France: a country divided

Issue: 175

Judith Orr

The results of the French presidential elections in April 2022 show a level of polarisation in France not seen since the 1930s. Fascist Marine Le Pen of the Rassemblement National (National Rally; NR) party, previously known as the Front National (National Front) and founded by Nazi collaborators and Holocaust deniers, came second in the national poll. Meanwhile, the main radical left-wing candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon of La France Insoumise (France Unbowed; FI), came a close third. There were only around 420,000 votes separating Le Pen and Mélenchon.

President Emmanuel Macron has won a second term in office. Nevertheless, this is far from a resolution of the political struggle in France; instead, it opens up new battles. In particular, the fact that Le Pen managed her best ever vote raises questions about how to take forward the fight against the far right and the fascists. This article, which should be read alongside my piece in the previous issue of International Socialism, written in the run up to the presidential election, will look at the results of the contest.1 It will examine who voted for Le Pen, why they did so, what this tells us about French politics, and what it means for the future. Four points are worth highlighting from the start.

First, it is important to note just how close Le Pen came to triumph (see table 1). This is especially stark when we compare her vote to previous presidential results. Marine Le Pen has improved on the votes of her father, former party leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, in each of her three attempts at the presidency; this latest result is double his best (see table 2). It is this expansion of support that enabled Marine Le Pen to claim on election night that the vote represented “a stunning victory”. NR’s 26 year old president, Jordan Bardella, pointed out that Le Pen had won 28 out of France’s 101 departments, up from two in 2017, and declared, “Next time, we’ll go all the way”.2

Table 1: 2022 presidential election results (percentage), 2017 results shown in brackets


2022 first round

2022 second round

Macron (LREM)

27.8 (24)

58.5 (2017: 66.1)

Le Pen (NR)

23.2 (21.3)

41.5 (2017: 33.9)

Mélenchon (FI)

22 (19.6)


Zemmour (R)



Pécresse (Rep)

4.8 (20*)


Jadot (Greens)



Lassalle (Rés)

3.1 (1.2)


Roussel (Communist)



Dupont-Aignan (Debout la France)

2.1 (4.7)


Hidalgo (Socialist)

1.8 (6.4*)


Poutou (NPA)

0.8 (1.1)


Arthaud (LO)

0.6 (0.6)


Source: Politico.
*Different candidate for party in 2017.

LREM=La République En Marche! (The Republic on the March!), R= Reconquête (Reconquest), Rep=Les Républicains (The Republicans), Rés=Résistons! (Resist!), NAP=Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (New Anticapitalist Party), LO= Lutte Ouvrière (Workers’ Struggle).

Table 2: Percentage of votes won by FN/NR in past presidential elections




Jean-Marie Le Pen



Jean-Marie Le Pen



Jean-Marie Le Pen



Jean-Marie Le Pen


17.8 (2nd round)

Jean-Marie Le Pen



Marine Le Pen



Marine Le Pen


33.9 (2nd round)

Marine Le Pen


41.5 (2nd round)

Source: Politico.

Second, the election results show how hated Macron is. Yes, he won; yet, despite Le Pen being the only alternative in the second round, the level of abstention was high. Many of those who had advocated “holding your nose” in 2017 and voting for Macron to block Le Pen did not want to repeat the exercise this time.

Third, the first round of the election demonstrated that the development of a stronger left-wing electoral challenge is possible in France, with a strong vote for Mélenchon. With 7.7 million votes, he took 22 percent of the total and won half a million more votes than five years ago.

Finally, the results confirmed what has been clear since Macron’s first victory in 2017—the big established political blocs that had dominated French politics for decades have utterly collapsed. The Parti Socialiste (Socialist Party, SP) candidate, mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo, won a derisory 1.8 percent; in 2012, the SP was the biggest party in France, winning the presidency and the largest number of seats in that year’s legislative elections. Imagine the impact if, for example, the Labour Party’s vote in Britain fell to such a level. Such a collapse in support for a centre-left party is not confined to France; it has also been seen elsewhere in Europe, for example in Hungary, Greece and Italy. Meanwhile, the conservative Les Républicains (The Republicans) candidate Valérie Pécresse received only 4.8 percent; in 2017, the party’s candidate, François Fillon, came third with over 20 percent of the vote.


Macron knows his victory is no enthusiastic endorsement of him and his policies. He banked on his much-hyped role as global diplomat in the context of the war in Ukraine, but it did not help him as much as he had hoped. Instead, his pro-business policies during his first term in office have led to him being denounced by many voters as “president of the rich”. He had cut business taxes, abolished the wealth tax, made it easier for firms to lay off workers and was still intent on increasing the pension age when France went to the polls. He had also unleashed police brutality against any expression of opposition on the streets. Moreover, instead of challenging the racism of Le Pen he had launched legislation that even further demonised Muslims in France and encouraged the whipping up of Islamophobia.3

Macron’s vote was down from 2017 and the turnout was the lowest for decades, standing at just at 72 percent. A total of 17 million people effectively rejected both candidates and refused to vote in the second round—more than a third of registered voters.4 The numbers of voters who did not vote for either candidate in the second round was even higher among younger voters, accounting for 40 percent of under 35s. Significantly, 8.6 percent of those who actually went to a polling station cast a protest vote to show their rejection of both candidates.5

This year was far from the first time that voters were told that obstructing a Le Pen presidency meant voting for the mainstream centre-right candidate. It began when Jean-Marie Le Pen first reached the second round against Jacques Chirac in 2002. Marine Le Pen’s rising vote should expose once and for all the futility of this as a strategy to block the fascists. Far from undermining Le Pen, the electoral victory of successive conservative presidents has only helped shift the political agenda rightwards, giving the far-right greater legitimacy.

Marine Le Pen

Marine Le Pen’s votes in the first round must be seen alongside the 7 percent of the vote achieved by the even more hardline far-right candidate Éric Zemmour, whose background and campaign I described in the previous issue of this journal. As I argued there, Zemmour’s rapid rise to prominence—this was his first ever election—is a result of the political strategy that Le Pen has implemented over the past decade, which has enabled him to fill the space opened to her right by her attempts to sanitise the RN brand.6

Le Pen has committed herself to distancing her party from its political roots in French fascism over many years, presenting herself as a more moderate candidate. In many ways, this “de-demonisation” of the party is working. Pollsters reported that their vote predictions were more accurate than in previous elections because voters are more willing to state that they intend to vote Le Pen. Taboos associated with supporting the RN have weakened; the “cordon santaire” that surrounded her father has greatly diminished. Chirac refused to take part in a TV debate with Jean-Marie Le Pen during the second round of the 2002 presidential election. In contrast, in 2022, Marine Le Pen was interviewed and featured across the media, and she and Macron went head to head in the main televised debate of the election for a second time. She and her political views are not outliers; she has become an established player embedded in the mainstream political landscape, which itself has become increasingly characterised by Islamophobic rhetoric and racist policies.

As the Economist has noted, we have seen a mainstreaming of even the most extreme views on race in France, including far-right narratives about immigrants taking over France. Indeed, Renaud Camus, the white nationalist writer who first coined the “Great Replacement” theory so popular with the far right globally, has now himself become a TV pundit: “Mr Camus has turned from recluse to TV-studio guest… Aspiring presidential candidates are invited by debate moderators, with scarcely a blush, to offer their perspective on the ‘Great Replacement’”.7 The vicious cycle that I described in previous articles is continuing, with the mainstream agenda legitimising Le Pen’s racist narrative and enabling her (and now other far-right forces) to then push that public agenda still further to right.8 The consequences are extremely dangerous. However, during the presidential election campaign, Le Pen was careful not to lead on the party’s racist agenda, as I will show in the following section.

Who voted Le Pen and why?

Le Pen put economic and class issues at the top of her campaigning programme. She focused on those she claims have been “left behind” by Macron and other politicians out of touch with people suffering from low incomes and a lack of opportunities. In recent years, this agenda has enabled her to expand her party’s reach beyond the far-right heartlands in southern parts of France. She has built up a base of support in the “rust belt” of northern France, where the loss of major industries has seen generations of unemployment and poverty. Figures confirm that her strongest support is not in the large urban centres, but rather in small towns as well as rural and semi-rural areas. For example, 51 percent of voters in towns with fewer than 1,000 inhabitants backed Le Pen, compared with 25 percent in towns with a population of over 100,000.

Le Pen’s economic promises focused on helping people struggling with the rising cost of living. She said she would cut VAT on electricity, gas and fuel from 20 percent to 5.5 percent by levying taxes on big oil companies. She also promised to cut income tax for the self-employed and lower the pension age. These policies and years of campaigning won her 58 percent of the vote “among working-class voters, from manual labourers to those employed in clerical jobs”; Macron, meanwhile, won 74 percent of the votes of “senior business executives and the highest-qualified professional classes”.9 The Financial Times highlighted the economic background of “communes” (administrative districts) that had switched allegiance since the 2017 presidential election: “The vast majority (97 percent) switched from Macron to Le Pen and are characterised by higher-than-average levels of unemployment”.10 Pollsters reported that 59 percent of voters who said they were “struggling to make ends meet” voted for Le Pen, compared to 41 percent who chose Macron.11

Le Pen also targeted younger voters with specific campaign policies. She promised to eliminate taxes on the under 30s and offered greater financial support for students. She spoke about climate change and addressing animal welfare issues and, as in the past, portrayed herself as a defender of women’s rights. So, though Macron was ahead of Marine Le Pen with the over 60s and pensioners, his victory margin was narrow among those aged 25-49.12 This is testament to the real gains she has made with younger voters in her time as party leader, and the number of younger voters supporting the RN have risen in every election in the 21st century. In 2022, “49 percent of 25-34 year olds who voted opted for Le Pen—compared to just over 41 percent of the general population, and 29 percent of voters over 70”.13 On top of this, Le Pen was slightly ahead among the 50-59 age group.14

Yet, however much Le Pen put the cost of living and other economic issues at the top of her campaigning her racist agenda was never far below the surface. When raising issues of animal welfare, for example, they were racialised and used to denounce halal and kosher meat. When talking about the environment she referred to “nationalist” ecology, and she used the language of women’s rights to claim that immigrants and Muslims are responsible for women’s oppression.15 She described the hijab as an “Islamist uniform” and stated she would ban it being worn in public. Seeking to justify this discriminatory policy, she claimed to be defending women’s freedom: “It’s been forced on women. Those who don’t wear it are isolated, suffer pressures and sometimes are insulted… I won’t tolerate this. All women in France must be able to live freely”.16

An interview with Jean-Marie Le Pen in the Sunday Times shortly after the election underlines the danger presented by the increase in her vote: “In my opinion the result is promising for the future, which is key. When you are at that level, you are getting closer to a majority and to complete victory”.17 Both Le Pens see the party’s electoral project from a long-term perspective. In the very same interview, Jean-Marie Le Pen was happy to repeat his Holocaust-denying statement that the Nazi genocide is a mere “point of detail of the history of the Second World War”, as interviewer Peter Conradi reports:

He is jovial and makes no attempt to tone down his more repugnant views. “What did I say that was scandalous?”, he retorts when I ask if he regrets downplaying the Holocaust. “If it wasn’t a detail of the history of the war, what was it?”

Significantly, he also confirmed that he is still close to Marine Le Pen’s niece, Marion Maréchal, who is the future in his view, and that he advocates unity between RN and Zemmour. This section of the Le Pen family and its supporters may not be part of Marine Le Pen’s vision of the future of the party, but neither they nor their political aspirations have gone away.


The impact of the presidential election has led to a process of realignment across the political spectrum. We now see three blocs attempting to realign themselves, headed up by Marine Le Pen and Zemmour on the far right, Mélenchon on the radical left, and Macron in the “extreme centre”. These developments flow from the desire to maximise electoral impact, but they also reflect real forces on the ground and the new reality of French politics.

Mélenchon’s first round vote of 22 percent shows the political pull is not all to the right and that a significant section of voters can be mobilised for an alternative to both Marcon and Le Pen. Mélenchon’s support was particularly strong in the big cities, and polls suggest he won 69 percent of Muslim voters. His vote fed off bitter opposition to Macron and, in the second round, more Mélenchon voters abstained (45 percent) than voted for the incumbent (42 percent).18 As soon as the results of the first round were announced, Mélenchon shifted focus to the elections to the legislature in June, calling them the “third round” of the presidential election.19

Positioned himself as an alternative prime minister who could block Macron’s agenda, Mélenchon has launched a new coalition to stand candidates in June’s legislative elections.20 This grouping, the Nouvelle Union Populaire écologique et Sociale (New Ecological and Social Popular Union), includes the Socialist Party, Europe Écologie Les Verts (Europe Ecology—The Greens) and the Parti Communiste Français (Communist Party of France). Nonetheless, some radical leftists have expressed concerns about how the coalition is being built, pointing to the concessions Mélenchon made in order to pull in forces to his right. At the time of writing, parties of the left are jostling for position around these alliances.

Macron has also rebranded, renaming his party Renaissance and calling on allies to participate in rebooting his political project. On the far right, immediately after the Macron’s victory, Zemmour made a call to unite “patriots”in order to win seats in June’s elections, although he subsequently announced that his Reconquête (Reconquest) party would stand in 550 out of the 577 constituencies. Maréchal, who threw her support behind Zemmour in the election, tweeted her support for unity between the RN and Reconquête after the final result was announced: “The disappointment is great this evening for all patriots, but we still have the means to deprive Macron of legislative power. We must build a great national alliance in the legislative elections!21 The Financial Times highlighted the impact that Zemmour and Le Pen might have if they combined forces:

Making peace would be tactically advantageous. Together, they would win at least 117 seats in the National Assembly, as against 75 if the RN went ahead alone, according to Harris Interactive, making them by far the biggest opposition group to Macron’s expected majority.22

However, the bitterness within RN to those who left to join Zemmour before the presidential election is a significant barrier to the creation of any formal pact.

So far, Le Pen feels she is in a strong enough position to resist pressure to unite with Zemmour. Instead, she wants to appeal to Republican Party voters and other conservatives; allying with Zemmour could jeopardise this and resurrect her toxic legacy. She insists people who left RN to join Zemmour were on a “one-way ticket” and “a path of no return”. Keen to point to what distinguishes her from Zemmour, she has highlighted his willingness to support Macron’s most unpopular attacks on workers. Were she to advocate voting for Reconquête, she claims, “I would be contributing to the election of Zemmour’s deputies, who would vote alongside Macron for retirement at 65. That would be a betrayal of my voters”.23

RN are standing 569 candidates in the June elections. Though it announced a modest aim to win 15 seats, this is still double its current total. The 15-seat threshold is critical as it would give the party the right to set up a parliamentary group, with all the parliamentary benefits that would bring. These include state funding, which is a big issue for a party carrying debts as large as the RN’s.24


The danger signals of the rise of fascism in France are there for all to see, and this poses major challenges for socialists. The struggle against fascism needs to be fought on several fronts. Importantly, socialists must take up uncompromising and principled opposition to Islamophobia in every arena. Past concessions to anti-Muslim racism have only strengthened Le Pen and weakened the left.

In the electoral arena, as Mélenchon’s campaign shows, a socialist agenda can be a powerful antidote to the far right’s racist narrative. However, whatever the political reorganisation of parties on the left, an electoral project alone cannot block the rise of the fascists and the far right. As the economic crisis bites, the struggles that have broken out in France during Macron’s first five years in office need to be built upon. This means campaigning on the ground among working-class people in offices, factories, colleges and schools, and importantly in the banlieues of the major cities where so many face rising racism and police brutality.25 Nevertheless, even the successive waves of radical struggles that France has so far seen have been unable on their own to reverse the long-term growth of the far right.

An immediately crucial task is ensuring Le Pen and Zemmour win as few votes and seats as possible in the upcoming legislative elections. Yet, it is also necessary to build a durable united front in the struggle against fascism, and such a campaign cannot only come into being in the run up to elections. As Trotsky argued in relation to Germany in the 1930s, at a time when the combined electoral vote of the left was greater than that of Hitler’s Nazis, socialists also have to build united opposition to the fascists on the streets. The need to construct a united front in opposition to fascists applies to France today too. It is now a race against time.

Judith Orr is the author of Abortion Wars: The Fight for Reproductive Rights (Policy, 2017) and Marxism and Women’s Liberation (Bookmarks, 2015).


1 Orr, 2022.

2 Abboud, 2022a.

3 Orr, 2020a.

4 Henley, 2022.

5 France24, 2022.

6 Orr, 2022.

7 Economist, 2021.

8 Orr, 2020b; Orr, 2022.

9 Fourquet, 2022.

10 Nolsoe and Hollowood, 2022.

11 Henley, 2022.

12 Akrimi, 2022.

13 Tower and Gélix, 2022.

14 France24, 2022.

15 Orr, 2020a; Orr, 2019.

16 Caulcutt, 2022.

17 Conradi, 2022.

18 Michelon, 2022.

19 This analysis was written before the two rounds of legislative elections on 12 and 19 June 2022.

20 The actual prime minister is choosen by the president, rather than being elected.

21 Ali, 2022.

22 Abboud, 2022b.

23 Basso, 2022.

24 Brunet, 2022.

25 The term “banlieues” refers to poor neighbourhoods on the edges of French cities, which often have disproportionately large migrant populations.


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