The French Front National (FN) is considered by many analysts to be the prototype of the modern radical right party family in Europe. Founded in 1972, the FN is currently preparing to mark its fortieth anniversary, and so Extremis Project is publishing a series of expert posts that examine the party’s past, present and future.
Over the last decades, Professor Nonna Mayer -researcher of Front National (FN) voters- has told us much about the structural characteristics of the FN electorate, as well as the motives that have led some citizens to support the extreme right, rather than a left-wing or moderate right-wing party, or from abstaining altogether.
Relying on data from CEVIPOF (the Centre of Political Research at Sciences Po), in the 1980s these surveys were large enough to include sufficient numbers of FN voters to test various hypotheses. In 1998, and with an overview of almost 20 years of research, Nonna Mayer concluded that the FN electorate is rather diffuse – like any other electorate –although some social categories turned out to be overrepresented, but in varying degree over time.
Numerous publications followed, debating whether a radical right-wing vote is ideologically driven or is merely a protest vote, or whether it is based more in the left-wing working classes or the right-wing class of the petty bourgeoisie. Before 1998, Mayer reported in every publication that both classes were overrepresented in the ranks of the French FN and that -without equal- FN voters were primarily worried about the issue of migration.
When reviewing the decades of research by CEVIPOV, Mayer also noted how one of the systematic findings was that: “Since the 1986 general elections, the educational level… is lower than that of other electorates”. Nevertheless, in the 1980s, the differences between educational categories were less sharp than in the 1990s. In 2002, when Jean-Marie Le Pen finished second in the first round of the Presidential elections, the lower educated were once again strongly overrepresented (Mayer, 2002).
With biannual European Social Survey (ESS) data we are able to take the developments from 2002 almost a decade further (although unfortunately the 2012 data are not available yet, which would allow us to assess the impact of the change of FN leadership from Jean-Marie to Marine Le Pen).
The ESS data from the first half of the new decade support the findings from Mayer’s earlier 2002 study. The lowest educated are overrepresented as compared to the highest educated with a log-odds ratio of 4.8. The Front National -like any other party- attracts voters across all layers and strata in society, but more so among the lowest educated. In particular, those who vote for the FN worry about issues related to migration and integration, which is to be seen more broadly as a threat to national identity, and has more recently been captured in concepts like nativism (Mudde, 2007) or ethno-pluralism (Rydgren, 2007).
In the second half of the decennium (2006-2010), support for the FN declined in the general elections. This is also evident in the survey, with a small 5% of respondents claiming to have voted FN. Declining support for the FN seems to have been uneven among educational categories, as the overrepresentation of lower educated voters was more evident between 2006 and 2010, with a log-odds ratio of 6.8.
Turning to the motivations of FN supporters, there has been relatively little change since my earlier study with Peer Scheepers in 2002. Perhaps the topic of the EU has become more important, and the topic of Islamization more pertinent than perceptions of economic threats from asylum seekers, yet the French still mainly vote for the FN because of ethnocentric reactions- as Mayer (2002) labeled it previously.
Based on ESS data, perceptions of ethnic threat are by far the most important predictor of FN voting, followed by political distrust. Again, the effects are stronger for the second half of the first decade than in the first half. Based on this, I put forward the hypothesis that it is when the radical right is more successful that the profile of the voters becomes less sharp. Although each and every election provides new details which help us to understand support for the radical right, I would like to emphasize the large continuity among the radical right electorate, which is exemplified by the FN.
So, have there been no changes whatsoever? Mayer claimed that there is one social-background characteristic which appears consistent throughout the FN-electorate: masculinity. Since 2002, however, and according to ESS data, men are hardly overrepresented, and so my hypothesis is that Marine Le Pen will close the gender gap over the coming years.
Department of Sociology, Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands