In the regional elections held in the spring of 2010, the French National Front (FN) put a stop to the bad electoral runs that it had been suffering since 2007. It was 2007 when, for the first time since 1988, support for Jean-Marie Le Pen at the presidential elections dropped from 16.8% (in 2002), to 10.4%. Yet by the time of the 2012 national elections, the party of the extreme right was achieving levels of support that had never been seen before in its 40-year political history. In 2012, Jean-Marie’s daughter- Marine- achieved 17.9% in the presidential election in May while her party went on to poll 13.6% in legislative elections in June – a historic high in legislative elections following a presidential vote. These levels of support highlighted a real change in the FN vote.
And yet, despite this return to the forefront of the political arena, the question remains as to its ability to win elections in a system that is based on two-round run-off voting. An analysis of the evolution of the FN electorate and the behaviour of its candidates when they are present in the second round enables us to better assess the party’s ability to switch from the position of a protest party to that of a government party.
One of the most important questions posed by the stepping down of party head Jean-Marie Le Pen in favour of his daughter, lay in Marine Le Pen’s ability to broaden the social base of National Front voters. Indeed, for twenty years, the FN vote had been skewed towards men, the 18-to-50 age bracket, blue collar workers and voters with lower levels of formal education. The party was spurned by the older generation, women, the middle classes and voters with a good higher education background.
The sociological analysis of the FN vote in Opinion Way surveys between 2007 and 2012 showed that Marine Le Pen’s historically high score during the 2012 presidential election can be explained in part by her ability to broaden the party’s voter base, practically cancelling out the gender gap that characterised the FN vote up until then. Indeed, whereas previously two-thirds of the FN electorate were men, they represented barely more than 50% of the 2012 voters. In pushing our analysis a little further, we came to realise that the progression was very strong in young women (under 50s) who worked in the private sector.
Nonetheless, Marine Le Pen has not been able to change the structure of her electorate in terms of age or level of education: at the 2012 presidential election, her score remained well below the national average among the over-60s (only 11% against 18% overall) and those with a higher education degree (8%).
Evolution of the National Front vote (2007-2012)
|Presidential election 2007||Regional election 2010||Local Election 2011||Presidential election 2012|
|Average vote for National Front||10,4%||11%||15%||18%|
|60 + years old||7%||8%||10%||11%|
|High level of education||5%||6%||9%||7%|
As the first sign of this “mainstreaming”, Opinion Way observed that, when confronted with a three-way second round, the FN lost practically no votes. In the 28 constituencies concerned, the party achieved an average score of 23.5% in the second round, against 24.5% in the first round. If we just look at the 23 constituencies in which the FN came third, the drop is barely more significant, going from 23.7% to 21.8%. The so-called “useful” vote, therefore, did not really come into play. Conversely, this useful vote increased in four of the five constituencies in which the FN came first or second – proof that useful votes can play in its favour.
This was very clear for one of the two seats the party won: Gilbert Collard gained 4,954 votes from one round to the next (+ 8.25 points) while the right-wing UMP candidate lost 4,005 votes. As for Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, she gained 3,755 votes (+7.5 points), while the number of ballots cast only increased by 1,154, proof that she, too, received votes from electors who had not voted for her in the first round, taking advantage of the traditional dynamic that plays in favour of the first round’s leading candidates.
The other important sign of the party’s mainstreaming: we observed that the FN enjoyed a positive dynamic when against just a left-wing or right-wing candidate in the second round, receiving practically 40% of votes cast in this configuration (see below)…
… while it only reached 35.6% in 2011 during the cantonal elections in the 400 cantons it which it qualified (see below which presents the results in the same configuration in 2011).
The Front National is still far from commanding “normal” second-round scores, but the party remains largely above the average 25-30% seen in the past, and the very slow progress of Jean-Marie Le Pen in the second round of the 2002 presidential election (18%, only 15% more votes compared with the first round). In 12 of these 31 constituencies, the FN exceeded 40%. In 4 constituencies, it surpassed 45% and even scored over 49% in 2 constituencies (Marine Le Pen reached 49.89%).
Such results are doubtlessly in part due to an abstention rate 4 points higher in these 31 constituencies, or to a blank and void rate 2.2 points higher than in those constituencies with a left-wing/right-wing duel. It is also, however, no doubt due to a non-negligible increase in votes for extreme right candidates (52% average increase of the overall number of votes for the extreme right candidate between the two rounds in this configuration). Paradoxically, the UMP instructions (no call to vote for any other party when its candidate was eliminated in the first round) did not have much effect since turnout was higher when the UMP candidate had been eliminated and the left-wing candidate was up against the FN (51.5%), than when the UMP candidate was up against the FN (43.9%, i.e. 8 points less).
If the Front National continues to experience difficulty in progressing in certain voter categories, it is because the FN vote remains first and foremost a protest vote. Its electors do share a number of policies defended by the right (especially on questions of immigration or security), but vote clinchers still largely include the rejection of the political, economic and media system. The survey that we conducted during the first round of the presidential election to better understand the motivations behind the FN vote highlights the fact that there is a distinctive divide on the European question between voters of the parliamentary right and those of the National Front.
While 67% of Nicolas Sarkozy supporters consider that belonging to the European Union is a good thing for France, the majority (53%) of Marine Le Pen electors believe just the opposite. Even more striking, while 80% of Sarkozy supporters are against the idea of opting out of the euro, 51% of Le Pen electors fervently support a return to the French franc. Such a divide on the European question highlights that, despite obvious similarities between the programmes, right and far right electors’ views of the world remain a world apart.
This disagreement on Europe and its future probably explains why right-wing voters continue to be reticent about the idea of an alliance with the Front National. A study that we have just conducted on UMP electors indicates that only 30% of them wish for an alliance with the far right for upcoming elections. Even within UMP supporters who are ideologically and sociologically closest to those of the National Front (around a quarter of UMP electors), the desire for an alliance with the FN remains a minority (45%).
When analysing the political values of this group, we observe that they can be told apart practically only on the questions of Europe and the euro. For these electors, the position of the FN on Europe is one of the reasons that renders it incompatible with exerting power and ruling the country.
In conclusion, despite the National Front’s clear progress in the national elections of last spring, the far right is still very far from hoping to win an election in the current two-round runoff voting system. The FN continues to encounter difficulties in presenting itself as a real choice for many categories of voter and its strategy of “de-demonization” does not seem to have yet convinced the majority of parliamentary right-wing electors, who still, continue to reject the idea of a potential electoral alliance with the far right, thereby closing the door, for the time being, on the FN’s hopes of accessing power via a coalition.
 Data drawn from surveys conducted by OpinionWay during each election