clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The French election, explained in 9 maps and charts

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

We know which pair of France’s 11 presidential candidates will face off in next month’s decisive second round of voting. Now we’re learning a lot more about why the last two standing are centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who will face each other in a runoff on May 7.

This result, while largely in line with polling expectations, is still a huge event in the long-term arc of French politics. To understand why this matters so much, and what it tells us about the wave of populism sweeping Europe more broadly, we’ve put together nine maps and charts that shed light on what just happened — the forces behind it, who actually supported which candidates and why, and what’s likely to happen next.

1) The traditional parties collapsed

The first and most basic thing about this election is that it’s unlike any other we’ve seen in modern French history.

For decades, French politics was dominated by competition between the establishment center left and establishment center right — which competed principally over the size of the welfare state. In France, the two establishment parties are the Socialists on the left and the Republicans on the right.

But shockingly, neither of those parties qualified for the second round. What we’re seeing is a total rejection of the French political status quo — a deep sense among French voters that the establishment parties have failed.

2) Everyone really hates the current French president

Javier Zarracina/Vox

President François Hollande’s tenure is one key reason for this establishment sentiment. This chart shows how dramatic the turnaround was — and, if anything, understates the case. By December 2016, the same poll had Hollande with just a 4 percent approval rating.

Hollande won the presidency in 2012 by promising to turn around France’s moribund post–Great Recession economy, while simultaneously appealing to his left-wing base by promising a 75 percent tax on the wealthy. Yet he failed to fix France’s economy — French unemployment today, at 9.6 percent, is about 1.6 points higher than the European Union average — and disappointed the left by pushing through reforms that make it easier for businesses to keep employees at work for longer hours and to eliminate job positions.

He also made some deeply boneheaded mistakes — like telling reporters with the French paper Le Monde a lot of offensive stuff. The reporters collected Hollande’s comments in a book, published in 2016 under the title A President Should Not Say That, quoting him calling soccer stars classless idiots and saying that France has “a problem with Islam.”

The result was a president who had alienated basically every major constituency in French politics, and who brought the venerable Socialist Party to its weakest point in the history of the Fifth Republic.

3) How a scandal took down the early frontrunner


The center-right Republicans collapsed for a slightly different reason: scandal.

François Fillon had been considered the favorite early in the race. As recently as January, he and Le Pen were neck and neck at the top (the two blue lines at the top of the above charts). But late that month, the French publication Le Canard Enchaîné published evidence that Fillon was paying his wife, Penelope, with government money to do ... basically nothing. Evidence later emerged that he was also paying his children in the same shady fashion.

So his support melted away, to the benefit of Macron.

Macron was running as a center-left candidate, representing a new party (En Marche) that was formed to support his candidacy. His economic views were centrist by French standards (if quite left-wing by American ones), but his campaign was defined by a commitment to social tolerance and the European Union. This put him squarely in the center of the traditional French political consensus — which caused him to pick up support from moderates as Fillon became an increasingly less plausible choice.

According to Pippa Norris, a political scientist at Harvard, this is “common with centrist candidates and parties” — it represents the fact that they’re pulling support from the political mainstream, people who might have voted for other candidates but decided that Macron was their best bet to beat Le Pen.

4) How Le Pen won

(Focus on Migration)

Le Pen is Macron’s opposite in basically every respect.

The National Front, founded by Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in the ’70s, is perhaps the best-organized and most well-known of Europe’s far-right parties. The elder Le Pen built the party opposition to immigration and diversity, a kind of hardline nationalism that led to deep skepticism about European integration. Its support grew as a direct backlash to the unprecedented post–World War II surge in immigration to France, much of which came from majority Muslim or nonwhite countries.

Jean-Marie knew that overt appeals to white racial superiority and opposition to democracy had become taboo. So he chose a different route, positioning his party not as defenders of the white race generally but instead as protectors of French values specifically. Its slogan was "France for the French."

This was belied by Le Pen’s habit of saying deeply offensive stuff. During his time as leader, he bemoaned that there were too many nonwhite players on France’s national soccer team and flirted with Holocaust denial: “I'm not saying the gas chambers didn't exist. I haven't seen them myself. I haven't particularly studied the question. But I believe it's just a detail in the history of World War II.”

When his daughter Marine took over the party in 2011, she attempted to soften the party’s image, particularly trying to move away from overt racism and anti-Semitism and refocus on its core message of blaming immigrants for violence and social decay. This worked, putting her in a very strong position to capitalize on an anti-immigrant backlash in the wake of the 2015 refugee crisis.

5) France split geographically

When you start to parse the election results specifically, and look at different parts of France, you notice a few patterns.

The northeast part of the country went hard for Le Pen. According to Cas Mudde, a professor at the University of Georgia who studies the far right, this is the “Rust Belt” of France: “former blue-collar areas that used to be pretty wealthy and are now kind of in decay. They have reasonably high immigration and a lot of social problems.”

The south was also a big Le Pen region — but for peculiarly French historical reasons. “The south is more cultural,” Mudde says. “A lot of the [white] French who settled in Algeria, after independence, moved to the south of France, and obviously came with a lot of baggage: They were very right-wing ... and obviously very xenophobic, particularly toward North Africans.”

Macron, you’ll notice, dominated the city of Paris and the surrounding regions, losing only one suburban area (to Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the far-left candidate in the race). That’s indicative of Macron’s support base, which is disproportionately well-educated and urban.

6) There’s a demographic aspect — but not the one you’d expect

One of the most publicized bits of the election postmortem so far has been the supposed radicalism of French youth — giving more than 50 percent of their vote to Mélenchon and Le Pen — while the elderly generally backed more establishment candidates. That would suggest that France is the reverse of the United States, where the elderly tend to favor xenophobic candidates like Donald Trump and the youth tend to vote for more tolerant ones like Hillary Clinton.

This reading makes sense when you just glance at the above chart, but the reality is a bit more complicated: 18- to 24-year-olds were actually one of groups that gave the smallest percentage of their votes to Le Pen, trailing only voters 60 to 69 and 70 and above. Their radicalism was more an attraction to Mélenchon — which makes sense, as young voters are typically more left-wing and more likely to support new parties than the old.

“Young people are least anchored in parties, so they have the lowest party identification,” Norris says.

The elderly, by contrast, weren’t ideologically opposed to Le Pen. It’s instead that they’re deeply committed to the Republicans, especially through religious conservative networks, so they stuck with Fillon even despite his scandal.

“[The elderly] tend to be integrated into a religious subculture, which has its own party, where you’re told you should vote for that party,” Mudde says. “The vast, vast majority of the clergy is anti–radical right, and ... say that you shouldn’t vote for that.”

The result, according to Mudde, is a kind of weird situation wherein the elderly, who tend to agree with the far right’s views on immigration, don’t actually vote for it. The French youth, which are generally more tolerant of diversity, end up looking more radical than they are. (It’s worth noting here that young adults, voters ages 25 to 34, were Macron’s strongest group.)

7) Each party’s voters had very different motivations


The above table, from the pollster Ipsos, shows the percentage of people supporting each candidate who listed a particular issue as one of their top three concerns for the election. While the table is in French, the key takeaway, highlighted in red, is pretty clear to English speakers. Le Pen supporters were distinguished principally by their concern with immigration (and, to a lesser extent, terrorism).

Macron voters were more interested in bread-and-butter issues — standard of living (pouvoir d’echat) or unemployment (le chômage). That speaks to the core divide at work here: People who are deeply concerned with the effect of immigration on French society, versus those who are basically fine with rising levels of diversity and want to try to make France a better country for whoever wants to live there.

8) The divide between Le Pen and Macron speaks to the heart of the far right’s appeal

(Javier Zarracina/Vox)

The overwhelming focus on immigration among Le Pen voters speaks to a broader point about the far right: The core reason people are attracted to it, not just in France but around Europe, is a sense of sociocultural threat stemming from increased diversity.

In a 2008 paper, University of Bergen scholar Elisabeth Ivarsflaten looked at data on vote shares for seven European far-right parties, to try to figure out why people voted for them. The above chart shows her results. The y-axis is the probability of voting for a far-right party; the x-axis is the level of support for restrictive immigration policies, right-wing economic views, and the like.

The difference between immigration policy preferences and the others is striking. Ivarsflaten found that a person’s support for restricting immigration was "close to a perfect predictor" of his likelihood of voting for a far-right party. By contrast, people’s views on other political questions — like economics or trust in government — didn’t have nearly the same predictive value.

"This study therefore to a large extent settles the debate about which grievances unite all populist right parties," Ivarsflaten concluded. "The answer is the grievances arising from Europe’s ongoing immigration crisis." Subsequent research has sustained this conclusion — showing Sunday’s election to be part of a broader pattern.

9) Macron is practically a lock to win the next round

(Huffington Post Pollster)

After the election was over, the mainstream French candidates united in endorsing Macron as the only responsible choice. Their endorsements were explicitly grounded in their view of Le Pen as an enemy of basic French values.

The National Front "has a history of violence and intolerance,” Fillon said in his concession speech. “Extremism can only lead to misery.”

It is, of course, possible that the losers’ appeals fall on deaf ears — and that Macron suffers what would be one of the largest two-week collapses in the history of modern democracy. Factors that could help Le Pen: large-scale terror attacks in the runup to the second round or if Mélenchon’s far-left voters abruptly break for Le Pen because of anger at Macron’s status quo policies.

That’s highly unlikely, though. Macron is so far ahead that a polling miss would make Brexit and Trump look like a rounding error:

His lead is huge and stable. A Le Pen victory would be one of the greatest upsets in modern political history — which isn’t inconceivable but is very, very unlikely.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.