Image: aga7ta / Shutterstock
Image: aga7ta / Shutterstock

France Insoumise versus the Front National

Yann Le Lann, Antoine de Cabanes (first published by transform! Europe)

The Differences Between Far-Right and Left-wing Populism

The electoral cycle of 2017 is a turning point in the French political landscape. The presidential and legislative elections were a major rupture which disrupted the political field.

Historically French politics were structured by a dividing line opposing two poles along the left/right cleavage, even though the composition of the two poles evolved over time, thus reflecting the socio-economic transformations of the French society and the changes in the balance of forces in the political field. Since the 1980s, despite some events (1), the social-democrats were the leading force of the left camp while the liberal-conservative dominated the right-wing pole. The first round of the 2017 presidential election ended this structuration of the political field for good: the social democrats arrived in fifth position when the conservatives were, for the first time since the establishment of the Fifth Republic, eliminated in the first round of the election. A centrist neoliberal candidate, supported by a party created a year before the election, arrived in first position whereas, among the left and the right, the two main parties were outpaced by their historical challengers. Indeed, for the first time since the 1970s the radical left, incarnated by Mélenchon, surpassed the Parti Socialiste (PS) while the far right’s candidate, Marine Le Pen defeated François Fillon and accessed to the second round of the election. The second round of the election and the legislative elections sanctioned Macron’s victory, through a triumphal result in the second round (2) and the election of an absolute majority in the Assemblée Nationale (3). The legislative elections also confirmed the end of the bipolarisation and the fragmentation of the political field as the PS gathered less votes than Mélenchon’s movement, France Insoumise. The electoral erosion of Les Républicains and the disintegration of the PS’s electorate benefited Macron and his central liberal bloc but also the radical left and the far right; thus reviving among journalists, political commentators and editorial writers the idea of a rise of populism and anti-system votes in times of political crisis and reconstruction. This narrative has already been mobilized in the 2012 presidential election (4) and pretends to explain together the rise of the radical left and the far right, thereby implying the existence of ideological and electoral convergences between the radical left and the far right.

According to this thesis, in a context of socio-economic crisis, the political translation of the crisis consists in a rise of so called “extremist parties” and the propagation of their ideological views among the population, due to the loss of credit of the traditional political parties. This presumed radicalisation of the population, particularly in the elections, would be catalysed by the use of populism by the “extremist parties”. The term populist designates, in this narrative, the association of a demagogic discourse promoted by a charismatic leader, a radical electoral platform contesting the socio-economic and political order, a conflictual attitude towards the media and the establishment (the elites) and a confrontational analysis grid of society (5, 6). This combination is supposed to be particularly efficient for conquering the votes of the lower social classes and the lower middle-class which would be more receptive to the anti-system discourse due to their lack of political capital and the socio-economic downgrading of their situation. This conceptualisation of populism postulates ideological similarities between the far and radical left and the extreme right as both contests the current socio-economic order built upon a neoliberal consensus, which blurs the left/right cleavage. Therefore, such thesis considers logically that socio-economic crisis translates, according to the specific historical structuring of the political field in each country (7), into the rise of right-wing or of left-wing populism, or both. In the specific case of a simultaneous progression of right and left-wing populism, they would share a common electoral basis which may move from one populism to another because of the programmatic and ideological similitudes. This narrative is of course politically leaning and mobilized by specific actors in order to impose their vision and categorisation of the political dynamics taking place in many European countries. Such a discourse relies on the obliteration of most of the concepts coming from electoral sociology and political science and produce a basis for discrediting any contestation of the neoliberal consensus which unites, all over Europe and for some decades now, social democracy and the classical right (understood as the main liberal conservative parties). This consensus led to a devitalisation of the left/right cleavage and the transformation of the two-party system into the perpetuation of similar policies, despite the change of power from major party to another.

Several elements tend to confirm this thesis. The financial crisis followed by the sovereign debt crisis and the implementation of austerity policies in almost every country of the European Union, by social-democrats and right-wing parties, come out on a radical change of the political field of several countries, especially the one which suffered the most from the crisis and austerity (8). These changes consist in the weakening and even the collapse of the major political parties and the rise of radical movements from the right and the left. In Greece, PASOK fell to 4.7% of the votes while the radical left, incarnated by SYRIZA, accessed to power in 2015 with more than 35%. In Austria, the FPÖ became the second party in the 2017 elections, in Spain the PSOE has been followed closely by Podemos in the last two general elections. The French 2017 electoral cycle seems to validate this theory as the disintegration of the two-party system coincided with unprecedented electoral results (9) for the radical left and the far right in a context of high unemployment and precariousness and as Mélenchon and Le Pen both endorse the qualifying term of populist. In a context of intensified polarization of the political field, the campaign staged the confrontation between Le Pen and Mélenchon as the competition for conquering what Laclau called the “nebulous no man’s land” (10) between right wing and left wing populism, mainly composed by this reified people.

In this article, we will try, through a rigorous and thorough analysis of the Mélenchon and Le Pen’s electorates to assess the relevance of the hypothesis of an electoral and ideological porosity between right-wing and left-wing populism. We will mobilize a comparative perspective, in light of the empirical material provided by the polls and surveys, in order to discuss the existence or not of an ideological and social border distinguishing right and left wing populism.

Mélenchon and Le Pen’s electorates: two different socio-economic structuring

Polarization of the working classes: a division between the radical left and the far right

A central aspect of the amalgam between right-wing and left-wing populism is the similarity of their social and electoral basis: the antagonistic interpretation of society and the anti-system discourse would aim at gathering the “real” people against the elites, depicted as the ruling classes (or the 1%) by the left-wing populism and the cosmopolitan establishment by the right wing populism. The people, as a political subject, is seen as composed of the social groups which have been the victims of the policies implemented by the elites and more generally the social rejects of the socio-economic and political order in place. Traditionally these social groups are the lower social classes (employees, workers), the youth, the outsiders of the labour market and the losers of the globalisation process in all its dimensions.

The distribution of the votes of the social groups making up the working classes shows without contest an over-representation of the vote in favour of the two populist candidates. According to the survey realised by Ifop (11), 54% of the employees who voted in the first round voted for one of these two candidates (24% voted for Mélenchon and 30% for Le Pen) while 64% of the workers who voted chose either the Mélenchon or the Le Pen ballot (25% voted for Mélenchon and 39% for Le Pen). Among all votes cast, the sum of Le Pen and Mélenchon’s results only reaches 40.88%. Le Pen scored first among workers’ and employees’ vote and Mélenchon second whereas, in the election, Le Pen arrived second and Mélenchon fourth. The distribution of the votes of the intermediate professions (lower middle class) shows an underrepresentation of Le Pen who gathered only 17% but Mélenchon reached 26% and had first place in this category (see graph 1 (pdf)).

The vote distribution according to voters’ income levels confirms the observation from the socio-professional categories: the lower the incomes are, the higher the vote for Le Pen or for Mélenchon is. This trend is the opposite of Fillon’s and Macron’s, as their vote percentage rise as the income increases.

According to the IPSOS survey (12), the addition of the votes in favour of Mélenchon and Le Pen represents more than 50% among the people earning less than 2000€ a month. Among voters earning less than 1250€, Mélenchon gathered 25% of the votes and Le Pen gathered 32% while among voters earning from 1250€ to 2000€ Mélenchon and Le Pen reached respectively 23% and 29%. In these two categories Le Pen arrived first and Mélenchon second, distancing by far Macron and Fillon. Among voters earning more than 2000€, both Mélenchon and Le Pen are underrepresented in relation to their results among the whole voting population. In the lower social categories making up the working classes, the observations confirm a strong polarisation of the electorate between right-wing and left-wing populism, especially among workers and employees.

The relation to globalisation is a key element in the identification of anti-system tendencies, and this variable also validates the characterisation of Mélenchon and Le Pen’s votes as similar. 56% (13) of Mélenchon’s voters define themselves as losers and victims of globalisation and 68% of Le Pen’s voters adopt the same self-definition; only 42% of the whole voting population defines itself this way, showing a clear overrepresentation in the case of Mélenchon and Le Pen. The distribution of the voters defining themselves as losers and victims of globalisation goes in the same direction, as 25% of them voted for Mélenchon and 34% voted for Le Pen. More than half of the people who subjectively defines themselves as losers and victims of globalisation voted for a populist candidate while those who consider among themselves as winners, the sum of the populist candidates’ scores reached only 24%. In addition, according to Viavoice (14), the combined result for Le Pen and Mélenchon, among people who see economic globalisation as a threat, reaches 54% (23% for Mélenchon, 31% for Le Pen).

The distribution of the votes according to the level of education of the voters also validates the idea of an overrepresentation of Mélenchon and Le Pen among those with a very low level of qualification. 20% of voters with a level of education below A-level voted for Mélenchon and 31% of them voted for Le Pen; when it comes to the people holding only an A-level 22% voted for Mélenchon and 25% for Le Pen (15). Among the voters with higher-education degrees, the votes for Mélenchon and Le Pen are underrepresented, in relation to the whole voting population who cast a ballot: Mélenchon gathered 16% of the votes of the electors holding a master degree or a PhD and only 8% for Le Pen. Finally, the anti-system vote is often considered more important among the youth and particularly low among senior citizens, since young people would be more inclined to contest the socio-economic order while older persons prefers stability and therefore vote for conserve the existing order. Mélenchon and Le Pen are slightly overrepresented among the voters below 35 (26% for Mélenchon, 23% for Le Pen (16)) but distinctly underrepresented among the over 65 voters (12% for Mélenchon and 14% for Le Pen). Both candidates attract more young people than Macron does and most importantly than Fillon who reaches 39% among the over 65 voters. The crossing of the gender and age variables also provides some understanding of the similarities between Le Pen and Mélenchon’s constituencies: among those under 35, the scores are higher for women than men whereas it is the opposite for the people from 35 to 64 (beyond 65 no significant change) (17).

The high scores of Mélenchon and Le Pen among the lower social classes, among the people with low incomes and low educational levels, seem to validate the mainstream analysis of populism. The indicators commonly used to identify the social groups tempted by populist and anti-system thoughts shows an over representation of the votes for Mélenchon and Le Pen.

Two populisms, two different social bases

However, these indicators mask the heterogeneity of fragmented social groups and the partial conclusion built upon them tends to reify the working classes by not considering the complexity of the social structure. In a rigorous scientific analysis (18), the political scientist Luc Rouban crossed the diploma and estate variables in order to gain an in-depth view of the composition of the lower social classes who voted for Mélenchon and Le Pen. Mélenchon’s and Le Pen’s electorates share the same level of estate (measured as the addition of property and assets) and this level is much lower than that of Fillon’s and Macron’s voters and still lower than Hamon’s. Nevertheless, with a similar level of estate, Mélenchon’s voters are much more qualified (almost as qualified as Fillon’s electorate) when Hamon and Macron’s electorates are the most qualified. Voters with a level of qualification below A-level represents 45.5% of the Le Pen’s electorate and only 30.7% of Mélenchon’s, while voters who received a higher education represents 39% of Mélenchon’s electorate and 24.9% of Le Pen’s (19). Rouban also crossed the income variable with the diploma and revealed that, at a similar level of education, it is Mélenchon’s constituency that earns the lowest income. His hypothesis is a social downgrading of the Mélenchon’s electorate relatively to its diplomas and qualifications, thus explaining the vote for Mélenchon as a mobilisation against this relative frustration (20). The vote for Le Pen would then be the consequence of an absolute frustration generated by the combination of low income and the absence of any qualification. If this hypothesis seems relevant, it needs to be combined with the analysis of the impact of higher levels of education on the political preferences in order to explain the different voting options of the two kinds of frustration. In order words, academic formation results in an increase in political and cultural capitals and generally favours a more left-oriented vote and an overrepresentation of the radical left, thus explaining the difference in value systems and the vote for one or the other populism (21). In addition, we can observe significant differences between Le Pen’s and Mélenchon’s electorate in terms of geographical location, which is not a neutral parameter in a country structured by socio-economic spatial organisation.

The territorial divide of French electoral map is indeed cleaved by inequalities and the lower social classes mainly live in the suburbs of big conurbation, in the suburban areas, or in rural areas. The more densely populated the place of residence, the lower Le Pen’s score: she received 23 % in rural areas, 25% in cities below 20 000 inhabitants, 24% in cities from 20 000 to 100 000, 21% in cities over 100 000 inhabitants and only 14% in the urban area of Paris (22). Significantly, a large part of the working classes lives in the suburbs of Paris in culturally mixed neighbourhoods with a high proportion of immigrants or descendants of immigrants, and Le Pen underperformed in these areas and therefore in these segments of the working classes (23). The FN’s working classes electorate is composed of workers and employees living mostly in suburban areas or small regional cities and in rural areas. On the other hand Mélenchon’s vote is much more equally distributed according to the voter’s place of residence (18% in rural areas, 19% in the Parisian urban area and 21% in the other cities). Lastly, the FN’s vote is slightly underrepresented among the unemployed (20% (24)) while Mélenchon is clearly overrepresented with 32% (The same can be said of Hamon who got 9% among the unemployed – as against his 6.36% total vote percentage – when Fillon is strongly underrepresented with 10% – as against his 20% total). These figures invalidate the presumed link between unemployment and the rise of the Front National (25) and suggest a politicisation of the unemployed in line with the left-right cleavage even though it beneficiates mainly to the radical left.

If the overrepresentation of Le Pen and Mélenchon among the lower social classes is masking differences among the working classes’ constituencies, the overall composition of the two electorates also shows strong divergences between right-wing and left-wing populism. First of all, the lower social classes do not have the same weight in the two constituencies: the workers and employees represent 33.1% of Mélenchon’s voters (50% of working-age voters) while they make up 42.5% of Le Pen’s (67.2%) (26). Among Mélenchon’s working-age voters, 21.6% are workers and 28.4% are employees but 13.9% are executive and intellectual professions and 29.8% belong to the intermediate professions. Among Le Pen’s only 8.1% are executive and intellectual professions and 18.4% are from intermediate professions but 35% are employees and 32.3% are workers (see graph 2 (pdf)).

Mélenchon’s electorate is much more equally distributed than Le Pen’s one and this equal distribution constitutes a major difference between the two. Le Pen’s electorate distribution is the inverse of Macron’s, in terms of almost every indicator: Macron’s results increase according to the size of the cities whereas Le Pen’s decline; the higher the incomes are the higher Macron’s results are and the lower Le Pen’s are. In terms of socio-professional categories, Macron is overrepresented in the upper classes and also among the people with a high level of education. This inverse trend between Macron and Le Pen is also valid for Fillon whose trends are identical to Macron’s in these respects. On the other hand, Mélenchon’s results seem not to be affected by these indicators and his electorate looks extremely homogeneous comparatively to the entire electorate. Indeed, Mélenchon’s results appear very evenly distributed among these variables. This implies a major difference between the two populisms, which is the weight of the lower social classes in their result: for Mélenchon they represent an important share of his votes whereas the lower social classes are the vital and indispensable component of Le Pen’s vote, the segment allowing her to access to the second round. The weight of the working classes in the total amount of votes gathered by Marine Le Pen (more than 40%) also explains the importance, for academics (sociologists, political scientists) but also for left and radical left activists, of identifying and analysing the reasons and motives of these segments of the lower social classes to vote for the FN (27, 28). This difference of structure of electorates between the two populisms clearly distinguishes the right-wing and the left-wing populism: they do not attract the same segments of the anti-system and populist-friendly voters and, moreover, their social basis is different in terms of equilibrium among social groups, in addition to a divergent geographical localisation.

Ideological cleavages are not obsolete yet: two diametrically opposite visions of the world

Strong divergences in politicisation and political identity

The past electoral behaviours of Le Pen’s and Mélenchon’s voters indicate the strong loyalty of their electorates. 85% of people who voted for Le Pen in 2012 voted again for her in 2017, which is the higher rate among all the candidates of the 2017 presidential election. 81% of Mélenchon’s 2012 voters voted for him again in 2017 (29). Nonetheless, beside this similarity, the two electorates are radically different and non-permeable. The transfer of voters between Le Pen and Mélenchon from the 2012 election to the 2017 election is very low: only 2% of Mélenchon’s 2017 voters had voted Le Pen in 2012 and conversely only 2% of Le Pen’s 2017 voters had cast a ballot for Mélenchon in 2012 (30) (see graph 3 (pdf)). Le Pen expanded her electorate with former right-wing voters (15% of her 2017 voters voted Sarkozy in 2012) and with people who abstained or voted for a small candidate in 2012 or had since acquired the right to vote (13% of her 2017 voters). On the other hand, among 100 people who voted for Mélenchon in 2017, 34% had voted for him in 2012, 32% for Hollande and 25% had either abstained or voted for a small candidate or had not been old enough to vote. The share of voters coming from the opposite camp is very small for both candidates, indicating the inexistence of electoral porosity between them.

The political self-positioning of the voters confirms this trend. According to Viavoice, 70% of Mélenchon’s voters position themselves as left-wing, 19% as neither left nor right and only 3% as right-wing while 63% of Le Pen’s voters claim to be right-wing, 24% neither left nor right and only 2% position themselves as left-wing. The political-party sympathies expressed by the voters also confirm the idea that there is no porosity: 68.4%31 of Le Pen voters consider themselves close to the FN, 11.2% close to the right and only 5.2% as close to the left (14.1% of voters declaring no political-party sympathy). On the other hand, 76.7% of Mélenchon’s voters claim to be sympathetic to the left, 3.5% close to the right and only 1.3% as being close to the FN (16.4% of voters declaring no political-party sympathy). 84% (32) of the voters considering themselves close to the Front de Gauche voted Mélenchon while 0% voted for Le Pen; 62% of sympathisers of the far left voted Mélenchon along with 38% of the sympathisers of the Greens. Among the voters declaring sympathy for the Front National, 87% voted Le Pen and only 2% voted for Mélenchon (see graph 4 (pdf)).

These statistics refute the thesis that the Front National expanded through the attraction of voters from the left who were disappointed by the left’s inability to concretely improve living standards as well as its abandonment of its values (the struggle against inequality and of the promotion of social justice). The existence of a gaucho-lepénisme (33), the idea that left-wing voters moved electorally and ideologically to the far right (34, 35), has no empirical ground as the surveys converge to validate the idea of an electoral realignment of the right-wing electorate among the working classes for explaining the rise of the Front National (36). Indeed, the decrease the classical right’s vote share among workers and employees coincided with the expansion of the FN in the lower social categories (37). Le Pen expanded her electorate through attracting right wing voters or non-politicised voters, and not from the left or the radical left (38). On the other hand, Mélenchon beneficiated from the support of former PS voters and the rallying of voters from various tendencies of the left (social-democrats, greens, far left) and succeeded in attracting new voters or former abstainers.

The nonexistence of ideological porosity

The issues and proposals considered by the voters as more or less important in the determining their vote point to very divergent concerns between the two constituencies. The three most determining elements for Mélenchon’s electorate are the increase of wages and purchasing power, the struggle against unemployment and the struggle against precariousness (health comes fourth and the defence of public services in fifth position (39)). Environmental conservation and education are also central issues for Mélenchon’s voters (both considered as crucial by 63%). For Le Pen’s voters, the three main determinants, and by far, are the struggle against terrorism (93% see it as decisive), the struggle against illegal immigration (92%) and the struggle against delinquency and insecurity (85%) (see graph 5 (pdf)). For both candidates a few determinants are unifying the electorate and in each case, they are the expression of very ideologised principles: xenophobia, racism and Islamophobia for the FN (which come from the classic, traditional background of the far right), social justice and redistribution for Mélenchon.

In Laclau’s theorization (40), populism is a political strategy which aims at building the people into a political subject, in a context of decline of the historical propulsive antagonism (the class struggle) due to the fragmentation of its historical social basis (working classes and bourgeoisie), the running out of steam of its narrative (due to a new global geopolitical environment) and the emergence of new cleavages (feminism, anti-racism, anti-globalisation, environmentalism…). These new dividing lines caused the emergence of divergent social demands and, for Laclau, the populist strategy is a method for organising these demands in a coherent narrative for generating a “we” against a “them”, in order to mobilize social groups whose interests are in contradiction. Populism aims at generating, through the elaboration of a narrative and a political subjectivation, a chain of equivalence between the divergent social demands. The determining elements of the vote of the Mélenchon and Le Pen’s electorates reveal the existence of two diametrically opposed chains of equivalence. Mélenchon’s discourse united voters around an ecologist and left-wing project which included the sector-specific demands from the various traditions of the left and organised them in a coherent electoral platform. On the other hand, Le Pen’s narrative gathered voters, with opposed socio-economic interests, around the struggle against an alleged threat against the French identity and the way of life of the population. This threat would come from the immigration of millions of foreigners from a Muslim background, who would impose their culture and religion (understood as a radical Islam supportive of jihadist terrorism), commit acts of delinquency and took the jobs and social benefits of the French workers. The fear of a dilution of the French identity and the disintegration of the French nation into a multiculturalist society dominated by Muslims unites the well-off conservative and traditionalist bourgeoisie and the precarious salaried workers who fear to lose his job. Laclau’s theorisation of populism gives a conceptual ground for explaining the socio-economic heterogeneity of the electorate of Mélenchon and Le Pen as the discourses and electoral platforms produce a political identity shared by people with dissimilar interests, thus generating new discursive antagonisms. Interestingly, even if Mélenchon as Le Pen claim to belong neither to the right neither to the left, both of their chains of equivalence convey a revivification of central elements in the theoretical and ideological corpus of the radical left and of the far-right. Consequently, populism, in its theoretical conceptualisation, is nothing more than the construction of a political subject around a shared narrative which brings together divergent social demands from different segments of the population.

Although a few political commentators and scholars may argue that left-wing and right-wing populism share similar aspects in their way of doing politics, as some of their strategic and discursive tools are alike, the substance of their political approaches is nevertheless radically different. An in-depth political survey on the first-round electorates, realized by IPSOS Sopra-Steria for the Fondation Jean Jaurès (41), exposed the extent of the ideological cleavage that separates Mélenchon’s and Le Pen’s electorate and identified four main elements of cleavage. The first one is the perception of the past and the future: most of Le Pen’s voters are convinced that France is in decline while Mélenchon’s voters strongly disapprove such statement. Le Pen’s voters are very attached to traditions and the values from the past, unlike radical left voters. Secondly, they differentiate through their relationship to the “other” and more specifically to immigration and Islam. 95% of Le Pen’s electors think that “there are too many foreigners in France” to only 30% of France Insoumise sympathisers; 58% of the France Insoumise sympathisers consider that “Islam is compatible with the values of the French society” while only 9% of the FN sympathisers agree with this affirmation. This Islamophobia of the FN, and the contrast with the religious tolerance of radical left voters, explains the distribution of the votes according to the voters’ religious beliefs. 37% of the voters declaring themselves as Muslims voted for Mélenchon who arrived first among the Muslims’ voters (only 5% of them voted for Le Pen) (42). The overrepresentation of Mélenchon and the underrepresentation of Le Pen in this category illustrate the strong differences between both electorates in term of values (tolerance and community life). Third, in terms of socio-economic issues, Mélenchon’s voters strongly disagree with the idea that “unemployed people could easily find a job if they wanted to” and with the existence of dependant people who would live on welfare and social benefits at the expense of working people. In addition, the two electorates are also distinguished in their perception of political and social principles of organisation of society. 98% of FN voters think that “a true leader is needed in order to restore order” whereas Mélenchon’s constituency do not share this perception that authoritarian rule is necessary to govern society. Similarly, Mélenchon’s voters do not accept the possibility of a political regime other than democracy while 55% of FN voters think that a system different from democracy could function just as well. Last but not least, the two electorates are sharply differentiated by their perception of regional and global issues; 88% of Mélenchon’s voters defend the remain of France within the Eurozone (to 44% of Le Pen’s voters), 59% see the European Union as a “positive thing” (to 17% of Le Pen’s voters) and 59% are in favour of France increasing its opening to the world (to only 10% of Le Pen’s voters). These results confirms the radical and substantial divergence of the values, opinions and convictions of the electorates of right-wing and left-wing populism and the persistence of a strong ideological and cultural borders between the radical left and the far right, despite the abandonment by both Le Pen and Mélenchon of the right-left cleavage as a relevant grid of analysis.


The in-depth analysis of the composition of Mélenchon’s and Le Pen’s electorates, based on empirical data, absolutely refutes the hypothesis of an electoral or ideological porosity between the French right-wing and left-wing populisms. Despite some similarities (high results in the working classes, among the low income and education voters), the two candidates seduced different segments of the anti-system voters, in terms of values, electoral backgrounds and socio-economic living conditions. The overrepresentation of the lower social categories, of the youth, of the losers of globalisation in both right-wing and left-wing populism is a sign that these social groups are moving away from the traditional ruling parties and opting for more radical platforms and candidates. However this polarization is occurring within a political field divided by cultural and ideological cleavages and dividing lines, and therefore political and electoral mobility is shaped by these structural socio-political determinants. The focus on the first round of the presidential election gives a general significance to this conclusion as the first round is characterized by the lowest levels of abstention and the longest lasting and best followed political campaigns, in addition to the representation of every major political tendency by the various candidates. However the results of the second round confirm some aspects of our analysis: the electoral transfers in the second round shows the inaccuracy of the idea of an electoral porosity between right-wing and left-wing populism: only 7% of Mélenchon’s voters voted Le Pen in the second round while 52% voted for Macron (the remainders abstained). By comparison, 20% of Fillon’s voters chose Le Pen in the second round; the electoral transfer (in terms of share of the first round voters) from Mélenchon to Le Pen is among the smallest.

The progression of Le Pen and Mélenchon between 2012 and 2017 is the result of a campaign’s political strategy that can be characterized as populist in Laclau’s sense. The narratives used by the two candidates to create a chain of equivalences and gather divergent social demands were successful; however the composition of their electorates is surprisingly different, disconcerting the traditional political commentators or editorial writers who mobilized the simplistic explanation of the two converging populisms. The values, electoral behaviours, opinions and socio-economic status of the two electorates diverge, even though they share similar superficial anti-system characteristics. Both sides expanded their electorate through the attraction of former voters and non-voters but also through the attraction of disillusioned voters from the right and the left: Mélenchon succeeded in gathering large segments of the PS and Green electorate (and in capturing the far-left vote) while Le Pen attracted former Sarkozy’s voters. The absence of ideological convergences and the non-existence (at least in the 2017 electoral cycle) of electoral transfers from left-wing populism to right-wing populism should lead the radical left as a whole to reconsider its attempts to convince and attract the core of the Front National’s electorate. The watertightness of the ideological and electoral frontier between the two blocs makes electoral transfers very hypothetic and uncertain, whereas their political cost will certainly be very great. With regard to the strong anchoring of Mélenchon’s electorate in left and even radical left values, beliefs and identities, it seems obvious that such a constituency will not tolerate any downward sliding or ambiguities that will try to attract FN voters by making concessions to their rhetoric. In the confrontation with the far-right, what is really at stake is the ability of left-wing populism to mobilise and organise the electoral deployment of its own social and electoral base at a larger scale than the FN or Macron.

This article was first published by transform! Europe on 21 February 2018.


(1) The most disrupting of them is the accession of Jean-Marie Le Pen to the second round of the 2002 presidential election, ousting the candidate of the PS
(2) Macron gathered more than 66% of the votes, a result unequalled since 2002 and the victory of Chirac against Jean-Marie Le Pen, with 82%
(3) 350 candidates supporting Macron’s policy were elected as members of Parliament, among which 313 are members of La République En Marche’s group, the rest is composed of allied groups which art part of the governing coalition
(4) Besse-Desmoulières, Raphaëlle & Mestre, Abel, Mélenchon – Le Pen, le match des populismes, Le Monde, 7 février 2012,
(5) Mudde, Cas, The problem with populism, The Guardian, February 2015,
(6) Mudde, Cas, The Populist Zeitgeist, Government and Opposition, Vol. 39, 2004
(7) Kriesi Hanspeter, Pappas Takis, European Populism in the Shadow of the Great Recession, ECPR Press, 2015
(8) Bröning, Michael, The Rise of Populism in Europe. Can the Center Hold? Foreign Affairs, June, 2016,
(9) Mélenchon gathered 19.58% which is the highest result for a radical left candidate since 1969 and Le Pen realized the highest result ever of the FN. In addition, the gap between Macron (who arrived first) and Mélenchon who arrived fourth is extremely close (less than 5 points of percentage)
(10) Laclau, Ernesto, On Populist Reason, Verso, 2007
(11) Ifop et Fiducial, Le profil des électeurs et les clefs du premier tour de l’élection présidentielle, 23 avril 2017
(12) IPSOS et Sopria, 1er tour de la présidentielle de 2017 : Comprendre le vote des Français, 19-22 avril 2017
(13) Ifop, ibid
(14) Viavoice, Après le premier tour, 26 avril 2017
(15) Ifop, ibid
(16) Ifop, ibid
(17) Ifop, ibid
(18) Rouban, Luc, Le peuple qui vote Mélenchon est-il le peuple ? The Conversation, Octobre 2017,
(19) Ifop, ibid
(20) Gurr, Ted, Why Men Rebel, Princeton University Press, 1970
(21) Luis, Ramiro, Support for Radical Left Parties in Western Europe: Social Background, Ideology and Political Orientation, European Political Science Review, 2016
(22) IPSOS, ibid
(23) Fourquet, Jérôme, Karim vote à gauche et son voisin vote FN. Sociologie électorale de l’« immigration, éditions de l’Aube/Fondation Jean-Jaurès, janvier 2016
(24) Ifop, ibid
(25) Léger, Jean-François, Le chômage, terreau du vote Front national ?, Population & Avenir, 2015
(26) Ifop, ibid
(27) Mauger Gérard, Pelletier Willy, Les classes populaires et le FN, Editions du Croquant, 2017
(28) Mayer, Nonna, Ces français qui votent Le Pen, Flammarion, 2002
(29) Viavoice, ibid
(30) Harris Interactive, Le 1er tour de l’élection présidentielle 2017. Composition des différents électorats, motivations et éléments de structuration du vote, 23 avril 2017
(31) Ifop, ibid
(32) IPSOS, ibid
(33) This concept was elaborated by the political scientist Pascal Perrineau in order to describe the attraction, by the FN since the 1980s, of the votes of workers who previously voted for the left. This shift would be the consequence of the economic crisis and the neoliberal turn of the policies implemented by the PS.
(34) Perrineau, Pascal, La France au Front : essai sur l’avenir du Front National, Fayard, 2014; Perrineau, Pascal, La dynamique du vote Le Pen : le poids du “gaucholepénisme”, dans Perrineau Pascal et Ysmal Colette (dir.), Le Vote de crise : l’élection présidentielle de 1995, Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, 1995
(35) Perrineau, Pascal, La dynamique du vote Le Pen : le poids du “gaucholepénisme”, dans Perrineau Pascal et Ysmal Colette (dir.), Le Vote de crise : l’élection présidentielle de 1995, Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, 1995
(36) Gougou, Florent, Les ouvriers et le vote Front National. Les logiques d’un réalignement électoral, in in Crépon Sylvain, Dézé Alexandre et Mayer Nonna, Les Faux-Semblants du Front National. Sociologie d’un parti politique, Presses de Sciences Po, 2015
(37) Gougou, Florent & Mayer, Nonna, The class basis of extreme right voting in France: generational replacement and the rise of new cultural issues (1984-2007) In Class Politics and the Radical Right, Routledge, 2012
(38) Bischoff Joachim, Gauthier Elisabeth, Müller Bernhard, Droites Populistes en Europe : les raisons d’un succès, Editions du Croquant, 2015
(39) Ifop, ibid
(40) Laclau, ibid
(41) Finchelstein Gilles, Teinturier Brice, Entre France Insoumise et Front National, de solides divergences, Fondation Jean-Jaurès, juillet 2017
(42) Ifop, Le vote des électorats confessionnels au 1er tour de l’élection présidentielle, 23 avril 2017

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