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Who are the millions of French voters backing Marine Le Pen?

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Who are the millions of French voters backing Marine Le Pen?
Photo: AFP
14:48 CEST+02:00
Who are they, where are they, and what matters most to the record number of voters supporting Marine Le Pen?

Marine Le Pen gained a record 7.6 million votes in the first round of the 2017 presidential election. 

She will likely break that record again in the second round on May 7th.

So who are the many millions of French who vote for a candidate whose divisive policies, and even any mention even of her surname, seem to spark fear and loathing among France’s mainstream political parties and much of the media?

And where do they live in France?

Southern stronghold

It was in the southern Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur (PACA) region where former party chief Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father, built up support in the 1970s among those French settlers returning from Algeria who opposed Algeria's independence.

They found a common cause with apologists for the wartime Vichy regime's collaboration with Nazi Germany. 

Le Pen was expected to pull in 36 percent of voters in the PACA region in the first round of the election– that’s more than in any other region of France.

“PACA is a land of immigration but also one where social inequalities are the highest,” Christèle Marchand-Lagier, a political scientist and expert on the National Front, told The Local.

"Here Le Pen supporters are generally middle class and are tired of paying taxes to provide for the poor, who they believe to be immigrants.”

The old leftist north 

Second to PACA, the northern region of Hauts de France is ready to massively support the FN where some 34 percent of voters were set to back Le Pen in the first round.

“The FN bastions in the north correspond to the former leftist areas,” French political scientist Marchand-Lagier tells The Local.

“Like in the south, the mainstream political class has been discredited. The economic devastation in northern France's old industrial belt has spread the idea that traditional political parties are powerless," she added.

It is in this region where many disillusioned former leftist working class voters now think Marine Le Pen is their best option. 

Far northern France, in particular around the Channel ports, deeply affetced by the migrant crisis,  also turned out strongly for Le Pen in 2015 elections. Her party got 50 percent of the vote in Calais.

Steel workers in Lorraine, eastern France, pose with a mock tombstone to mark Socialist president François Hollande's "broken promise" to save their factory. Photo: AFP

The Gaullist East

With 33 percent of voters having intended to back Le Pen, the newly formed Grand Est region comes in third place in the table of the National Front's bastions.

The reasons why the east has fallen for Le Pen vary. Analysts point out it has always been very right leaning, with Gaullist nationalist politicians repeatedly coming out on top in elections.

National identity, the crux of Le Pen's appeal, is important here given the history of the region having fought to stay part of France.

Others experts point to neighbouring Germany’s decision to take in hundreds of thousands of refugees, which has stoked fears of immigration among voters in the east. Her calls to close France's borders fall on sympathetic ears.

On top of that, parts of the east, particularly Lorraine, have suffered the same rapid de-industrialization that helped boost Le Pen’s vote in the north.

Melun, a town near Paris and part of the 'forgotten' peripheral France, where the National Front scored 25 percent in the previous regional elections. Photo: David Fleg

'Peripheral France'

While the National Front enjoys firm support in several specific regions there is also a demographic spread out across France where voters are more and more likely to turn out for Le Pen.

Author and geographer Christophe Guilluy describes these areas as “peripheral France” or "La France périphérique". Essentially they are the isolated and unloved and lifeless, small to mid-sized towns and outer suburbs with a mainly white working class population, where jobs and livelihoods have been eroded.

"It's the vast, hidden, forgotten part of the country," he said, far from the globalized and thriving city centres.

“These people have the feeling of participating in globalization without benefiting from any of its advantages,” said one French MP discussing the phenomenon. Hence Marine Le Pen’s protectionist message strikes a chord.

It is here where voters have lost faith in the mainstream centre-right and center-left political parties and the refrain of "we've tried them, so why not Le Pen" is often repeated.

A look at certain groups of voters:

Young people

Daily polls by Ifop suggest as many as a third of young voters will vote for Marine Le Pen.

In the 2015 regional elections more young voters turned out for the National Front than any other party, although many young people simply abstained. 

One poll showed a majority of those young National Front voters were motivated by a need for change.

With youth unemployment reaching 25 percent in parts and permanent jobs hard to come by, the young generation of Le Pen voters believe only she can give them any chance of matching the living standards and pensions that their parents enjoy.

The young generation has also grown up with the euro crisis and the fear of Islamist extremist terrorism, two things Marine Le Pen wants to tackle head on.

“Young people are the first victims of economic austerity, massive unemployment, market deregulation, insecurity and Islamic fundamentalism”, said 22 year-old Gaëtan Dussausaye from “Les jeunes avec Marine” (“Young people with Marine”).

The more sanitized image of the National Front among young voters might play a role too. They are less likely to associate the party with the expelled former leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, who has numerous convictions for hate-speech and Holocaust denial. 

Working classes

Several recent polls before the election suggested Marine Le Pen would pull in some 45 percent of the working class vote, that's despite the inclusion of three leftist candidates on the ballot papers all of whom claim to represent the classe ouvrière.

The shifting support of the working classes from the left to far right has been taking place since the late 1980s. 

As in the case of Donald Trump and the UK's Brexit voters the working classes feel they have lost the most through globalization, rapid de-industrialization and immigration.

They feel let down by consecutive governments, in particular left-wing governments, who have failed to improve their prospects over the years.

Women

Another group of voters Le Pen has been reeling in in recent years is women.

According to an Opinion Way poll published in December 2015 the number of women National Front voters has jumped three-fold since Marine Le Pen took over the flame from her father in 2011.

Marine Le Pen has used her position as a single mother of three to push her image among women voters. Working class women struggling to get by and housewives make up an important part of her electorate.

She has portrayed herself as the protector against Islamic fundamentalism and its threat to women’s rights.

Valerie Igounet, a historian who spent two years talking to National Front voters told The Huffington Post: "The true novelty of Marine Le Pen’s National Front is the vote of women".

Feminist groups are quick to slam any suggestion a Le Pen victory would be good for women.

The eurosceptics

Although the French public have the choice of another staunchly anti-EU candidate in Jean-Luc Melenchon as well as other minor candidates, Marine Le Pen is seen by France's eurosceptics as being their one real hope.

She has said in the past she wants to see the EU "explode" and after Brexit, a Le Pen victory would probably do just that. 

A poll carried out in March 2016, months before the Brexit referendum, revealed anti-EU sentiment was even higher among the French than the British. From the open borders, to Germany's dominance of the eurozone, some French voters have reason to dislike the EU.

So when Le Pen chose her allotted time at the end of the first live TV debate to launch into another tirade against the EU for strangling France's chances of reform she knew she was tapping into fertile ground.

Other minority groups of voters...

Gay people

While the gay vote may not provide such a huge pool of votes for Le Pen, the increased support among parts of the LGBT community for the far-right party is nevertheless a phenomenon that shows the way the National Front has softened its image.

Le Pen's party has been accused of deeply reactionary views with a history of homophobia but many gay people fear the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in France and believe the far-right party is the best defence against it.

Polls showed that 32.5 percent of gay couples voted for the National Front in the 2015 regional elections. Another poll in 2015  showed 26 percent of homosexuals in Paris supported the party, compared with 16 percent of heterosexuals.

While many in her party were against gay marriage, Le Pen stayed fairly silent on the issue.

Erick Pennacchio, 43, who lives with his partner Arnaud in Perpignan and works as a salesman told The Local: “The National Front is the only bulwark against the growing Islamism in our country. Gay people are an easy target to Islamic fundamentalists".


National Front deputy leader Florian Philippot, who is gay. Photo: AFP

Muslims and immigrants

Given Le Pen’s aggressive rhetoric towards radical Islam and immigration in general you’d expect to be able to count the number of Muslim National Front voters on one hand.

But Le Pen, who is often at pains to make it clear she has no problem with Islam itself, does have some support among the immigrant Muslim minority, albeit marginal - another sign her de-demonization of the party has successfully opened it up to new voters.

These voters often find extremist Islam and communalism as distasteful as Le Pen does.

In the 2015 regional elections the National Front made a special effort to woo Muslim voters in the poor Paris suburbs.

“We’ll tell them they’re as French as the others,” was the message.

Le Pen reckons her tough stance on law and order and positioning of the party as the real representative of the working classes, immigrants included, will help boost her vote among the Muslim community.

According to Le Point magazine some 4 percent of immigrant Muslim voters opted for Le Pen in the first round of the 2012 election, but that number is expected to jump this time round.

A pro-Israel demo in Paris in summer 2014 when inter-communal tensions were high in some areas. Photo: AFP

Jewish voters

France’s Jewish community, believed to be around half a million strong, is another minority group of voters Le Pen has fairly successfully targeted.

In 2012, polls suggest she pulled in 13.5 percent of the Jewish vote. While that doesn’t sound like a great deal, it needs to be remembered that the National Front was seen as a party riddled with anti-Semitism, whose former leader Jean-Marie Le Pen has been convicted of Holocaust denial.

Again Marine Le Pen’s efforts to soften the party image have helped, as has her determination to position the party as the true protectors of the Jewish community from Islamist fundamentalism.

The Islamist-inspired terror attacks that targeted the Jewish community in Toulouse in 2012 and Paris in 2015 left the Jewish community nervous as did the anti-Israel riots of summer 2014.

Ifop pollster Jerôme Fourquet said these combined factors have helped Le Pen break through the previously solid barrier that blocked her from the Jewish vote.

Extremist 'Identitarian' groups 

While they are small in number, the 'Identitaire' extremist groups whose members, often shaven headed, violent and openly racist, are people long associated with the National Front.

Marine Le Pen has tried to purge these groups from her party and as a result many quit their association with the National Front.

But there have been efforts to reintegrate them in recent months.

While Marine Le Pen may not be extreme enough for these groups, the most well known being Generation Identitaire, they do have in common their hostility towards Islam, as seen when they stormed a new mosque in Poitiers in 2012.

By Ben McPartland / Elisabeth Beretta

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