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The class basis of extreme right voting in France: generational replacement and the rise of new cultural issues (1984-2007)


Introduction Yesterday, the working class was the core clientele of the left. Today, all over Europe, it is increasingly giving support to the radical right. The political impact of this shift is considerable, because manual workers still represent at least a quarter of the electorate. The trend has already been documented by a host of studies (Betz 1994, 2004b; see also Kitschelt and McGann 1995; Lubbers et al. 2002; Ivarsflaten 2005; Oesch 2008; Spies 2010). But they do not agree on the explanatory variables, they rarely cover a long span of time and their methodologies, especially in terms of key indicators of social class and vote choice, are seldom identical. To assess more thoroughly the extent of working-class support for the radical right and its causes, we build on the French case. The French National Front was one of the first of the new European extreme rights to develop a significant constituency, as early as 1984, and it is still considered as a model for many others. Its attraction among blue collars and the emergence of a “gaucho-lepénisme” or Lepenism of the Left, started to be discussed in the 1990s (Perrineau 1995, 1997; see also Mayer 2002 (1999); Evans 2000). Although the electoral base of the party shrank in the presidential election of 2007 to 10.4 percent of the valid votes (Mayer 2007),1 a new dynamic seems to have started after the European elections of 2009 and the regional elections of 2010 (Gougou and Labouret 2010). In the local (cantonal) elections of 2011, the score of the FN rose above 15 percent. Opinion polls even give Marine Le Pen, who succeeded to her father at the head of the party in January 2011, some 20 percent of the voting intentions for the coming presidential election of 2012, and up to 36 percent among working-class voters.2 The working-class vote is more than ever a topical issue, and the report of the socialist think tank Terra Nova, “Left: Which Electoral Majority in 2012?” (Terra Nova 2011), questioning whether the socialists would ever regain the favor of the popular classes, has sparked a heated debate. This chapter puts these shifts in a long-term perspective, taking into account the transformation of cleavage structures and voters’ alignments since the beginning of the Fifth Republic. We argue that the increasing support of the working class for the extreme right stems from three distinctive but complementary processes. The first one is a gradual dealignment of manual workers from the left, between the end of the 1970s and the end of the 1990s. It reflects the transformation of the working class (declining numbers, fragmentation, individualization, and pauperization). The second is the repolarization of the political debate along cultural lines, around the issues of immigration and law and order, instead of the economic ones that dominated in the 1960s and the 1970s (anticommunism, nationalizations, pro-and anti-welfare state), until the neo-liberal turn taken by the left after it came into office. The 1981-1984 realignment era, which led to the national electoral emergence of the National Front, marks a turning point (Martin 2000). The third process is generational. Gradually the generations born between the two world wars, who experienced the politicization of the class cleavage and the rise of the Communist Party, and the baby boomers, who were socialized at a time of economic growth and class polarization, were replaced by new cohorts of workers, who were hit by the economic recession and lacked political marks, making them more receptive to the National Front’s ideas.


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hal-02404573 , version 1 (11-12-2019)



Florent Gougou, Nonna Mayer. The class basis of extreme right voting in France: generational replacement and the rise of new cultural issues (1984-2007). Class Politics and the Radical Right, Routledge, pp.156 - 172, 2012, 9780415690522. ⟨hal-02404573⟩
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