The Morning After

1 July 2024

It’s the morning after the election, but the dust has only partially settled. Even with the rapid désistements of candidates willing to abide by traditional “republican discipline,” the ultimate outcome is not clear. Although the RN could still win an absolute majority, and Macron seems to be preparing for the eventuality, the most likely configuration is a hung parliament. The president could then appoint anyone prime minister, but that prime minister would somehow have to cobble together a coalition out of a very disparate group of deputies. Although the NPF is willing to join with (the non-Ciotti) LR in order to block the RN, the reverse is not true: LR leaders such as Bellamy, Fillon, Copé, Wauquiez, and Lisnard have made it clear that their position is ni-ni (i.e., they will support neither the “extreme right” nor the “extreme left,” refusing to acknowledge any difference between LFI and the PS or Greens), and even former center-rightists like Édouard Philippe, still nominally part of Macron’s Ensemble), have demonstrated that their hostility to the left is just as strong if not stronger than their hostility to the far right. Even François Bayrou will go only so far: he refuses to commit to any blanket policy on désistements and is proceeding on a case-by-case basis. The deadline for withdrawing candidacies is Tuesday at 6 PM. By then we will have a clearer picture. Yet if the result of round 2 is a hung parliament, France could be in for a prolonged period of uncertainty, with no prime ministerial nominee able to form a government. France would then become Belgium, and only the humorists will be pleased.

What we know here and now is that the RN gathered nearly 11 million votes. How do we explain this? Is it because the RN has changed, successfully “de-demonizing” itself by shedding the last vestiges of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s racist, xenophobic, and antisemitic rhetoric? The Stanford semiologist Cécile Alduy has argued strenuously against this thesis in a series of books and articles, in which she has sought to show continuities in the tropes and images employed by RN politicians over the entire span of the party’s existence.

Political scientist Luc Rouban argues to the contrary that it is a mistake to focus on the continuities between the FN and the RN. He directs our attention not to the rhetoric of party leaders but to the social composition of the party’s (rapidly expanding) base. Over the past few years, the RN has expanded its influence well beyond its historic breeding grounds in southeastern France, home to many descendants of pieds-noirs forced to flee Algeria after the war there, and in northeastern France, the country’s rust belt, where workers abandoned by their firms switched their allegiance from the Communist Party to the RN.

This geographic désenclavement has been accompanied by a social désenclavement, as new classes of voters also switched their allegiance. The reasons for the switch are many. I’ve covered growing antipathy to Macron in previous posts. But it’s important to mention as well the cumulative effect of declining quality of life in many parts of France. Budget-cutting measures have limited access to important state services. “Medical deserts” have expanded in much of rural and peri-urban France, because young doctors are unwilling to make their lives here and older doctors are closing their practices. Train service has been curtailed, while at the same time lower speed limits have increased commute times, higher gas prices have imposed further burdens on rural commuters, and–believe it or not–a regulation requiring a seasonal change to snow tires in the 45 départements classified as “mountainous” has aroused bitter resentment.

These grievances may seem petty, but can they really justify support for a reputedly racist party like the RN? Are 11 million voters really as racist as some of the RN’s more notorious candidates and supporters? Are they all zealous nationalists and anti-globalists? Luc Rouban thinks not:

Dans une de nos enquêtes en mai, nous avions testé le mot « souveraineté » auprès des électeurs. 62 % des électeurs de Reconquête ! le jugent positivement, mais ce n’est le cas que pour seulement 38 % des électeurs du RN, 33 % des électeurs d’Emmanuel Macron et 40 % pour celui de Valérie Pécresse (étude sur 11 000 personnes). Là aussi, les valeurs des électeurs du RN ne sont pas forcément celles de ses leaders. Autant Macron avait été élu sur un malentendu, autant le RN risque d’arriver lui aussi au pouvoir sur un malentendu, certes différent.

Another explanation for the RN’s rise–one that I myself stressed in a post before the first round–is populist anti-elitism. Again Rouban demurs:

Le populisme n’est pas non plus la bonne étiquette pour expliquer les motivations du vote RN. Dans les enquêtes, ce n’est pas une critique des élites en général qui apparaît. Elle épargne les élites scientifiques, ou managériales.

This directly contradicts what I argued last week, drawing on work by political scientist Bruno Palier, namely, that resentment of the political elite actually stemmed from resentment of the managerial elite, and specifically of management consultants trained in elite business schools and parachuted into provincial firms, where their alien language, dress, manners aroused instant resentment.

I’m not fully convinced by Rouban’s argument. I think he’s working hard to eliminate racism as a motive for the RN’s expanded appeal, when polls show that the vast majority of RN voters list immigration along with the rising cost of living as their primary reason for choosing the party:

Le problème de l’immigration existe, et sans être forcément racistes, les électeurs disent qu’il y a un problème d’intégration, de politique d’immigration qui n’est pas contrôlée. … Ces éléments ne caractérisent pas ces électeurs comme racistes, mais illustrent en revanche un sentiment de perte de contrôle de la situation.

Still, one can imagine ways of restoring control without stripping away le droit du sol and depriving dual nationals of basic rights. And it’s hard to deny that Macron tried to respond to this discontent with a variety of draconian measures enforced by his interior minister Gérald Darmanin, who at one point accused the RN of being too soft on immigration. If what voters really wanted was a crackdown on crimes committed by immigrants, they got it from Macron. What they didn’t get was the insinuation, emphasized in Alduy’s work on the RN’s rhetoric, that what France needed was not tougher law enforcement but purification of its gene pool. To that question I’m not sure that Rouban has a satisfactory answer.




  • bernard says:

    There is a lot to discuss about this interesting piece but, for now, I want to repeat something I have argued many times in the past.:
    “in northeastern France, the country’s rust belt, where workers abandoned by their firms switched their allegiance from the Communist Party to the RN”.
    I believe that this is actually not the case – and therefore offensive to these workers – and that this confusion derives from confusing the workers of 50 years ago and the “workers” of today. The workers of 50 years ago never switched their allegiance away from the communist party. What happened is quite simply that they eventually passed away and thus the electorate of the CP dwindled. Their grand-sons and daughters are those who vote for the extreme right and that is not at all the same thing. They have grown up in deprived conditions where the old proletariat was unemployed and then retired and they never supported the communist party whose organizational capacity was vanishing in these areas.

  • Gremo says:

    “but purification of its gene pool”
    A bit silly, if it was only that, the RN wouldn’t be where it is.
    Is it suprising that people are hostile among other things to multicultutalism? I think it’s inevitable feature of XXIst century life, and trying to resist it is silly. It doesn’t mean I like Rima Hassan and her keffieh. If the choice is between her and the RN, the center right will decide quickly.

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