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Who is voting for the far right as French election nears?

By Thomson Reuters Jun 21, 2024 | 9:35 AM

By Leigh Thomas

PARIS (Reuters) – This month’s European election was not only the trigger for French President Emmanuel Macron to call a snap parliamentary poll but also gives clues to the far right’s rapid rise to front-runner status and the main concerns of its voters.

In the EU vote on June 9, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) polled first in 93% of France’s 35,000 communes (the lowest level of administration), which translates as 80% of parliamentary constituencies.

A Reuters analysis of voting data looks at the correlations between RN’s score on the one hand and income, education level, commuting distance and previous abstention rate on the other.

EXPANDING THE FAR RIGHT’S APPEAL

Le Pen has worked hard to detoxify the image of her eurosceptic nationalist party, pitching it more broadly as a defender of family incomes, jobs and French identity.

In the EU vote overall, RN outscored Macron’s Renaissance party by two to one. In doing so, it broadened its appeal significantly beyond its historic redoubts on the Mediterranean coast and in the northern rust belt – where in some areas it outscored Renaissance by seven to one.

While RN gained in rural areas, big cities and their suburbs continued to vote for either Macron’s allies or left-wing parties, highlighting France’s rural-urban divide.

TURNING ABSTENTIONS INTO VOTES

Reuters’ analysis showed that the abstention rate in the 2022 parliamentary election correlated most strongly with RN’s success in the European vote.

The places where RN polled first in the EU election had an average abstention rate of 46% in the first round of the last legislative election, compared with a 39% average for the towns won by Macron’s centrist party.

Opinion polls project turnout in this election will top 60% after just 47.5% in 2022. Requests for proxy ballots have surged to over one million, far higher than levels typical for this stage in a campaign.

How higher turnout translates into voter support is unclear. Historically, many voters made a tactical choice to shut out the far right, but that dynamic has been weakening dramatically.

RISING PRICES, FALLING LIVING STANDARDS

During the 2022 presidential campaign, Le Pen veered from her traditional, pugnacious anti-immigration rhetoric with a new message for voters: “I’ll put money in your pockets.”

Le Pen’s party has traditionally outperformed in areas with lower levels of income and education, but that shift of focus toward more mainstream concerns – high inflation and falling living standards – has hugely broadened its voter base.

This time around, Le Pen’s 28-year-old protege, would-be prime minister Jordan Bardella, has told voters that household spending power is the RN’s number one priority.

The party has pledged among other things to slash VAT on electricity, heating oil and petrol, and to revise the 2024 budget.

Areas where the RN vote in the EU election was strongest also tend to have higher unemployment, while welfare payments make up a larger share of incomes and life expectancy is lower.

EDUCATION

The far right had its strongest EU election results in towns with fewer than 100,000 people, where education levels tend to be lower than in bigger cities and their suburbs.

In such towns, the RN took 38-39% on average, compared with 31% nationally.

Macron has long suffered from the perception that the economic gains from his pro-business reform drive have benefited well-educated city dwellers most.

Early in his presidency, Macron’s pro-business, pro-wealth policies earned him the moniker “president of the rich”.

The discontent has occasionally boiled over, notably in 2018, when Macron faced months of often violent “yellow vest” street protests. A fuel tax hike triggered the revolt, but it morphed into a wider rebellion against Macron himself.

CRIME, COMMUTING AND IMMIGRANTS

While the RN talks tough on law and order, crime rates are lower where it did well than where Macron’s party or the far-left France Unbowed came out on top.

Armed robbery in areas where Renaissance came first was nearly three times as frequent as in areas where RN was first.

Towns where RN scored well also have higher rates of home ownership, attract less new house construction and have longer commuting distances, which means those workers have been more vulnerable to the fuel price shocks of the last two years.

The average commute was more than twice as long in areas where RN came first as in areas where Macron’s party led, according to Reuters calculations.

Despite RN’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, the areas where it did best have a far smaller proportion of immigrants in the local population, on average.

(Reporting by Leigh Thomas; Editing by Richard Lough and Kevin Liffey)