How the Front National captured the workers’ votes and gained a more popular and working-class electorate than the left

A chronology and analysis by René Monzat

1983/88 (now a third of a century ago)

The emergence of the National Front (FN) was that of a dissenting extremist faction within the right-wing electorate. It first made progress with small employers, the most disadvantaged fraction of that electorate, worried about their future. One in five of this section of the population voted Le Pen in the first round of the presidential election in 1988

Resentment at the austerity policies of the Socialist government of François Mitterrand almost immediately made it possible to penetrate this stratum in the mid-1980s


By then the FN was also attracting a workers’ electorate – increasingly disappointed by the left – which, that year, gave the FN its best electoral scores so far


When Jean-Marie Le Pen polled just over10% of the vote cast, it was the working class electorate (16%) that was the most loyal to him whereas the small employers switched to the conservative and liberal right-wing candidate Nicolas Sarkozy


Nearly half the workers voted for Marine Le Pen in the first round of the presidential ballot


At the regional elections, more than half of the workers voted FN, more than twice as many as the top managers and intermediate professions.

Today, the FN benefits from more electoral support from the workers than all the “left” combined

These latter results should be qualified in light of the abstention rate of 50%. Recalculated from the voting registers, the score of the FN lists 30% among the workers, against 17% for the candidates’ lists on the left and 11% for the candidates’ lists on the right.

The FN is electorally based on two pillars: a popular pillar (workers and employees); the other pillar being its middle-class electorate for more than three decades. It has now established a firm foothold in the once strongly left-wing former coalfields of ​​ northern France.

Other factors are strengthening these two existing pillars of the electorate FN, namely:

  • a culturally conservative bloc of “artisans, traders and business leaders” – as well as returnees from Algeria – that dominates the FN’s support in the South of France
  • the bloc of “employed, unemployed, and workers” whose demands for the defence of the welfare state and vision of a “social France” dominate the FN’s political and industrial strategy in the de-industrialised north and east of France

The so-called “social” course is, thus, a strategic necessity for the FN given that workers weigh so heavily in the party’s electorate.

Together with other employees, these two categories account for no less than 46% of the FN’s electorate in the first round of regional elections of December 2015 and 48% in the second round of December 2015 (against less than one-third in the total electorate in this regional election).

And, while previously, it attracted mainly private employees, we can note that, in 2015, the FN made a spectacular breakthrough among civil servants/public employees.

To raise the degree of the FN’s annexation of what was once the political territory of the left, Marine Le Pen’s presidential programme includes elements of the kind of left-wing programme that Jean Luc Mélenchon, the Communists or the extreme left broadly advocate.

These include:

Point 52
“set the legal age of retirement at age 60 with 40 years of contributions guaranteeing a full pension”

Point 53
withdraw the labour law, the El Khomri law” [Against which the left political and trade union mobilised]

Point 63
“maintain the legal weekly working time at 35 hours. Allow negotiation on the extension of working time exclusively…and on the condition of a total wage compensation (37 hours worked, 37 hours paid…)”

Point 65
“guarantee social security for all French people and to reimburse all the risks assumed by the Health Insurance. ”

Point 34
“put in place a plan of re-industrialization within the framework of a cooperation to benefit the real economy over speculative finance”

Point 118
“leaving the integrated military command of NATO so that France is not drawn into wars that are not its own”

Point 127
“refusing Free Trade Agreements (TAFTA, CETA, Australia, New Zealand, etc.)”

Point 138
“guarantee equal access to public services (administrations, gendarmerie, water, health, transport, community hospitals and nursing homes…) throughout the country and in particular in rural areas. The liberalisation of the railways wanted by the European Union will be rejected. La Poste and SNCF (the railways) will remain public enterprises”

These elements of the FN programme are often treated as elements that the party would put forward without believing in them or without intending to apply them.

The FN knows that it absolutely needs to maintain such a demagogic, “fake left”, aspect in its programme to retain its popular social base. This style of policy also constitutes a guarantee of the FN’s sustainability so it will hardly take the risk of renouncing it.

A reality that the left finds it difficult to see.

The French left has been in structural decline for the past 35 years. It should be remembered that France was home to the second biggest – and most influential – mass Communist Party in the West – it scored 21.27% of the vote in the 1968 presidential elections – and to a slightly weaker Socialist Party (SP).

Under the right-wing policies of successive Socialist presidencies, the impact of the collapse of the Soviet Union and deep structural changes in French society, this popular support has slowly evaporated.

Despite this, SP activists or elected officials, even if they have long been detached from Marxism, have continued to reason as if the popular strata – “by definition” is sensitive to social issues – and the descendants of immigrants who, also “by definition” are attentive to rights issues must, as a result of this “sociological” logic, vote naturally for the left.

Their view refuses to see that the working class became gradually divorced from the social democratic and Communist left from the moment that governments of the left, for want of economic growth, could no longer play their historical role of redistributing wealth.

On the other hand, the descendants of immigrants, who massively voted in 2012 for the socialist candidate François Hollande equally massively abstained in subsequent elections. A reference study indicates that more than 80% of voters with Arabic or Muslim names voted for the SP in 2012 and that half of these people abstained three years later.

One of the reasons for this evolution is that this electorate, which is essentially a popular electorate, does not express its dissatisfaction or detachment towards the left by voting for the anti-immigrant FN but by abstaining.

We are, thus, not witnessing a simple rise of populists but a ploughing up of the political field.

France is experiencing the same acceleration of change that many other European countries are experiencing: an end to bipolar, right-left, systems and a deep crisis of social democracies that are collapsing or are being marginalised.

Hence, when the high tide of the populist, xenophobic, right ebbs, it will not allow the landscape its rise has swallowed up to be revisited. Like a sandy beach, has been disturbed and rearranged, not only from a party political, but also an ideological and cultural, point of view.

One of the possibilities is that a more complex three-pole model will replace the left-right polarity: liberal, identitarian/nationalist/populist and an egalitarian and common left.

This future is being written irrespective of what happens in the elections this spring.