In the first round of the 2012 French presidential election, Marine Le Pen gave the National Front its best score in a presidential election, improving on her father’s record result in 2002 by one percentage point and 1.6 million votes. Unlike her father, Marine Le Pen did not qualify for the second round, but her performance clearly indicated that the National Front (FN) had recovered from its poor performance in 2007. In fact, support for the FN is on the up again, rising from 10.4% at the presidential elections in 2007 to 11.4% in the 2010 regional elections, to 15% in the 2011 cantonal elections, 17.9% in the 2012 presidential election and 13.6% in the following legislative elections, almost back at the levels seen in 1997.
This dynamic can be seen as a result of the “de-demonization” strategy that has been developed by M Le Pen since her election as leader of the FN, which has entailed softening the party image, making it credible on issues other than immigration, and diversifying its audience, particularly among women. Based on a survey carried out on the day of the first round of the French presidential election, Marine Le Pen’s voters appear ideologically and socially still very similar to her father’s, but with one exception: the gender gap.
Explanations for the ‘gender gap’
Unlike her father, Marine Le Pen appeals more to women, who until now seemed more reluctant than men to support the extreme right. If this trend is confirmed, it could boost the National Front’s electoral dynamic and capacity to disrupt the political system. More broadly, the French case -in these first national elections since the onset of the 2008 crisis- can be taken as a magnifying glass of the far right’s evolution in Western Europe.
Traditionally, the far right has long recruited more support from men than women; a “radical right gender gap” has appeared (Givens, 2004). Hans-Georg Betz (1994:142-148) was the first to outline the phenomenon in his seminal study on radical populist right parties in Europe. Several socio economic and attitudinal factors have been put forward to explain it. Men are often more likely than women to be “globalization losers”, to be over-represented in manual unskilled work and hence exposed to economic competition with migrants. In contrast, women tend to be over-represented in non-manual jobs and the public sector.
Furthermore, even if a process of de-secularization is taking place, women are still more religious and likely to go to church than men, while the xenophobic and inegalitarian message of the far right has been condemned by Churches as being incompatible with their religious beliefs. Also, feminist ideas are slowly progressing at all levels of society (especially among more recent generations) and steer women away from supporting parties with a very traditional ideology, and which often reduces the role of women to being simply wives and mothers.
In addition, there is also an image of verbal and physical violence attached to parties on the far right and that arguably repels many women, particularly parties like the French FN that are associated with the pre-war extreme right (Mossuz-Lavau 1997, Mayer 2002:129-144). Conversely, the very spread of feminist ideas, the growing claims among women for equality and their growing presence in the labour market could be seen as a threat for masculine supremacy, breeding insecurity and feeding an authoritarian anti-feminist vote for the far right (Perrineau, 1997; Ford and Goodwin, 2010). Finally, women are late-comers on the electoral scene: they still pay less attention to politics which is often seen as a ‘man’s world’, and would be less prone to support outsiders as opposed to long established parties (Immerzeel et al. 2011).
Yet the picture could be changing because of the very strategy of the new far right, who claim they have no connection whatsoever with the old extreme right. Confronting their critics, they present themselves as the defenders of equality, liberty and tolerance against their main enemy -Islam- which is described as a religion of fanaticism and intolerance, and (so the far right claims) is incompatible with democratic values and Western culture. This was the essence of Pim Fortuyn’s argument in the Netherlands, taken over today by Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom (PVV), but also by the Swiss and the Norwegian People’s party, or the Danish Progress party, or the Sweden Democrats.
These parties claim they defend the rights of women, who the far right claims are abused, mutilated and ill-treated by Muslim men (Akkerman and Hagelund, 2007; Reynié, 2011). In the long run, this cultural turn could considerably expand the audience of the far right. In France, Marine Le Pen seems to be taking a similar turn, condemning anti-Semitism, adopting gay-friendly positions and presenting herself as a defender of the French secular republican model, which she argues is under threat from Muslims.
The case of 2012: Could Marine Le Pen rally more women?
But could Le Pen extend the FN’s base, appealing to middle and upper class voters, attracting more left wing voters, and above all, overcoming the reticence of women? The 2012 elections allow us to test the hypothesis of a “Marine Le Pen” effect on women. Support for far right parties in general, and the National Front in particular, depends on the nature of the election and the political context, but it shows some common features. It tends to crosscut traditional cleavages linked to social class and religion, and it is influenced by the level of education and also gender. So, where is there potential for growth?
Ethnocentrist and authoritarian attitudes are more frequent among voters with lower than average levels of education. Education informs us about the rest of the world, teaches us how to think rationally, to accept complexity, and in this way acts as a barrier to prejudice. Whatever the election, Jean-Marie Le Pen always achieved his best scores among less educated voters, those who failed to pass the “baccalauréat” exam at the end of high school, or who by this point had already left school. It is the same for his daughter. In 2012 her score is multiplied by four as one moves from people with a university degree to those who did not go beyond primary school, a ratio even higher than her father’s. As yet, however, she has not succeeded in winning a larger share of votes among the educated voters. It is among teachers, students, and people working in advertising, arts and information that Le Pen gets the lowest level of support.
Another area concerns social class. From the outset, Jean-Marie Le Pen mobilised voters from the top to the bottom of the social ladder and in all occupational groups. But from one election to another, the centre of gravity within his electorate changed. At the 1984 European elections, the strongest support for Le Pen came from a right wing, Catholic, well off bourgeoisie, who were exasperated by the 1981 victory of the “socialo-communists”, and who turned their back to the moderate right coalition in the 1986 parliamentary elections. Then, at the 1988 presidential election it was among the small shopkeepers and artisans, a traditional stronghold of the far right, that Le Pen obtained his best score (19%). Then, he attracted working class voters who were disappointed by the socialist government and its austerity policies. In the first round of the 1995 presidential election, Le Pen came first among skilled and unskilled manual workers, the traditional stronghold of the left, with a record score of 21%
Then, at the 2002 presidential election Le Pen made headway among rural and small town voters, who were worried by rising crime and delinquency beyond the large cities and their suburbs. Le Pen actually doubled his level of support among farmers, from 10% in 1995 to 22% in 2002, thereby matching his support among small shopkeepers and artisans, manual workers and non-manual clerical employees. And, at the 2007 presidential election when support fell back as Le Pen won barely 10% of the vote, it was still among manual workers that he got the most support (16%).
Against this backdrop, Marine Le Pen’s electorate is remarkably similar, and amplifies the trends above. Jean-Marie’s daughter attracts even more support than her father from the working classes: voters who were the first to be hit by the 2008 crisis, who are the most exposed to unemployment and economic insecurity, and the most dissatisfied with the policies of Sarkozy. At the same time, Marine Le Pen has not (yet?) managed to extend her appeal among middle and upper class voters. Clearly, one must be cautious with survey data given that working class and poorly-educated voters tend to be under-represented, while few voters are willing to declare their support for the extreme right. Yet all of the existing studies confirm this ‘proletarization’ of the far right base, not only for the French FN but the Danish People’s Party (DF), Swiss People’s party (SVP), Norwegian Progress party (FrP), and others (Oesch, 2008).
Turning to the erosion of the gender gap, women in previous elections appeared systematically less inclined to vote for the FN. A series of logistic regressions showed how this gender effect persisted after controlling for age, religion, education, links with the working class, and political attitudes (Mayer, 2002:220). The result is all the more interesting, as women as a group tend to be more anti immigrant than men, and equally in favour of law and order. Yet not only do they vote less often for the candidates of the National Front, but they are more critical of the party, of its ideas, and leader.
Mariette Sineau (2004) explained this paradox by the interaction between age, gender and religion. Two very different groups of women voters massively reject Le Pen. The first are young, single women who have a high level of education or are still at university, and if they work they tend to be employed in the public sector. They are radically at odds with the far right’s traditional image of women, and lean more towards the Left. The other group is made up of elderly women, who are often widowed, retired or housewives, tend to be Catholic and are regular church-goers. In fact, religion appears to have a different influence on men and women: despite similar levels of religious practice, it is women who appear more observant of recommendations by the Church not to support the far right, and who are more likely to reject Le Pen (Sineau, 2004:220).
Three reasons why women are voting far right
Yet in the first round of the 2012 presidential election not only has this gender gap narrowed to 2 percentage points, but further analysis showed that gender no longer had a significant impact on this vote. If one computes the predicted probability of voting for Le Pen by gender and age on the one side, and gender and religious practice on the other, the interactions observed by Sineau (2004) disappear. In other words, Marine Le Pen gets the same level of support from elderly Catholic men and women, and the same level of support from young men and women. Why is that?
Building on the explanations above, there are three possible explanations. The first is the difference in the structure of occupations of men and women (Mayer, 2002: 129-144; Givens, 2004; Rippeyoung, 2007). Men are more likely to be working class, and it is among blue collar workers where we find the lowest levels of education, income and status, and those voters who are most exposed to economic insecurity and unemployment. These are the citizens who in recent years have provided the extreme right with its core support. According to the French Census office, one third of gainfully employed men are workers, while almost half of women are routine non-manual employees, and they represent only 17 percent of the blue collar group.
However, the economic situation has arguably changed this situation: service sector jobs can be as precarious as industrial manual jobs, thereby also turning women into the ‘losers of globalization’. One must take into account the rise of an unskilled service proletariat (Oesch, 2006), where women are over-represented, as well as young people and those who are immigrant- born. The economic recession that hit France in 2008 first affected the industrial sector, therefore mostly men, but has now caught up with women, who were already over-represented in unwanted part-time and temporary contracts, and who were less protected by the welfare state (Milewski and Cochard, 2011). This could explain their increased support for the extreme right.
A second explanation concerns religion. The French Church firmly condemns Le Pen and her ideas. But the relationship of Catholics with Islam is changing, as shown by an annual survey on racism and xenophobia. Before 2006, regression analyses on the level of ethnocentrism showed that after controlling for age, gender, education, and political position, religious practice had no significant effect. But since 2006 and the Muhammad cartoon controversy it has. In the survey conducted at the end of 2006, for the first time, all things being equal, Catholics were more ethnocentrist than non-Catholics and the most practising Catholics, the regular church goers, were the most ethnocentrist of all (Mayer and Michelat, 2007). It seems that the greater visibility of Islam in the public space, with the development of street prayers for instance, as well as in French political debate, has added to the fear of Muslim fundamentalism, bringing Catholics to assert more than before their own religious identity.
A third and final explanation could be Marine Le Pen hereself. She is a woman, who is young, twice divorced and with three children. She lives “out of wedlock” with her partner, and offers a more “modern “and softer image than her father. She condemns anti-Semitism, considers the Holocaust as “the summit of human barbarism”, and says she understands women who abort even if she is opposed to the practice. All of this could make it less morally reprehensible, and less difficult, for a woman to vote for her. Le Pen has also given her platform a social tone, combining calls for a more protective state and better public services with a deep anti-EU and protectionist tone, arguments to which women are more receptive than men.
The 2012 election day survey had four questions exploring perceptions of the main candidates. Women appear to be a little less reassured by Marine Le Pen (she “makes uneasy” 35% of women, as compared to 22% of men). But on the three other features, women have a more positive image: they are more inclined than men to say that Marine Le Pen has a presidential stature (86 vs 83%), they are more inclined to say that Le Pen “understands people like you” (66 vs. 56%), and to express the view that Le Pen “really wants to change things” (76 vs. 56%). And, to an open question asking which candidate the respondent wanted to see elected “from the bottom of their heart”, 74% of women who voted for Le Pen wanted to see her elected, while the equivalent figure among men was 56%.
The 2012 election day survey draws from a smaller sample than the usual electoral surveys (1500 instead of 4000 or more), and we need more than one survey to confirm the decline of the gender gap. But if Marine le Pen’s increased appeal among women is confirmed, then it would mark the most significant change from her father’s era, and possibly the start of a new electoral dynamic in France.