On France’s Election Sunday, Europe’s EU enthusiasts took a sigh of relief, and just in time for the EU’s celebration of Europe Day, on May 09. Emmanuel Macron of the recently formed En Marche! gathered an impressive 66% of the votes, compared to Front National Marine Le Pen’s 34%, the second round of the French presidential election. As Macron was sworn in yesterday though, the challenges of a President outwith the established main parties began to rise
Macron, who ran on a centrist, pro-EU platform, thus struck a decisive blow to Le Pen rhetoric of far-right, anti-EU populism. This was arguably not a surprising win: polls indicated a clear victory for Macron, although the projections were closer to a 60/40 divide of the votes.
So how did Macron win?
Source: Financial Times
This map of the French election results give us a clear indication of who voted for each candidate: cities such as Paris, Lyon, Nantes and Toulouse, have given clear preference to Macron, whereas the rural north east and south east have been more drawn to Le Pen. Education levels has also been an important consideration: Macron won 84% of the votes in the top 10% best educated communes, compared to 53% of the votes in the 10% least educated communes. This ties in well with the general far-right electorate as a less educated, rural, working class crowd, similar to the demographics of Trump voters in the US, UKIP voters in the UK, and Geert Wilders/PVV voters in the Netherlands. Although it is still important to note that Macron did receive a majority in the least educated areas of France, just a smaller majority than the better educated areas, this indicates the motivation of those rooting for the far-right ideals pushed by Le Pen and her counterparts. They are what Le Pen has referred to as ‘forgotten France’: as less educated and based in rural areas, their success has stagnated or even declined, and their social and employment mobility is low. Le Pen’s promises to divert focus from the Parisian elite to this ‘forgotten’ segment of French society therefore had an easy appeal to them.
Perhaps most interestingly, the age demographics have been the exact opposite of the general European trends in relation to the draw of right-wing populism: where Brexit voters and PVV voters tended to be an older crowd, in France a considerable portion of the young electorate have had a preference for Le Pen and her Front National. Why is this? Well, for starters Marine Le Pen’s party has some heavy historic baggage. For many older voters, Front National is indivisibly linked to her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who led the party before Marine’s succession as party leader in 2011. Jean-Marie Le Pen was on several occasions convicted of having made racist and anti-Semitic remarks, and he has naturally remained a highly controversial figure in French politics. As a result, he was expelled from Front National by his daughter in 2015, in an attempt by her to clean up the party’s image. This was arguably a very effective method, as Marine and her party’s rise in relevance over the last 2 years give testament to. However, where this heavy baggage has remained an effective deterrent for the older voters, the younger voters have probably not had a very conscious relationship to this part of Front National’s history. This has not been a necessary consideration for voters of parties whose relevance has been comparatively newfound, such as UKIP and PVV.
But perhaps a more relevant consideration is the weak economic stance of French youth: in France the unemployment rate for young people has long been particularly high, the latest figures showing it at 23,7%, which is noticeably higher than the overall unemployment rate which currently sits at 10%. This level is higher than the overall youth unemployment rate in the EU, and it is at a considerably higher level than the youth unemployment rate in for example the neighbouring Germany, where it currently sits at below 10%. A large part of Le Pen’s platform has been focused on improving this aspect of the French labour marked, and it is not irrational for those particularly affected by this employment drought to be drawn to a candidate who whose attention is on this specific issue. Where other populistic, far-right options have tended to cater to older generations wanting to “take their country back” to a time where things were perhaps easier for them, Le Pen has successfully managed to appeal to a young generation who feel like they have never been given a fair chance to succeed at all.
A recurring sentiment shared by disappointed young British voters after the reality of Brexit set in was that they were being robbed of the range of opportunities that globalisation and European integration offers. For them, globalisation is about providing opportunities, whereas many young French voters have been convinced of the opposite: that globalisation leads to a limiting of their chances to succeed. Le Pen has led them to believe that this is the reason so many of them are not succeeding, because rather than give them opportunities, it takes it away from them, and gives it to others. This is obviously a less than nuanced take on the issue, and there are plenty of testaments to the opposite, but it does explain the comparatively greater appeal of the far-right to the youth in France than in the rest of Europe.
It is also important to note that neither Macron nor Le Pen swayed a significant part of the French electorate, resulting in the highest number of abstentions since 1969. This speaks to the polarised nature of this election, which led to a large number of people feeling like they were faced with a choice of the lesser of two evils, as the choices they were faced with were either too extreme (Le Pen), or too traditional (Macron). The surge of leftist candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the period immediately leading up to the first election round reflected these sentiments: his supporters were not prepared to vote for the far-right option Le Pen provided, but they were not prepared to vote for an establishment character either, as many viewed Macron. Mélenchon raked up 19,58% of the votes in the first round, which was not far off Macron’s 24,01%, and Le Pen’s 21,3%. His message was also one of EU skepticism, albeit for different reasons than Le Pen, and he hit a home run with the youngest group of French voters, rounding up the support of 30% of the voters aged 18 to 24 in the first round, compared to Le Pen’s 21%, and Macron’s 18%. The motivation of this group of voters is therefore not easily pinpointed.
The overall takeaway from the result of the French presidential election is, as we have seen with the recent rise of far-right populism in the rest of Europe, a general unease with the established political order. This manifested itself quite differently in France than the UK, with different groups responding very differently to the options presented. The outcome in relation to the far-right movements generally in Europe is therefore difficult to predict. However, the defeat of far-right parties in elections in the Netherlands, Austria, and now France, does inspire hope for their decline. And now, I guess, en marche!
Ingebjørg Birkeland has completed an LL.M. in European Law at Universiteit Leiden, focusing on European migration law, the laws of the European internal market, and European protection of human rights. Before that she completed an LL.B. Honours in Law and Social Policy at the University of Edinburgh. Her Bachelor’s studies were focused on the legal framework of the European Union, concentrating in particular on issues related to EU citizenship and its extent, as well as the politics of the EU, and European national politics.