fontenay-le-Comte (city) and 46.3% in Saint-Hilaire-des-Loges (city).

A left-wing tradition can still be perceived, albeit not to the same extent, in the old limestone island of Chantonnay (a plaine within the bocage). Sarkozy won 53% in Chantonnay (city) and roughly 53% in the other communes which make up the limestone island. In contrast, in the neighboring communes of the bocage, Sarkozy won between 57% and 68% of the vote. Royal seems to have performed much better than Jopsin in Chantonnay proper, taking 47% against Jospin’s 39% in 1995. But Jospin had already performed rather strongly in other parts of this “limestone island.”

The (remants of the) Bocage Vendéen and the Marais breton

The bocage, on the other hand, has retained its conservative political inclinations. However, the scope of the bocage has been diminished by major socio-demographic changes in what used to be a politically homogeneous region. The bocage, in its traditional sense as a rural or semi-rural region, has been shrunk to the confines of the haut-bocage, traditionally the most conservative part of the bocage and an embodiment of what Siegfried had called a “mystical” region of mazes, small roads and hamlets hidden behind hedges.

While the bocage is no longer as Siegfried described it one hundred years ago: agriculture barely has a presence, and it has become far more urbanized and far less isolated than it used to be. It is also a fairly working-class region: the percentage of ouvriers (manual workers) is 36% in Montaigu, 37.8% in Mortagne, 44.6% in Saint-Fulgent, 40.2% in Les Herbiers, 42.9% in Pouzauges and 41.2% in La Châtaigneraie. I do not know much about the type of ouvriers this would encompass, but most of ‘rural France’ nowadays has similarly high percentage of manual workers, employed in low-paying jobs in small towns, small industries and small businesses.

However, the bocage has always remained a devoutly Catholic region. The church no longer has any direct political influence (though it did as late as the 1960s or 1970s), but centuries of attachment to the conservative teachings and traditions of the church, the traditions of hierarchy and respect for authority and general social conservatism bred by the church certainly still carries a major influence. Few observers care to admit it these days, but to this day, in a good number of regions, a clerical tradition trumps a working-class tradition when the two coincide.

The marais breton, if geology was to be a faultless indicator of political inclination, should lean to the left like the marais poitevin. But geology is nothing more than a coincidental indicator of voting patterns. The marais breton is indeed not identical to the bocage. The land structure was, when such stuff mattered, far more divided and home to a coincidence of small property and larger property. But in other aspects it is closer to the bocage: the habitat is fairly dispersed, and it has always been a clerical Catholic region. It has always been a traditionally right-wing region.

Nicolas Sarkozy won his best results in the bocage. He took over 60% of the vote in a good numbers in the bocage, performing best (65.1%) in the canton of La Châtaigneraie, and also won 64% in Saint-Fulgent, 61.4% in Mortagne, 60.5% in Les Herbiers and 60.4% in Rocheservière. He also won 59% in Pouzauges and 56.8% in Montaigu. In the marais breton, he took 62% in Palluau, 61.7% in Challans and 63% in Beauvoir-sur-Mer.

Results of the 1995 presidential runoff by commune

However, Nicolas Sarkozy’s performance in the bocage was far less impressive than that of other right-wing presidential candidates in the past. Case in point, Jacques Chirac’s impressive performance in the bocage in 1995. He won 70.1% of the vote in the fourth constituency (Montaigu), which covers the heart of the bocage and is traditionally one of the most conservative constituencies in France (it was represented by Philippe de Villiers for years). In 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy won only 59.96% of the vote. Ségolène Royal did about 10 percentage points better than Jospin in 1995, but far more impressive was that she even did better than François Mitterrand in 1988: 40% to 36.7% for Mitterrand in 1988 (in the whole of France, she performed about 8 percentage points lower than Mitterrand).

Cantonal results are not available for 1995, but at the communal level, to name just a few examples and draw comparisons to 1995: Chirac won 60.9% in Montaigu (commune), Sarkozy got 55%. Chirac won 70% in Les Herbiers (commune), Sarkozy took only 59.6%. Chirac won 63% in Mortagne, Sarkozy won only 53.9%. These are only a few examples in the larger urban areas, Sarkozy’s under-performance was even more pronounced in more rural areas. He was often down 10% or more from Chirac’s 1995 performance, which in many cases broke 70%, 75% or 80% of the vote. Nicolas Sarkozy did not do as poorly in the marais breton, where demographic changes are more favourable to the right.

Part of this pretty dramatic under-performance might be the result of poorer vote transfers from Philippe de Villiers’ vote to Sarkozy in 2007 than to Chirac in 1995 (this is the region where de Villiers had done best). Indeed, in Philippe de Villiers’ native commune of Boulogne (which he won in both years in the first round), Chirac won 77.2% of the vote in 1995 and Sarkozy only 55.9% in 2007. It is a bit harder to explain why Philippe de Villiers’ core electorate would have been drawn more to Chirac than to Sarkozy, given that both of those campaigns were fairly populist and not too big on the whole ‘federal Europe’ aspect which was more the affair of Balladur and Bayrou in 1995 and 2007 respectively. On the other hand, Nicolas Sarkozy likely ate up a lot of de Villiers’ 1995 electorate by the first round and what was left of Philippe de Villiers’ electorate in 2007 was far more resistant to Sarkozy, which they could logically perceive as a liberal pro-European right-winger (which was indeed Sarkozy’s image prior to 2002-2007).

Demographic changes local to the region may also explain some of this shift to the left. Besides the suburban growth of La Roche-sur-Yon, which we will discuss later, there has been some fairly strong population growth in most of the haut-bocage in the first years of the twenty-first century, likely linked to suburban/exurban growth from Nantes-Clisson and Cholet. The 1999-2008 decade saw fairly robust population growth in most of the bocage, a change from earlier decades when the rural population in the Vendée often declined.

However, another explanation is one which can be generalized to other similarly Catholic regions of France (especially neighboring Bretagne and Anjou). Voters of “Catholic tradition” – which we can define as less clerical, less practicing in these days but still influenced by a Catholic upbringing, environment and political tradition – have shifted pretty dramatically to the left in recent years (though it is a long-term process, begun in the 1980s). In the 1960s and 1970s, the bulk of the “Catholic” vote (practicing + tradition) was solidly right-wing, in part out of the fear of the atheist “Reds”. When the experience of the left in power in 1980s broke those old reflexes and fears of baby-eating communists, those voters gradually shifted to the left. After all, despite all that has been said about the Catholic Church being reactionary and so forth, the Catholic tradition often went hand-in-hand with pro-European views (in part, likely, because of the idea of ‘Europe as a Christian project’, which is not uniquely French) and more centrist views on economic matters and social policy; closer to the Christian democratic MRP tradition of the “third-way” between liberalism and socialism than to the right’s traditional liberalism.

There is also the very important matter, of course, that few people still go to church on a regular basis (and those who do are as strongly right-wing as ever). Church-attendance has dwindled almost everywhere in France since 1960s. In the 1960s, we defined “church-going” as those who went to church weekly. Today, we often define “church-going” as those who go to church monthly. As voters become less drawn to the church and its conservative inclinations, it is fairly natural that they would be more left-wing than in the past or than their parents ever were.

La Roche-sur-Yon

The most important socio-demographic evolution in the bocage is urban growth around La Roche-sur-Yon. La Roche-sur-Yon, the administrative centre of the Vendée, is a new city by European standards (200 years old) because it was an artificial creation of Napoleon. It was, for many years, as if somebody had dropped a bunch of buildings in the middle of the countryside without anybody in the countryside noticing it. It attracted, during the republican era, the government employees which formed the backbone of the republic throughout France, but the city was never a capital for the “real Vendée” (to speak like Sarah Palin). The aristocracy and the rural bourgeoisie, if it was drawn to a urban area, was drawn to Nantes, which in those years was the urban preserve of the rural aristocracy. La Roche was shunned as a republican creation, and until the 1950s-1960s, La Roche remained a fairly small urban centre (24k inhabitants in 1962) and its political impact on the surrounding region was minimal.

Since the 1960s, however, La Roche has seen major demographic growth. In 1968, following a merger with two communes, the city had a population of 36k. In 2009, it had a population of 52.2k. La Roche is similar to other cities in western France: a fairly white-collar, middle-class city with a large population of employees or middle-level managers or public servants, what we can call classes moyennes salariées (salaried middle-classes, which can encompass teachers, nurses, sales representatives, supervisors and so on). The population tends to be younger and more educated than the national average.

La Roche itself has always been a republican stronghold. The right has rarely governed the city, though the RI deputy Paul Caillaud was mayor between 1961 and 1977. Since 1977, the city has been a left-wing stronghold. Jacques Auxiette, the current PS president of the regional council, was mayor between 1977 and 2004, and since 2004 by Pierre Regnault (PS), reelected in 2008 with 50.1% of the vote by the first round. In 1995, Lionel Jospin took 53.4% of the vote, Royal won 58.4%.

However, the novelty here is that La Roche now has a pretty clear zone of suburban influence. Growth in suburban communities has been strong since the 1960s, and the extent of La Roche’s suburban circle continues to expand. The city’s suburban communities largely resemble the original core: middle-class, salaried employees, some public servants and an increasing number of young families (which is one of the only thing in which it differs from the original urban core: there are far more single couples or singles in the city than in the suburbs).

This is, in general, a trend which favours the left. Indeed, Lionel Jospin had won La Roche and a neighboring commune, but had lost (fairly narrowly) to Chirac in the suburbs. Royal, however, swept the suburbs. Jacques Chirac won 48.5% in La Ferrière, Sarkozy took 45.9%. In Mouilleron-le-Captif, the right declined from 53% to 49%. In Dompierre-sur-Yon, the right fell from 51.4% to 44.4%. In Venansault, Chirac won 58.3% but Sarkozy took only 49.5%. If you refer to the map of the Sarkozy vote in 2007 divided by region, you will quickly notice how the sub-50% performances by Sarkozy in the centre of the Vendée correspond quasi-perfectly to the La Roche-sur-Yon agglomeration. Sarkozy still won the more distant, exurban areas, but it would not be surprising to see him lose those areas in 2012 (even if he wins narrowly).

Nicolas Sarkozy proved to be a poor candidate for these types of middle-class, “socially liberal” (to use an American term) urban and suburban areas. His populist appeal was tailored far more towards lower-income, working-class or exurban pavillons in eastern France which are far less socially liberal and drawn much more towards the far-right in part because of immigration issues. The lack of a large immigrant population in the Vendée, of course, explains why such a factor is not at work. This trend towards the left was not provoked by Sarkozy, but he was not a good candidate to limit or halt this trend.

The Coast

If you recall our division of the department into regions, I felt it necessary to separate the coast from the traditional regions of the marais, plaine and bocage. When Siegfried wrote about the Vendée (and indeed the rest of the coastal west), the coast was largely a region of fishermen, most of whom were republicans. You might still have fisherman today, but the vast majority of the Vendéan coast since the 1960s has been entirely changed by the growth of coastal resort towns (the stations balnéaires), through a process often referred to in French as baléarisation. The coastal region (the ‘Côte de Lumière’) saw major population growth, concentrated in regional clusters, since the late 1960s. The first wave touched the coastal communities between Les Sables-d’Olonne (which itself has been in decline since the 1960s) and Saint-Hilaire-de-Riez, the second wave expanded into the coastal communities south of Les Sables-d’Olonne near Talmont-Saint-Hilaire. The resulting situation is that the whole of the coast, from Noirmoutier to L’Aiguillon-sur-Mer is a giant tourist coast, which even extends north to reach the resorts around Pornic in Loire-Atlantique.

What are the demographic results of such a phenomenon? Firstly, a very old population. Those aged above 60 can make up to 40% of the population in most of the coastal communities. Insee’s indice de vieillissement (not the median age, but a ratio between those 60+ and those 20-) gives very high numbers (the higher the number, the larger the proportion of 60+ residents vis-a-vis 20- residents) along most of the coast: 78.5 in Les Sables, 67.2 in Saint-Hilaire-de-Riez, 53.7 in Talmont-Saint-Hilaire, 63.7 in Saint-Jean-de-Monts, 73.3 in Saint-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie, 82.4 in Jard-sur-Mer and 78.4 in L’Aiguillon-sur-Mer. Retirees often make up an absolute majority or a large plurality of residents along the coast. Secondly, a very big proportion of second homes (résidences secondaires) which indicates homes used for vacations, week-ends or other touristic purposes. Along the coast, in some of the smaller communes, they can often make up some 55-70% of the total number of the total number of houses. Thirdly, a generally affluent population, with median household incomes usually above 18,000 euros.

It is certainly no secret that the growth of resort towns, stations balnéaires, in France, is very favourable to the right. The mix of a tourism-driven economy and an old population of affluent retirees who have moved to the coasts is a perfect recipe for a strong right-wing vote. Nicolas Sarkozy won 62% in Les Sables-d’Olonne, 66.9% in Bretignolles-sur-Mer, 61.6% in Saint-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie, 59.4% in Saint-Hilaire-de-Riez, 67.2% in Saint-Jean-de-Monts, 65.6% in Noirmoutier-en-l’Île, 62.6% in Talmont-Saint-Hilaire, 66.7% in Jard-sur-Mer, 64.6% La Tranche-sur-Mer, 63.4% in La-Faute-sur-Mer and 61.8% in L’Aiguillon-sur-Mer.

Les Sables-d’Olonne at the municipal level is the impregnable stronghold of the Gaullist (RPR) deputy Louis Guédon, who has held the city’s reins with much ease since 1980. The right has governed since 1947.

Nicolas Sarkozy performed slightly better (or equal to) Chirac in most of the resort towns. Using our same sample of towns, using 1995 results instead we find Chirac winning 60% in Les Sables-d’Olonne, 65.1% in Bretignolles-sur-Mer, 60.9% in Saint-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie, 55.8% in Saint-Hilaire-de-Riez, 66% in Saint-Jean-de-Monts, 63.2% in Noirmoutier-en-l’Île, 60% in Talmont-Saint-Hilaire, 57.3% in Jard-sur-Mer, 65% La Tranche-sur-Mer, 60.3% in La-Faute-sur-Mer and 60.2% in L’Aiguillon-sur-Mer. Nicolas Sarkozy was a fairly good candidate for resort towns, though Jacques Chirac was too.

Europe and abstention

The Vendée’s attitude towards Europe as embodied by the 1992 Maastricht and 2005 TCE can be summarized as being “divided” but when you pause for a more detailed look, we find some rather interesting contrasts between the two votes. In 1992, the Vendée rejected Maastricht with 50.3% voting against. In 2005, the Vendée approved the TCE with 50.2% voting in favour. A result which further amuses when one considers that one of the biggest cheerleaders of the no in both years was Philippe de Villiers. In both referendums, 1992 and 2005, the Vendée voted for the option which lost nationally, and more impressively, was the only department to vote against Maastricht in 1992 but in favour of the TCE in 2005.

I am one of those who subscribes to the view that both referendums were fought heavily along class lines. But this explanation cannot be everything, as the Vendée shows. A side-by-side analysis of a map of the 1992 and 2005 results at a communal level reveals interesting contrasts between both years, with some communes switching allegiances in sync with the national mood (yes in 1992, no in 2005) but a good number also switching allegiances ‘out of sync’ with the French mood (no in 1992, yes in 2005). This also happened at a constituency level: the second constituency (Roche-Sud) voted in favour in 1992 (53%) but against in 2005 (50.4%). Likewise in the fifth constituency (Fontenay) which was in favour in 1992 (51.3%) but against (53.5%) in 2005. One constituency voted against in 1992 but in favour in 2005 – the fourth constituency (Montaigu) which was against in 1992 with 51.6% but in favour in 2005 with a full 55.7%. What is remarkable about the fourth constituency? It is one of the most right-wing constituencies east of Neuilly-sur-Seine, but it is also the former constituency of Philippe de Villiers.

The communal map reveals the same patterns: the base of the yes vote shifted between 1992 and 2005, from a base largely concentrated in La Roche and Fontenay in 1992 to a base heavily concentrated in the haut-bocage in 2005. The coast and marais breton remained solid in their opposition, while La Roche-sur-Yon’s urban area remained consistently in favour. Why this shift, especially in the fourth constituency, which would have been expected to follow the opposition of its favourite son in 2005.

In French referendums, some voters answer the question which is asked, but for a lot of voters, they answer the person who asked that question (usually they don’t give a pleasant answer to said person). This was the case in 2005, when the referendum also took the form of a protest vote against the Chirac-Raffarin governing duo; but in 1992, there was also a strong right-wing protest vote against the Mitterrand presidency (which was very unpopular by then). In the plaine in 1992, we find that the more left-wing areas around Fontenay voted in favour, but the solidly right-wing areas of the bocage from Montaigu down to La Châtaigneraie voted against. Philippe de Villiers likely played a role in boosting that opposition in 1992, given that the ultimate Villieriste stronghold – his birthplace (Boulogne) was more than 70% against. I would probably describe the opposition of the bocage in 1992 as falling into the second category – people who answer the person who asked the question rather than the question itself – given that Catholicism goes hand-in-hand with a pro-European vote.

Something which 2005 proved, but which might have exaggerated given that right-wing voters felt no contradiction in voting yes to a “right-wing referendum” unlike voting yes to a “left-wing referendum” in 1992. The 2005 map shows a solid block of support in the most conservative parts of the bocage and haut-bocage in eastern Vendée, from Montaigu down to La Châtaigneraie and extending even into the villieriste strongholds in Les Essarts (but Boulogne voted against, though far less enthusiastically). The 2005 results were certainly quite a rebuke of the local favourite son, whose social conservatism might be well in sync with the Vendéan electorate but whose Euroscepticism is slightly out of place in a traditionally pro-European department.

La Roche-sur-Yon remained consistent, more or less, in its support for Europe in both 1992 and 2005. The no vote was stronger in 2005, especially in the less affluent southern commuter belt communities, but remained strong in the urban core and the more affluent and middle-class professional northern commuter belt communities. In this case, demographics trumped partisan roots: urban-suburban salaried middle-classes, young and educated families and some public servants can be expected to be fairly pro-European.

The coast and the marais breton were consistent, more or less, in their opposition on both years. In 2005, some resort towns such as Saint-Jean-de-Monts, Saint-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie, Les Sables-d’Olonne and La Tranche-sur-Mer switched from opposition in 1992 to support in 2005 (in this case, partisanship is likely the cause). Outside the major coastal centres (the ‘big’ resorts which draw most tourists), small resort towns or retirement communities have generally tended to be fairly Eurosceptic in both years.

In terms of abstention, the Vendée is a fairly civic department. In 2007, abstention in the first round was 11.9% and 12.7% in the runoff (it was 16% nationally). In 2002, abstention was 24% in the first round against 28% nationally. As is usual, turnout is usually lower in large urban areas (86.5% in La Roche-sur-Yon in 2007), but also along the coast where the population fluctuates a lot and where voters are probably less politicized, less drawn to vote. Turnout was 84.8% in the canton of Les Sables in 2007, 84.8% in Challans or 85.7% in Saint-Jean-de-Monts. The two islands also have below-average turnout. Turnout is much higher in the more closely-knit small towns of the bocage, where the clerical tradition has also had its impact on boosting turnout. Turnout was 89.5% in Montaigu (canton), 89.9% in Saint-Fulgent, 89.6% in Le Poiré-sur-Vie and 89.3% in Rocheservière to name just a few examples. The left-wing plaine and marais usually have fairly average turnout, but sometimes they join the ranks of low turnout cantons.

Partisan Bases of Support


% vote for Philippe de Villiers, 2007 (source: geoclip)

Philippe de Villiers is probably the most well-known Vendéan politician, and, as said above, he continues the stereotype of the Vendée as an ultra-conservative rural backwater which elects weirdos like l’agité du bocage. The Viscout Philippe de Villiers, who had served as secretary of state in the Chirac-II government between 1986 and 1987, was originally a member of the UDF’s liberal wing (the PR) before founding his political movement, Combat pour les valeurs in 1991 and the MPF in 1994. He served in the National Assembly for most years between 1987 and 2004, served as an MEP for various terms and since 2004, and most importantly he was the president of the general council of the Vendée between 1988 and 2010.

Since his resignation from the departmental presidency, the fate of the MPF is uncertain. It still has two deputies, Véronique Besse (who replaced de Villiers in 2004) and Dominique Souchet (who won the seat held by Joël Sarlot in a 2008 by-election) and one Senator (Philippe Darniche) whose jobs are fairly solid, but it is left with only 5 general councillors and the only up-and-rising politician in the MPF, Bruno Retailleau (de Villiers’ former right-hand man), who is the current president of the general council, broke from the MPF after a bad spat with the Viscount following the latter’s veto to the former’s entrance into the Fillon cabinet. In the 2010 by-election to replace Philippe de Villiers in the canton of Montaigu, the MPF mayor of Montaigu, Antoine Chéreau, was surprisingly defeated by a DVD candidate. Outside the department, the MPF also finds itself with a very limited base: Philippe de Villiers’ alliance with the hunters and Declan Ganley in 2009 only saved his own seat in the EU Parliament, and the only major MPF base outside the Vendée (in Orange, Vaucluse with ex-FN deputy Jacques Bompard and his wife) is no more since Bompard left the party in 2010. Guillaume Peltier, Philippe de Villiers’ very own young rising star (another ex-FN element), realized that his star could rise more within the UMP than in the dwindling MPF.

Before commenting on Philippe de Villiers and the MPF’s base in the Vendée, it is crucial to point out that there is a strong favourite son vote for Philippe de Villiers which gives the MPF results above its national average everywhere in the department. In 2007, Philippe de Villiers won only 11.3% of the vote, down from 22% in 1995. But at the level of Euro elections, the Vendée has been unique in that it has voted for the villieriste list in all EU elections since 1994 – even in 2009 it won 33% of the vote.

At any rate, it is still worthwhile to break the favourite son vote down: where is it highest, where is it lowest?

The core of the MPF electorate is in the bocage and haut-bocage, which is not only Philippe de Villiers’ constituency and homebase but also the most conservative region of the department. Philippe de Villiers is not reflective of the traditional Catholic electorate in France, given that his base is with the fairly small and unrepresentative sample of devout church-goers rather than those of “Catholic tradition” who are more likely to vote for the UDF.

In 2007, he won 16.1% in the canton of Saint-Fulgent, 13.2% in his canton of Montaigu, 12.8% in his brother’s canton of Les Essarts, 12.6% in Les Herbiers, 14.9% in Pouzauges, 12.4% in Mortagne, 13.5% in La Châtaigneraie and 12.7% in Chantonnay. But the only commune he won in 2007 with some 22% was his birthplace of Boulogne, in Les Essarts. The MPF also performed well in the inland regions of the bocage to the east of La Roche and the marais breton. In 2007, Philippe de Villiers won 15.1% in Beauvoir-sur-Mer, 14.1% in Palluau, 13.1% in Challans, 12.7% in Saint-Jean-de-Monts and 12% in Talmont and La Mothe-Achard. He did poorly in Les Sables (9.4%) and in other wealthy resort communities. La Roche (only 5.3%) is very anti-villieriste as are its inner suburbs. The plaine and marais, especially the left-wing communes, are resistant to the MPF.

In 2002, Christine Boutin’s support was rather reflective of the traditional MPF electorate.

The FN

The FN has usually been fairly weak in the Vendée, which proves that rock-ribbed conservatism doesn’t necessarily equate itself with a strong FN vote. Jean-Marie Le Pen won 11.75% in the Vendée in 2002, against 16.9% nationally. In 2007, he won 6.5%, against 10.4% nationally. In 2010, the FN list took 6.8% of the vote.

The 2002 results were probably boosted a bit by the absence of Philippe de Villiers’ name on the ballot, leading some of the most conservative MPF voters to vote for Le Pen – who did indeed win 15.5% in Boulogne! However, taking 2002 as a fairly typical example of a FN at its peak, Le Pen won his best showings along the coast. Using a cantonal level, he won 15.6% in Talmont, 15.5% in Saint-Jean-de-Monts, 15.1% in Beauvoir-sur-Mer, 15.1% in Saint-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie, 15% in both islands and 14.7% in Les Sables. His performances in the bocage, La Roche and around Fontenay were far less impressive, even by local standards. He won only 7.6% in the city of La Roche.

Given that “the FN vote in the Vendée” is not the subject of much analysis, it is hard to describe in much detail what type of FN vote is found in the department, especially along the coast. Based on my “four worlds of FN voters”, described in depth here, I would be tempted to qualify the FN vote as something between a type 1/type 1-bis and type-2 vote, with perhaps an added element of an undescribed “bourgeois right-wing vote” which is a cyclical protest vote by conservative right-wingers against the right-wing government of the day (Chirac was hardly popular in 2002). Indeed, a type-1 classification would make some sense given that Le Pen’s vote share in the third constituency (the coast) fell by more than it did nationally in 2007 (one of the rare Atlantic coast constituencies to do so), indicating that Sarkozy won a good share of the FN voters in that region.

The centre

As a Catholic department, the Vendée denotes itself by an above average vote for centrist candidates or parties of centrist tradition (the UDF). Jean Lecanuet in 1965 won 24% in the department, placing second (ahead of Mitterrand) and above his national average (15.9%). In 1988, Raymond Barre won 24% against 16.5% nationally. Even in 1995, rivaled by a candidate with roots in the UDF (but in the liberal faction, the PR), Balladur won 20.2% against 18.5% nationally, and placed 2 percentage points behind de Villiers, who won the department. In 2002, François Bayrou won 8.4% against 6.8% nationally. In 2007, Bayrou took 20.8% against 18.6% despite a Villiers who took 11.3% in the department, concentrated in the regions where the UDF usually performed best.

Bayrou’s electorate in 2007 was in some cases quite unlike the traditional UDF electorate, but in the Vendée his performance is rather typical of Christian democratic candidates. At a cantonal level, Bayrou’s cohesive base was in the haut-bocage. He won 26.5% in Mortagne, 27.8% in Les Herbiers, 24.4% in Montaigu, 24.4% in Les Essarts and 23.1% in Pouzauges. Balladur had also performed fairly well this region. The bocage is a Catholic region, which goes hand-in-hand with a strong centrist vote. Bayrou and the UDF is far more reflective of the traditional Catholic tradition electorate in France than Philippe de Villiers is. Bayrou (and Balladur)’s performances is made all the more impressive by the fact that Philippe de Villiers did best in these regions. In the bocage, he often placed second ahead of Royal.

Bayrou also did well in the far less clerical (to say the least!) but “socially liberal” and moderate urban-suburban areas of La Roche-sur-Yon. He won 21.4% in La Roche and did even better in the city’s affluent northern suburbs: 26.3% in Mouilleron-le-Captif, 23.5% in Venansault, 25% in La Ferrière and 24.9% in Dompierre-sur-Yon. In some communes, such as Mouilleron-le-Captif, he placed second – but this time ahead of Sarkozy. In this urban area, Bayrou touched a new(er) electorate for the centre: a professional, urban, educated, young and middle-class electorate which is not solidly left-wing but where the traditional right (especially the Sarkozyst UMP) is not the preferred alternative.

Bayrou did fairly well in the inland marais breton, but did poorly along the coast and in the left-wing plaine and marais. Coastal resort communities almost always favoured the RPR and Gaullists over the UDF. The UDF’s electorate in the inner west is usually a traditional, rural and Catholic vote. Resort towns do not have a natural inclination towards the UDF, but Balladur – not your typical UDF candidate – did well along the coast and in the resort communities. Then again, when it came to the wealthiest of right-wing voters, Balladur performed much better than Chirac in that “right-wing primary” of 1995.

The Greens

The Greens perform poorly in the Vendée: it is too rural, its urban areas are not large enough and not universally green-favourable and the coastal resort towns don’t like the Greens. In 2009, the Greens won 11.9%, placing third behind the PS (12.8%) and below its 16.3% national average. The Greens won 10.6%, against 13.6% in the region.

The Green electorate was heavily urban. In 2009, the Greens won 19.6% in La Roche-sur-Yon and did well in the city’s commuter communities, especially those north of the city. Elsewhere, the Greens did well near Montaigu which increasingly part of Nantes-Clisson’s larger suburban influence. The Greens did equally as well in the southeast of the department which is by now part of Niort’s suburban belt. On the other hand, the Greens did very poorly in rural areas – bocage, marais and plaine alike – and also performed poorly along the coast (especially the wealthiest resort towns). The Greens’ environmental positions is hardly a good match to these focal points of baléarisation.


It should not a shock to anyone that the Vendée is one of the PCF’s worst departments. Marie-George Buffet won 0.9% (and 1.9% nationally) and Robert Hue in 1995 won 4.8% (and 8.6% nationally). In 2009, the FG won only 2.7% in the department against 6.5% nationally. The PCF’s only relevant bases in the department are the left-wing areas of the marais and parts of the plaine. In 2009, the FG won 4.6% in Chaillé-les-Marais and 5.2% in L’Hermenault. It won 1.1% in Les Herbiers and Pouzauges. The PCF can also perform well in La Roche-sur-Yon proper (4.5% in 2009) and, amusingly, along the coast: 3.5% in the canton of Les Sables-d’Olonne, which had a PCF mayor between 1945 and 1947. This is most likely a core electorate made up of the few remaining fishermen in the towns along the coast.

Historical Voting Patterns


Legislative elections in the Vendée since 1871

The Vendée was a bulwark of reaction to the republican regime until the 1910s or 1920s. André Siegfried had described, in the bocage at least, a reactionary department, a land of hierarchical structures and where the nobility and clergy exerted significant political influence. Politics was conceded to be the business of the aristocrats and nobles, who only used elective office to perpetuate their hierarchical control of the region through the acquiescence and support of the Catholic Church. Elective office at all levels was usually held by aristocrats or their pawns, and often passed down from father to son. He remarked that the landscape and political attitudes of the bocage had hardly budged since the days of the chouannerie.

Between 1876 and the 1920s, the core monarchist base was found in the haut-bocage and the marais breton (Challans), the most reactionary regions and the heart of traditional Vendée. These two constituencies in the north of the department elected openly monarchist members between 1876 and 1914. By the 1880s and 1890s, being a monarchist became less fashionable and futile, leading most pragmatic conservatives to change their allegiances to one of défense catholique or even join the ranks of the republic through the ralliés (ALP). But in the Vendée, voters or rather their masters remained loyal to those die-hard reactionaries who remained loyal to the monarchy and the King until the very last day. The ALP elected only one deputy from the department, in 1914.

Challans’ constituency elected a monarchist noble, Armand Léon de Baudry d’Asson, a reactionary anti-Semitic monarchist, between 1876 and 1914. His son Armand Charles served between 1914 and 1928. Other monarchist deputies, such as Paul Antoine Charles Bourgeois, often tended to be similarly reactionary and of noble blood.

Republicans could hope to win more seats in what Siegfried called the élections d’appaisement where the blood wasn’t boiling on either side, where the issues were not as polarizing, when the government was popular and moderate, when nobody was alienated. 1881, 1893 and 1910 are examples of such elections. The right was usually demoralized, divided and unmotivated in those years. But in the élections de lutte, elections fought around a big issue which polarized the electorate, where the blood was boiling, when people hated each other’s guts and where the right was in a feisty combative mood against the godless republicans. 1876, 1877, 1885, 1898, 1902 and 1906 can be considered élections de lutte and the right invariably performed better as its mobilized its base (compare 1902 to 1893).

The marais poitevin was a Bonpartist stronghold from the 1870s till the 1890s. The constituency covering most of the marais elected Alfred Le Roux, a cabinet minister under the Second Empire, in 1877 while his son Paul Le Roux held the seat between 1881 and 1893 before serving in the Senate between 1894 and 1923. André Siegfried had described the mood in the marais as fiercely independent, populist and attached to ‘la manière forte‘ (‘the hard way’, in a non-authoritarian way). But it was an anti-clerical, left-wing Bonapartism which morphed into republicanism and radicalism fairly easily though the Boulangists and nationalists (of the 1902-1910 era) had some successes. The same constituency would later return Radical members for most of the Third Republic’s final years. In 1936, the Radicals won in most of the plaine and marais while an independent right-leaning Radical was successful in his home base of Les Sables, at that point a republican region. The bocage elected four FR deputies, representatives of the Catholic right and the most conservative of the right’s two big parties.

During the Fourth Republic and the early years of the Fifth Republic, the Vendée outside the handful of PCF or SFIO bases in the plaine, marais and La Roche was by and large a battleground between the two main factions of the French right: the Christian democrats of the MRP, locally represented by Lionel de Tinguy (deputy 1946-1958, 1962-1967) and Louis Michaud (deputy 1946-1967); and the family of the independents, “moderates” and so forth (the CNI), represented locally by Armand Quentin de Baudry d’Asson (grandson of the aforementioned monarchist, deputy from 1945 to 1958). The CNI has often been said to be the droite laïque as opposed to the Christian democrats, but there was nothing laïcard about Armand Quentin de Baudry d’Asson, the top cheerleader for Catholic private schools and often to the right of the MRP on such issues. Proportional representation allowed for the election of a SFIO member in 1945 and 1946, but the bulk of seats were divided between the independents and MRP. The two fought roughly an equal game in 1946, before Baudry d’Asson’s alliance with the Gaullists in 1951 carried him to a landslide.

In 1958, the department elected three CNI members while Louis Michaud was elected in the coastal constituency, defeating Baudry d’Asson. In 1962, Lionel de Tinguy defeated a sitting CNI member in La Roche while the Gaullists, including Vincent Ansquer in Montaigu, defeated the two other CNI members. The situation stabilized for years in 1967, with the defeat of Lionel de Tinguy by the RI mayor of La Roche Paul Caillaud and Louis Michaud’s defeat by the Gaullist Pierre Mauger, mayor of Les Sables between 1965 and 1971. André Forens, the Gaullist mayor of Fontenay-le-Comte and later UDF member defeated a sitting UDR member in 1973 but in 1981 he was defeated by Pierre Métais, the first Socialist to win a seat in the department through the single-member electoral system. Philippe Mestre (UDF-PR) was able to succeed Paui Caillaud in La Roche, defeating the PS mayor of the city since 1977, Jacques Auxiette.

Pierre Métais was able to win reelection fairly easily in a new fifth constituency in 1988, but once again it was only through strong support throughout the plaine and the marais’ cantons. The right, including Philippe de Villiers, parliamentarian since Vincent Ansquer’s death in 1987, held all other seats. By this time, the right was heavily dominated by the UDF, which elected Jean-Luc Préel in La Roche-Nord and reelected Philippe Mestre in La Roche-Sud. The RPR, with Pierre Mauger, held Les Sables, the old Gaullist fief. In 1993, Joël Sarlot (UDF) easily defeated the PS mayor of Fontenay in the fifth constituency. That same year, the RPR mayor of Les Sables since 1980, Louis Guédon, was elected in succession of Mauger. Sarlot was able to hang on by a much narrower in the vague rose of 1997. 1997 was otherwise marked by the election in La Roche-Sud of Dominique Caillaud, a UDF dissident backed by Philippe de Villiers’ ephemeral LDI.

All sitting members were easily reelected in 2002 and 2007. Véronique Besse, the MPF general councillor for Les Herbiers, succeeded Philippe de Villiers in a 2004 by-election. Joël Sarlot’ 2007 election was annulled by the Constitutional Council and he was succeeded by Dominique Souchet in 2008.

Hopefully this long post has gone a good way towards setting the facts straight and breaking the stereotypes and misconceptions about the Vendée, which is ultimately not as boring as its electoral record may indicate. Please indicate to me which departments you would like to see profiled next.

Political Profile: Savoie

In the run-up to the presidential and legislative elections of April-June 2012, this blog will look at some of the most interesting departments, profiling their political preferences, past and present. The first department to be profiled is Savoie.

When the name Savoie is evoked, the first thing which often comes to mind are ski resorts catering to an affluent clienteles and the beautiful snowy peaks of the Alps associated with skiing. Skiing and l’or blanc, however, is only part of the picture. The political reality of Savoie is rather different, hiding a fairly strong working-class presence and an interesting political evolution.

These political profiles will be broken down in a logical manner, from the basics to the details, covering the basic geography of a department, looking at its political institutions (constituencies, general councils, cantons), its general voting patterns and more detailed voting patterns in regards to the large political families.


Map of Savoie's regions and urban areas (self-made)

Savoie’s geography is largely dominated by mountains, meaning that the bulk of the department’s 410 thousand inhabitants reside either in the urbanized lowlands around Chambéry or in the valleys surrounded on both sides by mountains. Savoie can be divided fairly easily into four broad geographic regions. The bulk of the population lives in a region known as the combe de Savoie, an valley formed by the confluence of the Arc and Isère rivers. The Isère, which flows southward out of the department towards Grenoble through the Grésivaudan valley, forms a large valley extending all the way to Albertville. But Savoie’s largest city and prefecture, Chambéry, is not technically in the Isère valley. It lies to the south of the Lac du Bourget, and in a valley between the massif des Bauges and the massif de la Chartreuse. Aix-les-Bains, the department’s second largest city, lies on the shore of the Lac du Bourget. To the west, separated from the Chambéry area by the southernmost reaches of the Jura, the avant-pays savoyard is a fairly low-lying or hilly rural region.

The combe de Savoie forms the division between the two main mountainous regions of Savoie, each defined by a river valley. The Arc river, which flows south and then east, forms the Maurienne valley. The largest city in the Maurienne valley is Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, and its economy has traditionally been more dependent on industry than tourism. The Isère river, which continues by flowing south from Albertville to Moûtiers and then eastwards towards Bourg-Saint-Maurice, forms a valley known as the Tarentaise. This region has become heavily defined by ‘white gold’ which has made the riches of ski resorts including Val-d’Isère or Courchevel. The mountain range lying to the north of the Isère is known as the massif de Beaufort.

Political Representation and Institutions

Savoie has been represented by only three deputies since 1945, but following the 2009 Marleix redistricting, Savoie will be electing a fourth deputy in June 2012. It elected four members between 1928 and 1936, and elected five members between 1876 and 1914. The department was redistricted in 1875, 1927, 1958 and 1986.

A quick glance at the old (1986-2009) constituency map would give the impression of a fairly decent redistricting. In reality, the constituencies drawn by Charles Pasqua in 1986 were quite awful. The Maurienne has always defined a constituency, which was expanded in 1958 to take in the combe de Savoie around Montmélian, a fair enough compromise forced by population declines in the valley. But the 1986 redistricting split the city of Chambéry, which was probably not necessary, to give the southern and south-western cantons of the city (along with suburban La Ravoire and Cognin) to create an egregious constituency which spanned from the urban core of Chambéry to the remotest, most mountainous regions along the Italian border. The other two constituencies were less reprehensible, with the first constituency centered around Aix but taking in the rest of Chambéry, while the second constituency covered Albertville and the Tarentaise.

The 2009 redistricting, in which the department gained a seat due to rapid demographic growth in the Chambéry area, gave a chance to right old wrongs. The most logical option for a new constituency centered around Chambéry would have been one which stretches across the centre-west of the department, from the Bauges to the Chartreuse, thereby taking up the entirety of Chambéry and its suburbs (save La Ravoire) while leaving the less chambérien regions of the Isère valley out of it. The actual result is not the most optimal, though the new fourth constituency does re-unite Chambéry and some of its suburbs, but extends a bit too much to the east to take in the Isère valley cantons of Saint-Pierre-d’Albigny and Grésy-sur-Isère. Still, we can be pleased by a coherent second constituency in the Tarentaise, a purely aixoise first and a less insane third – it still borders on Chambéry, but is less reprehensible.

Savoie has returned three right-wing deputies since 1993, as it had between 1958 and 1973. Yet, between 1973 and 1993, with the exception of 1986, Savoie gave the left a 2-1 advantage in its parliamentary representation. Savoie has supplied a fair number of cabinet ministers in the past, including Pierre Cot, Louis Besson, Michel Barnier and Hervé Gaymard.

Savoie has two Senators, last renewed in 2004. It has returned one Socialist and one Gaullist to the Senate since 1995.

Savoie’s general council has 37 members. Governed by the right since 1982, the right found itself tied with the left in 2011, and the incumbent president of the general council, former cabinet minister and deputy Hervé Gaymard (UMP) was reelected in a tied vote against PS Senator Thierry Repentin thanks to seniority.

Savoie has relatively few cantons (37), which partly explains why it is fairly easy for it to switch in a wave election. There are, of course, major population disparities, between 2,604 people in mountainous Lanslebourg-Mont-Cenis and 15,000 in most of the urban cantons of Chambéry and Aix (and 20,207 in La Ravoire), but this is nothing which cannot be seen elsewhere in France.

Savoie has 11 members of the regional council. The left won 7 in 2011, split between 4 PS and 3 Greens, while the UMP won 3 seats and the FN 2.

An Overview of Recent Elections

Results of the 2007 presidential runoff by commune

Savoie generally leans to the right in most elections. In 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy (UMP) won 57.32% of the vote against 42.68% for Ségolène Royal (PS). The three constituencies taken as wholes do not show significant differences from one to the other, and Sarkozy won all three constituencies by similar margins – but he failed to break 60% in any one of them. The last left-wing candidate to win Savoie was François Mitterrand in the landslide of 1988, when he won 50.18% of the vote against 49.82% for Jacques Chirac (RPR). This gives the impression of a long-time right-wing stronghold, but digging deeper, we find that Mitterrand won Savoie in the much narrower left-wing victory of 1981 with 50.45%. Savoie was 4.3% more right-wing than the national average in 2007, and 3.8% more right-wing than the national average in 1988. But in 1974, Savoie was more evenly divided: it was 0.03% more left-wing than the national average and in 1965 it was a full 0.6% to the left of France, giving Mitterrand a fairly strong 46.07% of the vote against Charles de Gaulle.

On April 22, 2007; Savoie gave Sarkozy 33% of the vote, about 2% more than what he won nationally. Royal won 21.8%, against 25.9% nationally. François Bayrou (UDF) outperformed his national result in Savoie, with 20.1% against 18.6% nationally. Jean-Marie Le Pen, with 10.75%, barely outperformed his paltry national result of 10.4%. In 2002, however, Le Pen had prevailed over Chirac in the first round, with 19.8% (some 3% more than what he won nationally) against 18% for Chirac and only 13.1% for Lionel Jospin (PS) who did 3% worst than in the rest of the country. In 1995, Edouard Balladur won the right-wing matchup against Chirac in Savoie, with 20.3% against 18.7% for Chirac.

In the 2009 European elections, the UMP won 29.2% (slightly more than what it won nationally), while the Greens placed second with 19.9% – outperforming their national record of 16.3%. The PS, which won 16.5% nationally, won 14.5% in Savoie. The centre (8.1%) and the FN (6.6%) about matched their national results. In the 2010 regional elections, the UMP won 26.8% in the first round (against 26.4% region-wide) while the PS won 25.3% and the Greens won 19.1% (against 17.8% region-wide). The FN won 12.7%, less than the 14% it won in the region. In the runoff, Jean-Jack Queyranne’s left-wing coalition won 51.2% (a bit more than the 50.8% it won in the region as a whole) against 34.7% for the UMP and 14.1% for the FN (slightly less than in the region).

Savoie’s general political inclination can be summarized as being traditionally right-leaning, with a major far-right presence; while the left, progressively weakened in presidential elections, has a fairly significant Green component.

Regional Voting Patterns

In France, besides the usual class/income indicators, two other indicators can usually tell us a fair bit about the bases of a region’s political traditions: clericalism and the type of farming. Savoie, unlike Haute-Savoie, is not a particularly clerical save for Lanslebourg-Mont-Cenis in the Haute-Maurienne. At the same time, Savoie is not either de-christianized land like parts of the Southwest and Limousin. It is not really anti-clerical in the aggressive, activist sense of the term, all while not being clerical either. Church attendance is good, but like in parts of Brittany or Normandy, the clergy’s political influence was limited and church-goers acted in independence from church actors.

The second indicator, less obvious to most observers, is that of the ‘type of farming’ or basically how the land was exploited: by sharecroppers, by tenant farmers or by owners who worked the land themselves. Like most mountainous regions, Savoie is a land of smallholders (so-called petite propriété). In 1942, 93% of the land in Savoie was directly worked and exploited by the owners themselves. For geographic regions, mountains and small valleys are hardly suitable for the larger properties which lead to sharecropping or tenant farming, both of which were all but absent from Savoie (1% and 6% respectively in 1942). The political implications of this should not be downplayed. Smallholders, especially those in mountainous regions, have tended to be the standard-bearers of the republic against reaction. Mountain villages and their inhabitants, living together in fairly nucleated environments, were more likely to live in a more homogeneous society lacking strict social hierarchy or classes.

The savoyard right finds its strongest support in the Tarentaise. In a distant past, there was likely a strong element of agrarian rural conservatism to this strength, and it can still be found in parts of Lanslebourg-Mont-Cenis, but the Tarentaise is nowadays driven by ski resorts – the famous white gold. The major ski resorts in the department include Les Trois Vallées (Courchevel, Val Thorens, Méribel); Paradiski (La Plagne, Les Arcs in Bourg-Saint-Maurice, Peisey-Vallandry); the prestigious Espace Killy (Tignes, Val d’Isère); and the Espace Diamant (Flumet, Notre-Dame-de-Bellecombe, near Ugine and Megève). There are also more remote ski resorts in Valloire, Valmeinier (in the Maurienne) and Val Cenis.

Ski resorts in the United States and Canada are famously allergic to conservatism, and the American equivalents of Courchevel or Val d’Isère in Colorado are Democratic strongholds. On the other hand, ski resorts in France and the rest of the Alps are strongly right-wing. Little actual research has been done, as far as I know, on this topic, but one of the main differences advanced is that skiing tends to attract a younger and more left-liberal clientele in the Americas (ski bums?) while attracting a middle-age, affluent conservative clientele in France and Europe. Certainly the ski resorts in France are generally quite affluent (especially the ‘prestigious’ ones), and there are a whole lot of secondary residences in those communes. It is doubtful, however, that people who own second homes there would vote there during presidential elections in May. The people who actually vote there are probably employed by the ski resorts or are people who live there year-round.

Whatever the cause of the conservatism of the French ski resorts, it is extremely pronounced and significant. Nicolas Sarkozy won 60% in the larger city of Bourg-Saint-Maurice, but won 79.6% in Saint-Bon-Tarentaise (Courchevel), 79.6% in Val-d’Isère, 66% in Tignes, 76% in Les Allues (Méribel), 73% in Saint-Martin-de-Belleville (Val Thorens), 70% in Valloire, 76.9% in Flumet, 75.7% in Notre-Dame-de-Bellecombe, 71% in Lanslebourg-Mont-Cenis and 64.7% in Saint-Jean-d’Arves. In 2010, when the UMP in Savoie basically found itself confined to the ski hills, it still won some comparatively huge results in the vast majority of the ski resorts: 70% in Val-d’Isère, 61% in Saint-Bon-Tarentaise, 58% in Les Allues, 59% in Saint-Martin-de-Belleville, 58% in Lanslebourg-Mont-Cenis, 53% in Flumet or 49.7% in Valloire.

The growth of ski resorts and their right-wing voting habits is the first major cause of the shift to the right in Savoie. In ‘rural’ mountainous Savoie, it has replaced agriculture (largely sheep herding or cattle grazing) or declining light manufacturing as the top employer.

The Maurienne, with a few exceptions (Valloire or Saint-Jean-d’Arves) has not profited as much as the Tarentaise from the ski resorts. The Maurienne has traditionally been a fairly working-class region. The industrial base is fairly diverse, ranging from iron ore mines in Saint-Georges-des-Hurtières to a small chemical industry in La Chambre to light manufacturing activities in La Rochette to aluminium in Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne to hydroelectric power (la houille blanche) and paper mills around the cité cheminote (a fairly common type of working-class city in France, driven by rail depots or famously left-wing railroad workers) of Modane. But the industrial base of the Maurienne has been in stark decline in recent years, and the region has been aging rather quickly. A RioTinto-Alcan aluminium plant in Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne is threatened with closing.

Traditionally left-wing, the Maurienne has increasingly flirted with the right and far-right in recent years. The left has retained a hold on a number of smaller working-class villages in the valley, including Fourneaux, Saint-Etienne-de-Cuines and Arvillard, but Nicolas Sarkozy still performed rather well in the Maurienne for a right-wing candidate. He won Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne (56.6%) and La Chambre (59.3%), but both hade preferred Chirac in 1995 as well. He lost Fourneaux, an historic left-wing stronghold, but his 48% were better than Chirac’s 44.9% in 1995. In Saint-Georges-des-Hurtières, a PCF stronghold, he won only 40% but still won 5% more than Chirac in 1995. An aging population, industrial decline and the growth of ski resorts explains the left’s decline in this region.

At a local level, the right ended over 40 years of left-wing dominance in the canton of Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne in 2001 and in 2008, the UMP took the town from the left. La Chambre is still ruled by the right and until 2011 the canton was, since 1985, the preserve of right-wing power broker Daniel Dufreney (CNIP) despite having been a PS-PCF battleground since the Liberation. The canton of Aiguebelle, a PCF stronghold, has remained far more resistant, having been held by the PCF, very much dominant in the iron ore mining town of Saint-Georges-d’Hurtières (Robert Hue won it in 2002!), since 1976.

% vote for Lionel Jospin by commune, 1995 runoff (source: lafranceelectorale)

The combe de Savoie and the Tarentaise valley south of Albertville also has its share of working-class areas. I don’t know much about the details of its industrial base, but the railroad from Grenoble likely plays a role in the whereabouts of Montmélian while there is some light manufacturing or random factories, timber mills or railroad depots in working-class areas to the south of Albertville in the Tarentaise (La Bâthie, Cevins, La Léchère, Grignon, Esserts-Blay, Saint-Marcel). Royal performed fairly well in the working-class areas of the Tarentaise, but in 1995, Lionel Jospin had performed strongest in a cohesive chain of towns in the Isère valley, but in 2007, Sarkozy had in good part broken that chain, save a few towns around Montmélian and south of Albertville.

Albertville is a fairly affluent middle-class community with a strong manufacturing base. It voted 54.7% for Sarkozy, but in 1995 it had given Chirac nearly 56% of the vote. Albertville has been shifting to the left in recent years, like the bulk of similarly well-off middle-class professional urban areas in France. In 2008, the PS ended decades of right-wing dominance in the city with a surprise victory over an incumbent UMP mayor. The left won 52% of the vote in the 2010 regional elections. Albertville’s more affluent suburban communities to the north are traditionally strongly right-leaning.

The urban influence of the cities of Albertville and Chambéry has extended in recent years to basically merge the greater influence circles of both cities, transforming the bulk of the Isère valley into lower middle-class suburban or proto-suburban territory with fairly strong and sustained demographic growth. This type of socio-demographic evolution, périurbanisation, is generally politically favourable to the right and especially the FN. In 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy proved a particularly good candidate for those types of growing middle-class proto-suburbs. It might serve to explain why he broke the left’s old coherent chain of support in the combe de Savoie.

Albertville lies at the confluence of four valleys, including the val d’Arly, a smaller valley smacked between the Bauges and the Beaufortin. The main population centre is Ugine, an industrial city driven by a declining steel industry. Historically one of the left’s main strongholds in Savoie, Ugine and its region has suffered from economic decline and transformations (towards ski resorts in nearby Flumet), and it is no longer the Socialist or Communist stronghold of yesteryear. Lionel Jospin had won 50.3% of the vote in Ugine in 1995, Sarkozy won 55%. It has been governed since 1995 by the right, after having been governed by the left or PCF since 1908.

Chambéry, the largest city and political centre of Savoie, has a weaker and more recent industrial base than other cities. Historically, its economy was largely based around public administration and the military, with its industrial activities (textile, glass, light manufacturing, factories) being more recent. It is a cosmopolitan urban core, with a sizable foreign-born population (largely Italian) and a large student population thanks to a local university. Politically, Chambéry has traditionally leaned to the right, but it has seen a significant shift to the left in recent years. Governed by the right for decades save the 1977-1983 period, PS deputy Louis Besson was elected mayor by the first round in 1989. After a narrow reelection in 2001, he retired in 2007 in favour of Bernadette Laclais, a young regional councillor, who was reelected in a cakewalk by the first round in 2008.

In 1995, Chambéry gave Chirac 53.8% of the vote, but in 2007, Sarkozy lost the city by a hair winning 49.4% of the vote. The city’s clear left-wing inclination was further confirmed in 2010, when the left won 58% of the vote against a paltry 32% for the UMP. But the left in Chambéry, fairly obviously, has a strong Green component: the Greens won 22% of the vote in Chambéry in 2009, against barely 17% for the PS. As the traditionally working-class parts of the department shift towards the right, at least until 2007, the more cosmopolitan middle-class urbanized areas of Chambéry and its immediate surroundings are shifting towards the left.

Save for the less affluent inner suburb of Cognin, Chambéry’s larger suburban communities are largely affluent and right-leaning. Sarkozy won 62% in affluent La Motte-Servolex, 61% in Sonnaz, 58% in Barberaz, 57% in La Ravoire and 57% in Saint-Alban-Leysse. He also won 59% in affluent Bourget-du-Lac, less suburban and driven largely by tourism and with a sizable student population. We might be seeing a slight shift to the left in Chambéry’s inner suburbs, including La Ravoire or Jacob-Bellecombette which has a large student population. Chirac had taken 57% in Jacob-Bellecombette, Sarkozy took only 53% and the Greens did really well in 2009.

The communities which line the Lac du Bourget are all, with a few exceptions, very affluent, a common element for most towns clustered along a small inland lake. Most prominent of these communities is Aix-les-Bains, the department’s second largest city. Affluent, Aix-les-Bain has historically been marked by thermalisme or hydrotherapy. Like the bulk of these French cities with hot springs and spas, it has historically attracted a fortunate, very well-off clientele. Aix is the main right-wing stronghold in western Savoie. Sarkozy won 62%, about the same as Chirac’s 63.5% in 1995. Between 1969 and 1985 and again between 1995 and 2001, Aix was the stronghold of RPR strongman André Grosjean. Political battles at the local level have often opposed the various factions of the right. Grosjean, defeated by UDF deputy Gratien Ferrari in 1989, in turn defeated Ferrari in 1995 before being defeated again in 2001 by DL deputy Dominique Dord, easily reelected in 2008 with 63% while Ferrari won only 9.6%.

Other affluent lakeside communities such as Tresserve (70% Sarkozy), Bourdeau (69%), Brison-Saint-Innocent (62%) or Conjux (60%) have been strongly right-wing in recent years.

The avant-pays savoyard, separated from the separated from the Chambéry area by the southernmost reaches of the Jura, is a largely rural area with small population centres (Yenne, Le Pont-de-Beauvoisin, Saint-Genix-sur-Guiers) concentrated along the rivers which define the department’s boundaries with the Ain and Isère. These towns seem fairly working-class areas, with old declining cités cheminotes such as Saint-Genix or Saint-Béron or larger light manufacturing centres such as Le Pont-de-Beauvoisin. The working-class traditions of these areas are largely historical facts nowadays, as they appear to be poorer areas attracted towards larger middle-sized population poles (Belley, La Tour-du-Pin, Voiron or Chambéry-Aix) by the process of périurbanisation. Some communes lying closer to Chambéry-Aix and connected by a highway to the main population conglomerations of the valley or across the border in Nord-Isère have become suburban or exurban communities, though not as affluent as the older suburbs.

In political terms, some of the older working-class areas had a rather strong left-wing tradition – Le Pont-de-Beauvoisin was a PCF stronghold of sorts for quite some time – but there has been a strong shift to the right in recent years. Nicolas Sarkozy performed well both in affluent proto-suburbs such as Novalaise (60%), lower middle-class exurbs such as Saint-Paul or Saint-Jean-de-Chevelu (59%) and non-suburban population centres with a working-class past such as Le Pont-de-Beauvoisin (56%), Saint-Béron (57.5%), Saint-Genix (62.6%), Saint-Christophe (63%) and Yenne (63%). Chirac, in 1995, had done about as well or even better than Sarkozy in places like Novalaise but Sarkozy outperformed him most in the non-suburban population centres or lower middle-class exurbs.

In 1992, Savoie voted oui to Maastricht with 54% (51% nationally) and in 2005 it voted non to the TCE with 51.4% (55% nationally). Slightly more pro-European than average, these two EU referendums are instructive on their own given the fairly stark class patterns they exhibited. In 1992, the no was triumphant only in the Maurienne (save Saint-Jean), Ugine and parts of the combe and avant-pays. Put simply, working-class areas proved resistant, as did lower middle-class exurbs. The ski resorts were more reserved in their yes votes, likely the impact of a certain reticence by some right-wingers to vote oui to a referendum supported by Mitterrand and the PS as well. But support was high in the urban area of Chambéry-Aix, where affluent and middle-class urbanites confirmed their pro-European inclinations. In 2005, the oui was dominant in the ski resort cantons in the mountains and again in the Chambéry-Aix agglomeration. Ski resorts embraced the oui wholeheartedly, as did most affluent right-wing strongholds across France, while urban areas remained favourably predisposed towards the constitution. Once again, the Maurienne (especially PCF stronghold Aiguebelle) proved the most most Eurosceptic region.

Abstention is about at the national average in Savoie, sometimes above average or below average (as in the 2007 presidential election). It follows the national patterns closely, to highs such as 56.5% abstention in the first round of the regionals in 2010 or lows or 13.8% abstention in the first round of the 2007 election. As is usual in most of France, it is higher in mountainous areas for reasons of remoteness and in urban areas. Rural areas around Chambéry-Aix have tended to turn out in higher numbers, as have parts of the Isère valley.

Partisan Bases of Support

The FN

Savoie has had a major far-right presence for the past twenty or so years, peaking at 19.8% of the vote for Jean-Marie Le Pen on April 21, 2002. Since then, the FN’s performance in Savoie has been far less impressive. Le Pen outperformed his national result by only a few decimals in 2007 and the FN’s 2010 result in Savoie, 14%, was not particularly spectacular. Furthermore, the FN has never really had the institutional impact it had in PACA or even other parts of Rhône-Alpes.

Results of the 2002 presidential election by canton (source: geoclip)

The 2002 cantonal map is rather interesting. Jean-Marie Le Pen dominated the Maurienne, the combe, the Albertville-Ugine valleys and most of western Savoie including the avant-pays. Jacques Chirac, on the other hand, was victorious in the urban centres of Chambéry, Albertville, the ski-driven Tarentaise, affluent La Motte and rural mountainous Le Châtelard.

In the Maurienne, parts of the combe and Albertville-Ugine, Le Pen’s electorate was probably more working-class. He won 24% in Ugine, 27% in Grignon, 22% in La Chambre, 21% in Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne and 25% in Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne. At a more macro cantonal level, his best result was 24.5% in the canton of La Rochette, a small mixed valley-hills/mountain canton with a proletarian tradition. He won 24% in Ugine, boosted both by industrial Ugine and the conservative rural-small resorts of the mountains. He did similarly well in the Maurienne’s cantons, including 21% in Aiguebelle (but he did rather poorly in the PCF stronghold of Saint-Georges-des-Hurtières), 23% in La Chambre and 22% in Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne. Some of the frontiste vote there in 2002 was probably of the gaucho-lepénisme variant, but in the core left-wing strongholds, Le Pen did rather poorly.

In parts of the Isère valley but also in most of the avant-pays savoyard, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s vote was likely more périurbain – lower middle-class exurban or outer suburban with a working-class past. This is basically the type 1-bis FN vote I described in an earlier post on the Le Pen collapse of 2007. As with most type 1-bis areas, the avant-pays or Isère valley is not particularly poor and unemployment tends to be below average, but there is a strong law-and-order/nationalist populist-conservative element in these areas. The proximity to urban areas (Chambéry, Grenoble, Annecy, Nord-Isère and Lyon) which concentrate the “liberal elites” and large immigrant/foreign-born populations also provides a natural boost to the FN vote. Again working at a cantonal level, Le Pen won 22% in Les Echelles, 21% in Le Pont-de-Beauvoisin, 21% in Yenne and 22% in Albens, but also 22% in Saint-Pierre-d’Albigny and 20.5% in Chamoux-sur-Gelon. At a communal level in some communes used as examples earlier, Le Pen won 29.7% in Saint-Christophe-sur-Guiers, 28% in Saint-Béron and 24% in Le Pont-de-Beauvoisin (commune).

His vote in the valley around the lake and Chambéry was not as high (17-20%) but he did take 22% in Aix and 27% in Voglans (a suburb of Chambéry).

Jean-Marie Le Pen lost 9.04% of his 2002 support in 2007. In reverse, Nicolas Sarkozy did 9% better than Chirac-Boutin-Madelin had done in 2002. As in most of Rhône-Alpes and PACA with similar concentrations of type 1/type 1-bis FN voters, Nicolas Sarkozy was very successful in attracting the votes of these voters whose FN was not quite the anti-system protest vote cast by the more working-class FN voters in the north of France. Again, our three fairly homogeneous constituencies do not show wide disparities in the FN change from 2002 to 2007, but Le Pen’s heaviest loss (-9.44%) was in the first constituency (the avant-pays, Aix, Chambéry centre).

In 2010, the FN’s results hardly matched the successes registered by Le Pen in 2002, but the bases were largely similar. Strongest support was in the avant-pays savoyard where type 1-bis voters have returned to the FN fold: 19% in Yenne, 18% in Les Echelles and 16.5% in Le Pont-de-Beauvoisin. In the Maurienne, the FN won 18% in Saint-Michel, 15% in Saint-Jean, 16% in La Chambre and 16.3% in La Rochette. The FN took 16% in Ugine and 17.6% in Albertville-Sud. Results in the urban agglomerations were weak: 10% in Chambéry, 11.6% in Cognin, 13.5% in La Ravoire and 12% in La Motte-Servolex.

The Greens

In the 2009 European elections, the Greens took 19.9% in Savoie and still won 19% in the 2010 regionals. It placed a distant second ahead of the PS, generally outpolling the PS in most of the department’s communes.

Fairly obviously, the Greens performed weakest in the working-class Maurienne and parts of the combe near Albertville. It performed very strongly in the Chambéry metro, taking 22% in the city itself and between 18 and 30% in the bulk of the surrounding communities including 26% in Jacob-Bellecombette, 22% in Le Bourget-du-Lac and 19% in Aix. It also performed fairly strongly – in some cases very strongly – in areas which we can think of as rural or suburban (24% in Le Châtelard, a rural area largely in the Bauges mountains). In those cases, it likely took traditional PS voters but perhaps some younger bobo-types who moved to villages in the mountains or voters concerned by environmental issues (likely a major reason in explaining Savoie’s natural strong greenie inclination). In the Tarentaise, the Greens did rather well, save for the very affluent ski resorts like Val-d’Isère, taking 24% in the canton of Bourg-Saint-Maurice or 22% in Aime.

The correlation is not entirely there, but in good part the Green map looks like a mirror (reverse) image of the FN vote, with weak performances in the Maurienne and the borders where the FN performs well.

The centre

Savoie is not as receptive to centrist candidates of the Christian democratic family as Haute-Savoie is, largely because it is far less clerical than Haute-Savoie. The UDF was never particularly strong in Savoie, though Albertville’s constituency did elect Joseph Fontanet, a long-time MRP bigwig and cabinet minister, between 1956 and 1973. In 1995, Edouard Balladur, whose support was in most cases reflective of that of the UDF, outpolled Jacques Chirac in Savoie, a result perhaps more reflective of Savoie’s more liberal variant of right-wing politics which was represented by Balladur over the more populist Chirac. In 2007, François Bayrou won 20.07% of the vote in Savoie, above his national average. Again, this result is perhaps more reflective of Bayrou’s strong appeal to moderate right-wing voters (of which there are quite a few in Savoie, despite the appearance the strong FN vote creates) of a more social liberal/liberal variant.

Bayrou’s support in Savoie was in good part concentrated in the Chambéry-Aix basin. He won 21.3% in Chambéry and 20.6% in Aix. At a cantonal level, Bayrou achieved 23% support in La Ravoire, 22% in La Motte, 23% in Aix-Nord, 21.4% in Cognin, 23% in Albens and 22% in Albertville-Nord. Bayrou’s strong support in 2007 has hardly translated into a strong base of support for the MoDem since then. At a cantonal level, it holds only Cognin.


The PCF’s results in Savoie have traditionally been very close to the national average. In 1995, Robert Hue won 7.94% of the vote. More recently, the FG won 5.5% in 2009 and 6.6% in 2010. The PCF is left with only a single seat in the general council, its old stronghold of Aiguebelle which it has held since 1976, joined in 2011 by a gain by the PG in La Chambre. At a local level, the PCF is weak in large urban centres but maintains a fairly sizable local infrastructure in rural areas. As previously noted, the small iron ore mining village Saint-Georges-des-Hurtières is a rock-ribbed PCF stronghold.

Like most of those few remaining ancestrally Communist cantons in France, Aiguebelle often continues to give the PCF some nice results in elections to most other levels. In 2009, the FG placed second in the canton of Aiguebelle and first in Saint-Georges-des-Hurtières. In 2010, it gave 20% of the vote to the FG (and 50.3% in Saint-Georges). Saint-Georges-des-Hurtières still votes for the PCF in levels which they haven’t seen elsewhere since the 1950s. It gave 19% of the vote to Marie-George Buffet in 2007!

Elsewhere, the PCF’s support is largely defined by the industrial or working-class areas in the Isère valley and the Tarentaise from Albertville to Moûtiers. In 2010, the FG won 13% in Albertville-Sud (which includes some PCF strongholds such as Cevins, 27% of the vote), 10% in Chamoux-sur-Gelon, 10% in Ugine (14% in Ugine proper) and 9.6% in Moûtiers. The PCF also retains a smaller foothold in its old strongholds in the avant-pays. In the Maurienne, where the PCF used to have a much stronger footing in the 1970s, the PCF can still poll fairly well, usually in its strongholds such as Saint-Etienne-de-Cuines (12% in 2010).

Historical Voting Patterns

Legislative elections in Savoie since 1871

Savoie, which became French only on the late, was traditionally republican during the early days of the Third Republic. In 1871, when the rest of France voted for peace and the monarchists, Savoie narrowly elected a majority of republicans (3-2) to the National Assembly. In the years which followed, Savoie’s single-member constituencies never once elected an anti-republican (monarchist, Bonapartist, nationalist) deputy. It usually preferred moderate opportunist republicans, until 1902 when it started voting Radical (Albertville elected a Catholic rallié). Thus, in the latter parts of the Third Republic, Savoie became a Radical stronghold. In 1906 and 1928, it returned only Radicals. Like Champagne or Eure-et-Loir, Savoie’s radicalism was of the centrist variety, a Radical vote which expressed the republicanism but also the fairly conservative views of smallholders who owned their land rather than a left-wing vote expressing anti-clericalism or anti-system protest. As such, the PRG has had basically no major impact in Savoie and its base is non-existent besides one general councillor.

In 1936, the arrondissement of Chambéry returned two Radicals, including the fairly left-wing ‘Young Turk’ Pierre Cot, while Moûtiers reelected Ugine mayor André Pringolliet (an ex-Socialist, now standing under the ‘republican-socialist’ etiquette). Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne ousted its right-leaning Radical incumbent in favour of a SFIO candidate who was elected on the votes of Aiguebelle, La Chambre and Saint-Jean.

In the post-war years, Savoie elected two Communists (including Pierre Cot, who, while not technically a Communist, affiliated with the PCF) in 1946. But in both those cases, the success was more the result of a common left-wing slate, led by Pierre Cot. The right was dominated by Joseph Delachenal, who had already been elected back in 1910 and 1919. In the 1951 and 1956 elections, in which the PCF stood on its own, it found the bulk of its support in the Maurienne valley (especially La Chambre, Saint-Jean, La Rochette, Aiguebelle) but also Moûtiers, Albertville and Ugine. The right usually dominated the mountains and the west.

Between 1958 and 1973, Savoie was dominated by the right, though by its three families. Joseph Fontanet, a prominent centrist (MRP, later CD) figure and oftentimes a cabinet minister, dominated the Tarentaise and Albertville. Jean Delachenal, the son of Joseph Delachenal and a member of the CNIP and later a giscardien, dominated the constituency centered around Chambéry and Aix. Finally, the Maurienne was dominated by Pierre Dumas, the young Gaullist mayor of Chambéry (1959-1977, 1983-1989).

In 1973, Savoie elected two PS deputies: Louis Besson in Chambéry-Aix and Jean-Pierre Cot in the Maurienne. Only Fontanet survived, but in 1974, Fontanet (trying to return to his old seat after leaving cabinet) was defeated in a by-election by a PS candidate, Maurice Blanc, who would be the only Socialist to represent Albertville. In 1978, Michel Barnier, a young RPR leader, defeated Blanc in the Tarentaise, but Besson and Cot were reelected in narrow contests. In 1981, however, all three were reelected by large margins.

In 1986, through PR, Savoie elected two right-wingers: Barnier and Gratien Ferrari (UDF), leaving Louis Besson in the third seat. In 1988, the PS’ Roger Rinchet was elected in Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, while Besson and Barnier returned to their old seats. In 1993, Gratien Ferrari (UDF) was hindered in his quest to defeat Besson’s PS right-hand man Jean-Paul Calloud by the candidacy of the RPR’s Jean-Pierre Vial, although he was ultimately successful. In 1997, Dominique Dord (UDF-DL) was elected fairly easily in Ferrari’s old constituency of Chambéry-Aix. In the Maurienne, the RPR’s Michel Bouvard faced a tougher race but won by 1400 votes. In Albertville, Hervé Gaymard (RPR) was elected by a fairly anemic margin in the safest seat for the right. In 2002 and 2007, all three incumbents won fairly simple reelections. In 2007, only Bouvard struggled a bit against the PS mayor of Chambéry, Bernadette Laclais. In 2012, Laclais is likely in good shape to win the fairly left-leaning new fourth constituency centered around her base of Chambéry. It could also be in a strong position to take the third constituency.

The face of France in 1951

In my past post, I looked at the changing face of the French left in terms of its social and geographical bases between the 1995 and 2007 elections. In this post, I shift to something completely different and something far removed from modern French politics, upon request of one reader.

The Fourth Republic, between 1946 and 1958, is usually associated with political instability and a political regime based on the institutional preeminence of the legislative branch at the expense of the executive. Unlike the Fifth Republic, whose structure of government as expressed by the Constitution of 1958 was plebiscited by over 80% of voters, the Fourth Republic was contested from its birth – its constitution had only been approved by 53% of voters. Charles de Gaulle, most significantly, opposed the Fourth Republic from the outset. Favouring a strong executive and a weaker legislature, he also criticized the ‘partitocracy’ of the system which placed party interests above national interests.

The political system of the Fourth Republic, at least until 1955, quickly stabilized by 1947 around three main parties which formed the Troisième Force (or Third Force). In May 1947, in the context of Cold War tensions and following a revolutionary strike wave notably in the Nord’s mining basin, Paul Ramadier excluded the Communist ministers from his cabinet, and the PCF would from then on remain shut out of cabinets until 1981. Following the collapse of the tripartisme (1945-1947) allying Communists, Socialists and Christian democrats, the new government coalition crystallized around the moderate parties of the centre: the Socialist (SFIO), Christian democrats (MRP), Radicals and ‘moderates’ (right-wingers). The MRP and SFIO in particular disagreed over issues such as private education, but to varying extents all these parties were attached to the parliamentary regime. Furthermore, less so in the SFIO and MRP’s case, but especially so in the case of the moderates and Radicals, they were predominantly partis de notables as opposed to partis de masse with a strong base of activists, reliant instead on its personalities and the effects of personality.

Charles de Gaulle had failed to spark a popular movement which would force the parties to call him back following his resignation in January 1946, and his discours de Bayeux had failed in its attempts to influence the debates which led to the drafting of the second constitutional draft and ultimately the Fourth Republic’s constitution in October 1946. In April 1947, seeking to get back into the political game, de Gaulle formed the Rally of the French People (RPF). Presented as a popular movement which was neither left-wing nor right-wing, the RPF was an anti-system, anti-communist and nationalist party. The RPF’s leadership was recruited from a wide horizon: old nationalists, Catholics, Radicals and left-wingers. While saying that the RPF is right-wing is certainly not wrong, especially in light of its electoral base, it can be set apart from the other two main centre-right parties of the era, the MRP and the moderates/CNIP. In contrast to the pro-European MRP, the RPF was more nationalistic and Eurosceptic. It placed great emphasis on defending the independence and greatness of France and opposed the European federalism of the MRP. And in contrast to the liberal moderates, the RPF was more weary of economic liberalism and promoted a more statist economic agenda and supported a third way between capitalism and socialism. The MRP and especially the moderates were the avatars of the Orleanist tradition: internationalist, more economically liberal (less so in the MRP’s case) and ‘elitist’ to an extent that they placed less emphasis on “the nation” or “the movement”. The RPF, on the other hand, were the heirs of the Bonapartist tradition: nationalist in that they defended the independence and greatness of France, wary of economic liberalism and more statist, and finally populist in an emphasis on concepts such as the “people”, the “nation” and “movements” (over “parties”).

The RPF had an immediate success in the October 1947 municipal elections in which they won 35% of the votes and conquered cities such as Paris (the presidency of the municipal council, the city not having an elected mayor until 1977), Marseille, Lille, Bordeaux, Strasbourg and Rennes. As late as the 1949 cantonal elections (delayed by the government), the RPF obtained a second resounding success with 32% of the votes. But progressively between 1947 and the 1951 elections, the RPF’s star started to fade. Part of its failure can be laid on the hostility of the print media and the official boycott on the behalf of the state-controlled media. But in the fall of 1947, the Third Force government and its Socialist interior minister Jules Moch was particularly successful in its handling (repression) of the strike wave which had begun earlier that year. As the threat of communism began to fade as order was restored in France, the conservative milieus no longer saw the need for le recours à de Gaulle (resorting to de Gaulle). The situation of chaos, foreign disasters and of serious threats to the established order which had sparked the Gaullist return in May 1958 were just not present between 1947 and 1951 when the economy started stabilizing and recovering from the war and when the main threat to the state (the PCF) started to fade out slightly in its political power.

Yet, the RPF, just like the equally anti-system PCF (unlike the RPF, the PCF was not opposed to the institutions per se but to the political makeup of the government), represented a serious threat to the regime’s already shaky political stability. With over half of the votes between them, if the 1951 elections were held under the same proportional (highest average) method as in 1946, the PCF and RPF with perhaps over half of the seats would kill the regime’s political stability. The Third Force parties, hostile both to the PCF and the RPF, saw the need to toy with the electoral law as to prevent this doomsday scenario from occuring in 1951. The result was the loi des apparentements. Outside the Seine and Seine-et-Oise where highest average PR remained in use, the new system was based on highest remainders PR but with a big caveat. Party lists could “parent” themselves to another list, and if the sum total of all these ‘parented’ lists was over 50% of the votes cast, said lists would split the entirety of the seats amongst themselves. For example, even if in a constituency the RPF came first with 30% and the PCF won 15%, but the sum total of the allied Third Force parties was above 50%, all seats would go to the Third Force parties and deprive the RPF, despite polling 30%, of any seats.

The result was a success for the Third Force parties. With 25.9% and 21.7% respectively, the PCF and RPF became the two largest parties. Amongst themselves, they won 104 and 120 seats. The SFIO won 14.5% (it had won 17.9% in 1946) and 103 seats. The MRP, which had won 26% in 1946, was a victim of the RPF’s success and won only 12.5% and 96 seats. The moderates, however, with 14% did slightly better than in 1946 (13%) and won 98 seats. The Radicals and their allies in the RGR won 10%, down 2%, and 92 seats (76 Radicals). Overall, the anti-system forces weighed 47.6% of the votes but only 35.7% of the seats. The Third Force held its majority with some 62% for all parties which traditionally made up the Third Force. However, the balance of power shifted to the right. For that reason and another question, the SFIO was excluded from all cabinets formed in this legislature. It was the MRP, moderates and Radicals who would form the bases of governments in this legislature.

Eventually, the RPF would collapse during the course of the legislature. The counter-performance of the party in the 1951 elections, in which it had hoped to win 200 seats, was a serious hit. Then the authoritarian leadership of the party by de Gaulle who refused any contacts with the other parties led to a series of splits, the first in 1952 when 27 RPF deputies voted in favour of Antoine Pinay. As the General said, a lot of the RPF deputies abandoned ship “to go to the soup”. By 1956, the trumpets of the anti-system crusade were taken up by the far-right Poujadist movement.

Perhaps 1951 does not offer us a “classic” view of the MRP, PCF, SFIO and Radicals at their strongest points (1946), but it is still interesting with the factor of the RPF and the first emergence of “electoral Gaullism”. Before going any further, it is important to point out that while these were proportional elections (albeit vandalized), in some departments, particularly ones with few seats, the results might not be reflective of the ‘real’ political sentiment of the region. The role of other factors such as local candidates, party lists and alliances, strong local party grassroots and so forth all fudge the picture a bit. But in departments with lots of seats, the political competition was along the classical lines of political parties rather than local candidates and party alliances. Sometimes, as a result of such party alliances, it is difficult to classify party lists in one department under either one of the major categories: there were a few RPF-CNIP coalitions, lots of MRP-CNIP coalitions and at least one common left-wing slate with the PCF (apparently) in Lozère. I do not have primary source results, but in some cases I wouldn’t be surprised if a party was split between two lists… Therefore, on party vote maps, there is due to be some difference on how one list is shown.

The first basic map is that of the overall results, by lists, by department. These are maps replicated from a scanned copy of an old book which was sent to me by email.

The second map, from which we can develop an analysis, shows results by list by canton. This map was established using my metropolitan cantonal base map by a friend mine who was kind enough to allow me to use his monumental creations on this website. The colour schemes might be a little difficult to read, especially to differentiate between the PCF and SFIO, but it is a beautiful patchwork of colours and tells more than the random mish-mash of colours would otherwise indicate.

La France communiste

The most basic striking pattern on this map – and in fact of all French election maps starting after the end of the war until at least the realignments of the 1980s – is the pattern of left wing support, in this case PCF support, forming a sort of C or G shape. The C starts around Fréjus or Nice, circles around the Riviera to the Spanish border and circles upwards through the Tarn, Gers, Lot-et-Garonne, Dordogne, Limousin (especially Haute-Vienne), Berry and finishes in the Bourbonnais and Nivernais. In some cases, it extended into a G shape with a tail reaching upwards from Aix and Toulon to include the lower Prealps, the Diois, Baronnies (in the Drôme) and often Isère. The C or G left enclosed the devoutly Catholic plateaus of the southern Massif Central in the Aveyron, Cantal and Lozère.

The main common point between the diverse regions included in this C are their anti-clericalism. This is 1951, when religious practice was still the most important determinant of voting behaviour and the variable which trumped all other variables. The PCF had a clear correlation with religious practice: a clear negative correlation as opposed to the MRP’s strong positive correlation. Basically no Communist voter in 1951 went to church weekly and only a handful could be seen as even remotely church-going. With a few major exceptions (the so-called écharpe bleue), Provence, the old southwest, Limousin, Berry and the Bourbonnais were all some of the most anti-clerical or non-religious areas in France. These are, by consequence in a way, where the tradition of left-republicanism was best implanted and where the social structure was the most “democratic” because of the quasi-null influence of the clergy.

There are a handful of small, isolated industrial centres all along this left-wing C/G, and in fact those small industrial centres were the PCF’s strongholds. You found old mining (tin if I remember correctly) in the Var’s backcountry, the mining basin of the Cévennes around Alès, Sète’s harbour, textiles in Lavelanet, the mining basin of Carmaux, the mining basin of Decazeville, the industrial valleys of Aurillac, the mining basin of the Brivadois, glove-makers in Saint-Junien, the mines of Commentry, the light industry of Montluçon, ceramics and machinery in Vierzon and the mining basin of La Machine/Decize. There were industrial centres of varying size in the Ardèche (Le Cheylard etc), Isère (both mining basins such as La Mure, Grenoble’s urban working-class hinterland, metallurgy in the Vallée du Grésivaudan, textile in Nord-Isère), Loire and Rhône.

But in fact the most striking aspect of the PCF’s evolution between the interwar era (1936) and the post-war years (1946) is its conquest of rural France. In 1936, with the exception of the Lot-et-Garonne (caused by local circumstances and leadership), the PCF was an exclusively urban party with its strongholds in the urbanized working-class regions of France such as the Nord or the Seine department. After the war, the PCF expanded to become a truly national parties with the implantation of the party in formerly Socialist rural areas in the Berry, Bourbonnais, Limousin, Languedoc and Provence. In some cases, some of these rural strongholds would become even more solid than some of the urban strongholds. The PCF’s role in the resistance during the War played an important role, and there is a pretty strong correlation between Communist-voting rural areas and zones of heavy FTP (the PCF’s resistance grouping) activity during the War. This is especially true in the Trégor and Haute-Cornouaille in Brittany, the ‘Red Belt’ of an otherwise right-wing stronghold.

The specific nature of these Communist-voting rural areas, which make up the bulk of the left-wing C/G on the map, are pretty different from one another. They all tend to have anti-clericalism in common, but the local socio-economic realities differed. In the Var, the old tradition of the Var rouge, an anti-clerical and strongly left-republican tradition based in the patchwork of ouvriers, small employees and small shopkeepers in the Provencal backcountry was still vibrant. Similar traditions extended into Provence, but also the old republican strongholds of the Diois and Baronnies (Drôme) and the Protestant locales of the Ardèche. In the Hérault (and parts of the rest of Languedoc, notably the Gard), a similarly militant left-republican tradition was strongly implanted, but this time in the context of a community of poor, small (often very small) wine producers faced with a string of economic disadvantages and with a militant tradition exemplified by the 1907 wine producers’ revolt in the Languedoc. Limousin has a long tradition of left-republicanism and socialism, the result of small landholders, anti-clericalism and the region’s masons who worked in Paris and brought back an early tradition of socialism. During the War, FTP activity was quite heavy in the region.

However, from the Dordogne to the Bourbonnais, the map of rural communism shows a strong correlation with the map of sharecropping (métayage). This is especially true in the Allier, which had 30% of land under sharecropping in 1942. The Cher (20%), Indre (26%), Vienne (29%), Haute-Vienne (38%), Charente (25%), Dordogne (20%), Lot-et-Garonne (38%), Gers (23%), Haute-Garonne (32%) and Tarn (28%) all had high incidences of sharecropping and all had substantial communist votes. However, the Landes (58% under sharecropping) has never denoted itself by a substantial Communist vote, which means that perhaps the sharecropping explanation isn’t all-encompassing…

The other major bloc of Communist strength in this period was northern France, a region taking in the Parisian basin and besides that parts of the Seine-Maritime, Picardy and the Nord-Pas-de-Calais. The Seine and Seine-et-Oise with the mythical ceinture rouge was the original base of PCF support in France. Though 1936 was perhaps the peak of the PCF’s strength in the Parisian basin, the 1950s were still part of the PCF’s heyday. The PCF vote was not limited, like it is today, to a handful of well-maintained strongholds in decrepit suburbs, but was rather universally spread throughout most of the region excepting the then-rural outer reaches and the old bourgeois heartlands of western Paris. Outside the Parisian basin, similar heavy concentrations of low-income working-class voters could be seen in Le Havre, the Seine industrial valley south of Rouen, Dieppe, Amiens, Calais, Dunkerque, Lille (alongside Roubaix, Tourcoing, Armentières, Seclin, Haubourdin), Douai, Cambrai, Maubeuge, the mining basin of the Nord and Charleville-Mézières. Industry was also concentrated into smaller centres such as Creil, Clermont, Ault, Boves, Amiens, Boulogne-sur-Mer, Saint-Quentin and Soissons.

The post-war era was the heyday of the left with the working-class. Revolutionary aspirations were not some distant pipe dreams. Being an ouvrier was a vision of society organized around the ideas of the class struggle, and being an ouvrier was regarded as being the industrial brass and steel of the country, not an archaic anachronism as it is today. The left represented, for these people (but they must not be taken as one – 3 in 10 did not vote for the left!) This was the génération héroique of workers, witnesses to the social struggles of 1936, the Matignon Accords, the Resistance and the victory of 1945. In some cases, especially in the Parisian hinterland, these voters had a solid class culture. The PCF was more than a party you voted for out of spite, it was the political expression of something. The trade union (often the then-communist CGT) was just as important.

The rural element is not the dominant element in northern France, which is far more marked for its industrial activity. But in terms of the two most important factors in voting patterns in rural France in 1951, this region was anti-clerical (with exceptions such as Flanders) and in terms of land exploitation the dominant form was neither sharecropping nor direct exploitation by the owner (which often indicates smallholders), but rather fermage where a wealthy landowner owning lots of land (often a bourgeois living in an urban setting) leased parts of his land to a farmer who paid the landowner a set lease. As André Siegfried pointed out in his analysis of the Caux and Vexin, where fermage was dominant, the farmer in practice took the role of the powerful rural-based landowner with a capitalist interest in wealth rather than land ownership. In turn, he often employed a large number of agricultural labourers. But in political terms, unlike the noble landowner (the French caciques!) of the Anjou, the political ascendancy of the farmer was quasi-null. Gone was the patriarchal linkage between noble and his working hands, replaced instead by a tenuous link between two individuals who did not know each other closely. Siegfried had again proved prophetic in his predictions when he said that a day would come where socialism could develop in these environments!

Ouvriers agricoles (agricultural labourers) are important throughout Picardy and parts of the Pas-de-Calais, but it is doubtful whether this was extremely relevant even in 1951. The furthest back I have census data for, 1968, indicates that the dominant social grouping throughout Picardy and especially places like the Aisne or Oise were ouvriers (manual workers). A category which, it is true, includes agricultural labourers, but which mostly includes manual skilled and unskilled workers in industry. The correlation between a high proportion of ouvriers and a high PCF vote is pretty positive in this era, while those cantons which were marked by a higher percentage of either employees or agriculteurs exploitants (those, basically, who directly exploit the land) were far less likely to vote PCF. There were quite a lot of small industrial islands sparkled throughout the Oise, Somme and the Pays de Caux. It is perhaps there where we must find the sources of PCF support outside the core urban centres.

Looking closer at the above map, we can clearly see outlined the mining basin of the Nord and Pas-de-Calais, forming some sort of crescent moon from Auchel (Pas-de-Calais) to the Belgian border (Nord). The mining basin, a revolutionary hotbed in places, had been the birthplace of French socialism in the 1880s (with Jules Guesde’s Marxist POF) and in the 1920s it had been one of the earliest bases of the PCF. To this day, parts of the mining basin retain their Communist orientations. While much less visible on this map, it is important to differentiate the mining basin in the Nord (Douai, Valenciennes, Saint-Amand) from the mining basin in the Pas-de-Calais (Hénin, Lens, Liévin, Béthune). The former is the revolutionary hotbed and where Guesde’s POF found some of its strongest support in all of France. It has been a PCF stronghold since the 1920s. However, the Pas-de-Calais’ mining basin has been far more moderate (although we should not overstate it). Reformist independent socialism was strong in the Pas-de-Calais at the turn of the century, and in some cases for some miners, reformist socialist sufficed. By consequence, and it is very clear today, the Socialists have been stronger. Though the PCF’s influence must not be understated, far from it.

The Right-Wing France or La France catholique

The MRP, the post-war Christian democratic party, represented the first real experiment (ignoring the minor interwar PDP) at a Catholic mass party which accepted democracy and the “ideals of the Revolution”. France has never had a Catholic Party similar to Germany’s Zentrum, Belgium’s CVP or the Netherland’s KVP. The post-war MRP was the closest France came to having a Catholic mass party, but even then it was not perfect. Catholicism in France – Catholicism in this French context referring not to the bulk of officially Catholic France (90% of the country) but rather those for whom religion was important and who practiced their faith – had been associated since the Revolution with reactionary politics and was presented as the enemy of the Revolution, the republic, democracy, progress and the Republican values. Perhaps some of these associations were false, and by the 1950s it could certainly not be said that Catholicism was the enemy of democracy or of the republic. But in other cases it is true, Catholicism bred conservatism. Catholic milieus were by definition conservative in their outlook.

The MRP always needed to deal with the ambiguity between a right-wing electorate, who had abandoned discredited interwar right-wingers, and a more left-wing leadership and style of governance. It has been said that the MRP was a centrist party, with right-wing voters and who governed with the left. It is not far from the truth, especially in 1951. The MRP was never really able to surmount this ambiguity between a conservative base and more social Christian leadership. After its heyday in 1945 and 1946, benefiting from a perfect storm: no Gaullist movement, a strong legitimacy as a party of the resistance, a discredited right and a stature as the largest opponent of the PCF following the May 1946 referendum; the MRP declined, victim of Gaullism and the effects on its right-wing base of governing in a centre-left manner.

In 1946, the MRP had been very successful in its ability to conquer the quasi-entirety of la France catholique. Certainly its overall map in 1951 remains obviously tied to the map of Catholic France with Brittany, the inner west, Lower Normandy, the Basque Country, the southern Massif Central, Savoy, Jura, Alsace-Moselle and Flanders. But a look at the above map by canton shows a weakened MRP. Indeed, we find some solid MRP bases at the cantonal level only in Morbihan, Mayenne, Pyrénées-Atlantiques, Tarn, Loire (Georges Bidault), Haute-Savoie, Jura and Bas-Rhin. Bases which owe more, in this case, to local candidates (for example, in the Tarn, the top candidate was a former PDP deputy in office since 1919) and a strong local implantation (the MRP was very powerful, institutionally, in Alsace).

The moderates (CNIP) have oft been referred to in literature as la droite laïque as opposed to the MRP as la droite catholique. Superficially this may be true, and some of the CNIP’s bases in the Champagne (Aube, Côte-d’Or, Yonne) or Centre (Eure-et-Loir) are reflective of this orientation. In reality, however, the differences between the “two rights” were quite abated. If the moderates had indeed been the party of the secular right, then surely they wouldn’t have won a landslide in Vendée, Loire-Atlantique, Lozère, Aveyron, Cantal, Haute-Loire or the Ardèche. Why, then, did they win a landslide there?

The moderates being the party of notables by excellence, personality unsurprisingly trumped party ideology (if they had any) hugely. In 1951, the “schools question” (to use a Canadian term!) was a major political issue in France. The debate was about extending state funding to private education (also called l’école libre), which were in practice religious (Catholic) schools. The PCF, SFIO and Radicals opposed any such funding, while the right defended the liberté d’éducation. In September 1951, the MRP-SFIO coalition finally collapsed to the RPF’s delight on the educational question when the right associated to pass the Barangé law which extended special state funding for both public and private schools at the primary level.

On the ground, the defense of the “freedom of education” was not just the preserve of the MRP, it was also defended by most of the RPF and also a lot of moderates. In the aforementioned ‘Catholic-CNIP’ departments, the top moderate figure often clearly and unambiguously defended the ‘freedom of education’. This was the case in the Ardèche, where the clergy had never solidly backed the MRP, but also the Haute-Loire, Lozère, Aveyron or Loire-Atlantique. To use the example of the Vendée, where the moderates did very well in 1951, the top candidate of the CNIP list (in fact a common CNIP-RPF list) was Armand de Baudry d’Asson. Baudry d’Asson had been one of the three co-sponsors of the Barangé law. He was also the grandson of a monarchist deputy for Les Sables until 1914. Baudry d’Asson is something of a stereotype for the Vendéen noble: Chouan ancestors, monarchist until the end and deeply conservative. In the conservative departments of the inner west or the southern Massif Central, the moderates and their visceral anti-communism combined with their positions on education made them a better fit, in fact, for the rural right-wing voter than the MRP could be.

In the Hautes-Alpes, which returned only two members, the moderate’s landslide is the result of a weird broad list allying some socialists, Christian democrats and moderates and led by Finance Minister Maurice Petsche, who died later that year.

Gaullist France

The electoral geography of Gaullism – or rather of Charles de Gaulle as an individual – has always been a unique phenomenon. It may be a right-wing movement, but its map has never perfectly coincided with the traditional geographic distribution of the French right. The map below shows the distribution of the RPF’s vote in 1951 by the legislative constituencies used in 1936. The map also treats CNIP-RPF (or RPF-CNIP) lists and other heterogeneous lists as RPF lists, which might fudge matters a bit and explain the differences between this map and the map by department above (which apparently treats those weird lists differently).

The most important aspect of the electoral geography of Gaullism in its traditional phase (which is basically 1951 and 1958 until 1968) is the similarities between the electoral map of Gaullism and the map of occupied France in 1941. Indeed, the bulk of Gaullist support is concentrated in what was the northern zone – France occupied by Nazi Germany (annexed in the case of Alsace-Moselle). 1951 does not yet allow for this trend to be seen perfectly, but by the 1958 and 1962 referendums or the 1965 runoff we clearly see Gaullism in full strength in occupied France but much weaker in the zone libre (administered directly by Vichy until November 1942). But already by this first map of electoral Gaullism, there is a marked difference between the old zones of occupation. The RPF’s strength follows pretty closely the demarcation line, from the Basque border at Hendaye, along the Atlantic seaboard, into Brittany, and then englobing the bulk of northern and northeastern France. The demarcation line is particularly visible in the Charente, with a weak RPF showing in the Confolentais which was on the Vichy side of the line; in the Indre, which was entirely in Vichy France; Cher, with the RPF’s strongest showings concentrated in the occupied zone; Saône-et-Loire, with the RPF performing poorly in the Bresse and Mâconais which were in Vichy France.

The explanation is not that “the south were collabos”, which is obviously false. Some of the heaviest resistance in the maquis happened in the south. However, northern France suffered the traumas of German occupation as early as 1941, while southern France only came under direct German control after November 1942. It is thus likely that the occupied zone responded with more emotion and remembered with more emotions the appel du 18 juin. Furthermore, Charles de Gaulle was particularly involved in the liberation of the old occupied zone, while his personal role in the liberation of Provence and southern France was far less important. Charles de Gaulle’s northern origins (Lille) likely play a small role, but it could only account for a very small part of the explanation.

The RPF and Gaullism would always have a strong base in the Catholic regions of western France and Alsace-Lorraine. The RPF was perhaps not a traditional right-wing party, but especially in these regions where the bulk of the RPF’s candidates engaged themselves in the support of private schools, the RPF was in perfect symmetry with the Catholic conservatism of the region. Part of the Gaullist movement’s strength in Alsace and Lorraine can be laid down on a long history of nationalism and patriotism in the region, which would logically be strong supporters of Gaullism. But in the Catholic regions of western France, the symmetry between the MRP and the Gaullist electorate is pretty visible. It was said that all of the major parliamentary parties, the MRP was the one which was closest to de Gaulle and the one which was the most likely to share a conception of power and state similar to Gaullism. In another sense, the MRP also had a strong ‘resistance’ element which was more Gaullist than traditionally Christian democratic. That this electorate voted RPF in 1951 and likely voted for the Gaullists after 1958 is not a surprise, far from it.

In the Finistère, the RPF performed particularly strongly in the Pays Léonard (north of Brest), the most devoutly Catholic region of the department, but also a particularly unique Catholic region in the Catholic west because its clerical bases were not laid on an alliance of “church and castle” as in Anjou or Vendée, but rather on what can be styled a “theocratic democracy”. But such interesting differences can’t explain everything.  Finistère contributed particularly heavily to the Resistance. Interestingly, however, Ouessant didn’t vote RPF…

The strong showings in Vendée on this map is pretty artificial, because this map counts Armand de Baudry d’Asson’s CNIP-RPF list as a RPF list and his list was far more a traditional conservative list than a purely Gaullist list. A similar comment could be made about Eure-et-Loir, where the RPF supported two incumbent moderates and whose list did particularly well. In the Loire-Atlantique, the RPF list had a strong Gaullist component (Olivier de Sesmaisons, incumbent moderate-turned-RPF deputy) but was also allied with the traditional right – two of the list’s four elected members sat with the traditional right-wing groups. In the Maine-et-Loire, the RPF list was led by Victor Chatenay, the mayor of Angers between 1947 and 1959, and perhaps explains the RPF’s particularly strong showing. In Moselle, the RPF list was led by Raymond Mondon, the mayor of Metz between 1947 and 1970. In the Oise, finally, the RPF list was led by Jean Legendre, incumbent moderate deputy and mayor of Compiègne. His success, like that of quite a few other RPF lists, is due in good part to his personal appeal than any true Gaullist vote reservoir.

1951 is an important election in the course of French electoral history. It marked the emergence of the first anti-system movement under the Fourth Republic, and saw the first outing of electoral Gaullism – laying the bases for the future map of the Gaullist movement in its first phase.