French Regional Elections: Who Are the National Front (FN) Voters?

French Regional Elections: Who Are the National Front (FN) Voters?

Marseilles: A Case Study

The far-right party has regained turf thanks to the support of the right-leaning lower-middle classes that have constituted its base since the 1980s.

From our correspondent in Marseilles

A comment in the local press last week went like this: who, indeed, would wonder at a resident of a sensitive neighborhood, or lawless area, casting a FN vote? Except with an attitude of hesitant indulgence, few would challenge this staple image of the typical FN voter: an honest Frenchman, who’s been left defenceless against the “laws” of these districts, a citizen whom change has left behind and who casts a heinous ballot paper out of rage… And yet no proof can be brought to validate the prevalent archetype of the “leftist-frontist”, the thesis so dear to political analyst Pascal Perrineau, save some superficial judgements, or the desire to pursue an ideological line. The blame must fall on the blue collar workers and on the commies who in the past at least could discipline them. As early as 2002, researcher Christophe Traïni denounced this blue-collar vote theory of the FN vote. And it was under his supervision that Joël Gombin wrote his Master’s thesis on the FN vote in the Bouches-du-Rhône départment (around Marseilles) and neighbouring Vaucluse.

Joël Gomin is still working on that question in view of a doctoral thesis. His survey has led to three conclusions. First that there is no correlation between the FN vote and the working-class vote, nor is it affected by the presence of immigrants, nor does it correlate with the communist vote of the 1970s and 1980s. The FN vote between 1984 and 1986 he finds emerged when a fringe of right-wing voters espoused radical views. Historically, the FN has garnered votes in the region of Provence, the Alps, and the Cote d’Azur from the petty bourgeoisie (craftsmen, shopkeepers, bosses of small companies) and from French nationals repatriated from the Maghreb countries (after these acceded to independence). Today “the FN vote is resorted to by rightwing voters who are dissatisfied with the right.”

An analysis of the most recent regional election in the Bouches-du-Rhône départment, which has the largest population in the region and a strong working-class tradition, whose metropolis Marseilles has often been regarded as the FN’s capital, shows that Jean-Marie Le Pen (the FN’s president) got 113,118 votes (20,54% of the total) in the first round, then 147,846 votes (22,99% of the total) in the second. In Marseilles, the FN got respectively 21,48% and 22,75% – that’s about average for the département. This gives the lie to the image of the working-class city that has long been regarded as the FN’s favoured homeland, an image that has underpinned the myth of the “leftist-frontist” vote.

Nevertheless, it is the lower-middle classes that have contributed to Le Pen’s success. The urban network of Marseilles’s northern districts, divided between the rural villages (with their high proportion of seniors) and the poor urban neighbourhoods, facilitates a “social” reading of the results. In the polling station of the village of Sainte-Marthe last Sunday the FN got 33% of the vote while in the two neighbouring polling stations at the centre of an area where the proportion of social housing is among the highest in France, the FN vote was no higher than 11%, far behind the leftist vote and the impressive cohort of stay-at-home “voters” in the second round (59%). “Casting a FN vote is a way to distinguish oneself from the lower classes, especially when they are perceived in an ethnic light”, Joël Gombin points out. To put it simply, it means ‘I am not working-class and I am white’. It must be added that according to sociologist André Donzel, home ownership is a key to the understanding of Marseilles’s electoral map. The facts are a far cry from the picture of the honest blue-collar worker watching from his balcony as society goes off course.

The picture becomes even clearer at the fringe of Marseilles: at Le Pennes-Mirabeau (20,390 inhabitants), Allauch (19,000) and Plan-de-Cuques (10,536), Le Pen got between 26 and 30% of the vote in the second round, despite there being no “sensitive, or no-go areas” in sight. What then? The key is to be found in the growth pattern of these towns. Until the 1970s they were mere villages, then became “peri-urban areas” by force. The demographic growth was spectacular. To the original, native population was added a middle-and-upper-class population. Today these peri-urban towns represent the paradise of the “country near the city”, or to put it differently, the advantages of living near a city without suffering its “drawbacks”. The median household income is higher, indeed sometimes much higher, than the local average. The increase in the population is now far below the département’s average – which is proof of its reluctance to invite new-comers, manifest in the fact that the counsellors and a majority of the population are opposed to developing social housing.

Their mayors, two of whom are members of the socialist party, another defining himself as an independent, flaunt the bona-fide anti-Marseilles prejudice that guarantees an easy re-election. Those three towns massively voted for Nicolas Sarkozy (between 35 and 42% of them in the first round, between 64 and 70% in the second), and for many years they have cast FN votes above the département’s average.

“Everyone in the peri-urban areas has their reasons for wanting to protect himself,” Joël Mongin explains. The “natives” resent the intrusion of those “Parisian executives” (even though most of the newcomers did not come from Paris any more than they were Canterbury bishops), who pushed up property prices, making it more difficult for their own children to settle down in the area. The “executives” themselves want to protect themselves against perceived dangers of insecurity and loss of social status. This double mental retrenchment finds itself validated in the FN’s fear-stoking rhetoric.

Such a picture evokes Dino Buzazati’s Tartar Steppe [1], with a peri-urban town as a redoubt against the perils of the Great City. “Whenever a problem of insecurity arises, the mayor blames it on their proximity to Marseilles’ s nearby northern areas,” a Pennes-Mirabeau communist explains. “Marseilles” is the key-word, a short substitute for all manner of innuendoes about the poor and the immigrants… Will the local “Giovanni Drogos” realize too late that those fears blind them to the main issues? Will they read with profit the last page of Dino Bazzati’s novel: “But then a question occurred to him: what if all this was a mistake?”


Translated Sunday 28 March 2010, by Isabelle Metral and reviewed by Henry Crapo