The French Left Is Struggling to Win Back Voters Who’ve Turned to the Far Right

Jean-Luc Mélenchon has long sought to rally blue-collar voters he labels “fed up, not fascists.” Yet his movement has faced an uphill battle countering disaffection with politics — and the growing media dominance of far-right talking points.

La France Insoumise's Jean-Luc Mélenchon takes part in a news broadcast in Boulogne-Billancourt, outside Paris, France. (Thomas COEX / AFP via Getty Images)

Writing for Libération this September 17, Jean-Luc Mélenchon warned against obsessing with speculation about far-right pundit Éric Zemmour running for the presidency. For the France Insoumise (LFI) leader, it would be a mistake to “get bogged down in putrid debates with Zemmour and co.” Six days later, Mélenchon debated this same polemicist on CNEWS, a TV channel widely compared to Fox. As agreed, the first half of the evening dealt with Zemmour’s preferred themes (immigration, immigration, and immigration) while at the LFI leader’s request, the second half focused on social and ecological issues.

Ahead of Zemmour’s announcement this Tuesday that he will indeed run, some doubted whether Mélenchon hadn’t just played into his hands. Is it even possible, they asked, to have a debate — a rational exchange of arguments — with an individual who breathes lies, and who has made misogynistic and racist provocations his whole calling in life? And why agree to go on a channel that has so actively contributed to the right-wing turn in French public debate?

We might doubt the sincerity of such questions when they’re being raised by supporters of Emmanuel Macron. They had no objections when the president called Zemmour on his personal phone to comfort him after an attack, or indeed when Macron praised the “great soldier” Marshal Pétain, leader of the Nazi-collaborationist Vichy regime. We might question the consistency of those on the center-left who criticized Mélenchon for debating Zemmour but themselves joined this May’s protests called by far-right police unions.

But behind this polemic — with all its share of hypocrisy and petty rivalries — is the thorny question of what strategy can contain the fascist threat. Unless one claims to have found the definitive answer already (an unlikely conclusion, considering that the French far right has been making ideological and electoral headway for four decades), then such controversy ought to be welcome; and Mélenchon’s own choices are, certainly, worth debating. But how has he tried to fight the far right — and is it working?

Le Pen’s Working-Class Support

Mélenchon’s approach is especially a response to the rise of the National Front (FN), and its mounting strength in blue-collar France. During the 1990s, founder Jean-Marie Le Pen dropped his fascination with Thatcher/Reagan-style economic liberalism, and since then the National Front has succeeded in broadening its electorate to embrace much of the working classes. This “social turn” — combined with its “detoxification” strategy — was completed with his daughter’s enthronement as party leader in 2011.

This has paid off electorally: in the 2017 presidential run-off, Le Pen’s party scored over 10 million votes for the first time. Marine Le Pen almost doubled the score her father achieved against Jacques Chirac in 2002, and already in the first round captured 39 percent of the working-class vote. While the party (rebadged Rassemblement National in 2018) has fared poorly in first-past-the-post races like parliamentary elections, it can now proudly write on its posters that it is the “first workers’ party in France.”

This is itself an alarming development — added to the problem that the popular vote for this party is less subject to periodic fluctuations than the radical left’s own. The far right’s gradual penetration among the working classes has been concomitant with the erosion of the Communist (and Socialist) vote among these same classes. That said, only a small proportion of ex-left-wing voters have switched directly to Le Pen. Rather, they have mostly taken refuge in abstention, while already right-wing workers have radicalized to the extreme right.

In the late 2000s, the social-democratic think tank Terra Nova concluded that the working class was no longer the electoral heart of the Left — and no longer in tune with its values. It thus advised the Parti Socialiste to drop any focus on the working class and instead address various other categories supposedly defined by their liberal values — young, female, non-white, middle-class, urban, etc. voters.

Yet Mélenchon, who quit the Socialists in 2008, has never resigned himself to this. In the 2012 parliamentary elections he directly challenged Marine Le Pen in Hénin-Beaumont, an old Socialist fiefdom already turning toward the far right. He insisted on the need to mobilize the working-class vote:

Victories for the extreme right have always depended on the tactical and strategic mistakes of the left. […] The disconnection is not only emotional — this left is today unable to prove to the people that its interests are on the left. There is a disconnect between its program and the working classes. We are taking over the reins.

Yet, even with 21 percent support Mélenchon was eliminated in the first round — reduced to the optimistic insistence that, “I proved able to wrest an important clutch of feathers from Le Pen, to take votes from her.”

“Fâchés pas Fachos”

Mélenchon’s aim, in Hénin-Beaumont as elsewhere, was to win back those he calls “fâchés pas fachos” — “fed up, not fascist.” This means rivaling the far right for the support of the losers of globalization, whose anger, Mélenchon insists, is misdirected toward “the foreigner rather than the financier.” “Through [fighting] Ms. Le Pen,” Mélenchon asserted in 2012, “I confront the FN’s ideas. […] Will the way out of the crisis be social, or ethnic?”

The beginning of the gilets jaunes movement in fall 2018 provided a fresh terrain for this battle — posing the question of who would draw the electoral benefit in May 2019’s European elections. Mélenchon reiterated his earlier analysis, telling RTL: “The job of people like me is to talk to all the people, but perhaps mainly to the fâchés pas fachos by telling them — ‘don’t get the wrong anger.’”

Over the last decade, Mélenchon has made the “half-crazy” National Front leader his “main enemy.” This is, firstly, a matter of principle: the most urgent task is to oppose the “racist and anti-social content of the National Front’s program,” which threatens the cohesion of France as well as workers’ interests. But it’s also a tactical consideration. Mélenchon is convinced that power is out of reach, so long as the social-liberals and their Macronist offspring can use the far-right bogeyman to rally a “pragmatic vote” in their own favor. As he argued in a 2019 blogpost:

Today, a vote for Le Pen is a vote for the system and the system has understood this perfectly. The fâchés pas fachos have no reason to turn to this option, which is more than ever the system’s life insurance policy. All those who think that France and Europe’s problems come more from the banker and the billionaire than from the immigrant must be called on to join forces with France Insoumise. This objective remains central for us. This is key to advancing our cause: the mobilization of the popular mass which has today fallen into the Rassemblement National’s trap.

Theorized by Mélenchon, the reconquest of the “fâchés pas fachos” has become a key ideological marker of LFI. Adrien Quatennens, head of LFI’s organization since 2019, recognizes this unambiguously. He wrote in Libération on May 22, 2019 that the Rassemblement National and Mélenchon’s movement are each in a race against time — with victory sure to go to whichever manages to “attract the fâchés pas fachos into its own fold.”

Telling in this regard is the stance of François Ruffin, a reporter and filmmaker who is also an LFI MP. Following his victorious run for parliament in 2017, he credited his success to his forgiving attitude toward former Le Pen voters:

Ms. Le Pen took 41 percent of the vote in the Somme in the first round of the regional elections, and 45 percent in the working-class municipality of Flixecourt. I think we have to start from there. […] The unemployment rate among the unskilled, five times higher than that among managers, does not incline them to expect “a happy globalization”, or even “happy alter-globalization.” Now, added to their economic and social downfall is a political and moral condemnation. Let them vote FN, let them identify with an ostracized party, and their exclusion will thus be legitimized, [in a] double punishment. […] Macron is basically the only one I have taken as an opponent. I did not attack Le Pen very much. How can people who are doing badly, socially and economically, believe that Ms. Le Pen or her father, who have never governed the country, are responsible for their misfortunes? We should fight the FN by giving another opening to anger, to hope. By offering another conflict than the one between French and immigrants.

So, to win at the polls, it is necessary to spare Le Pen’s electorate from criticism — or even Le Pen herself. But isn’t sparing the Le Pens from criticism in order to win over their voters exactly what the mainstream right has been doing for thirty years — with the result that the National Front has become ever-stronger? And if, as Ruffin aptly comments, the Le Pens have never governed France, haven’t their ideas ended up governing anyway, precisely because of the complacency toward them?

Seduce, or Convince?

The phrase “fâchés pas fachos” denotes a strategic gamble: for the left-populists, electoral salvation comes from poaching voters from the Rassemblement National. But there are two ways to take back part of Le Pen’s working-class electorate: convince it or seduce it. Between his 2012 and 2017 presidential runs, Melenchon considerably altered his discourse in this regard. While during his first campaign Mélenchon sought to convince the “fâchés pas fachos” by celebrating “diverse society” and “otherness,” in 2017 he tried to seduce them by toning down his previous pro-immigration line.

Thus, in his 2017 campaign, Mélenchon insisted that, while France had a duty of humanity toward refugees, the priority was to reduce migration flows, through diplomatic and trade agreements with departure countries. In 2017, LFI leaders no longer just attacked Le Pen for her fantastical specter of migrant invasion. Rather, they simultaneously denounced another fantasy — “no border” ideology and the “abolition of borders,” as conveyed by the far left — and sought to position themselves as a middle course between these two extremes, implicitly put on the same level.

Talking to the fâchés pas fachos also means intervening in their preferred media. Mélenchon has for years rejected requests for interviews from centrist daily Le Monde and left-wing site Mediapart, but regularly takes to the columns of the right-wing Le Figaro and goes on the far-right CNEWS.

In January 2019, prominent cadre Alexis Corbière and political scientist Thomas Guénolé (who quit LFI soon thereafter) even granted an interview to far-right weekly Valeurs actuelles, in 2015 convicted for incitement to racial hatred following a dossier entitled “the Roma overdose.” In the four-page interview, LFI MP Corbière insisted “France is a country of immigration” and that it is “absurd to talk about zero immigration.” But he also distanced himself from the “no border” left. Asked about the FN slogan “on est chez nous” (this is our home), heard at some gilets jaunes protests, Corbière said: “I can see the xenophobic potential of the slogan, but it can also mean a desire to regain sovereignty.”

Mélenchon narrowly missed out on the second round in 2017 — and seems to think the “fâchés pas fachos” could have pushed him over the line. No doubt he has in mind the 36 percent of Rassemblement National sympathizers who expressed a positive opinion of him just months later (Odoxa survey for Le Figaro, September 21, 2017), or the 26 percent of Le Pen voters who said that Mélenchon was their second choice (Ipsos poll for Le Monde, April 14, 2017).

Was there a reservoir of potential support, here? Some LFI cadres consider that this was where the six hundred thousand missing votes in 2017 were to be found, among the petits blancs — “modestly off-whites” living in “peripheral” and “deindustrialized” France. When, interviewing them for my book on LFI, I sought evidence for these claims, these cadres cited geographer Christophe Guilluy, demographer Emmanuel Todd, and philosopher Jean-Claude Michéa. But other insoumis challenge this analysis — instead locating the missing votes among another segment of the working classes, i.e. the multicultural suburbs of the major cities.

So, have the appeals to the “fâchés pas fachos” borne fruit? The answer is no. When left-wing populists move onto the terrain of right-wing populists, the vote transfers are at best zero-sum, and at worst actually benefit the Rassemblement National.

In the 2017 first round, 4 percent of Le Pen’s 2012 voters voted for Mélenchon, and 4 percent of Mélenchon’s 2012 voters voted for Le Pen. A draw, then. In the 2019 European elections, pollsters estimate that the proportion of 2017 Le Pen voters who backed the LFI list was close to 0 percent. Conversely, 7 percent of 2017 Mélenchon voters who voted at all in 2019 backed the Rassemblement National list led by the young Jordan Bardella. To this we can add the 2 percent who voted for Nicolas Dupont-Aignan’s Debout la France (IFOP data for Paris Match, May 27, 2019). So, about three hundred thousand people who voted Mélenchon in 2017 migrated to the far right in the 2019 European elections, while less than ten thousand people made the reverse journey.

What Are the Lepénistes “Suffering From”?

The quest for the “fâchés pas fachos” is based on the idea that part of Rassemblement National’s base is motivated by social difficulties, so we need to listen to their suffering. There is some basis to this analysis. When voters are asked to explain their motives, many say they are voting because of concerns over precarity (55 percent of Le Pen voters in the 2017 first round said that this was decisive to their choice), unemployment (69 percent), or public services (45 percent) — yet this is far less than the numbers claiming to be motivated by illegal immigration (92 percent), crime (85 percent), or terrorism (93 percent).

The drivers of the far-right vote are multiple, complex, intertwined, and difficult to untangle. They also vary between regions; the far-right vote in deindustrialized northern areas like the Pas-de-Calais and the Somme doesn’t correspond to the same history or social situation as wealthy parts of the Côte-d’Azur like the Var or the Vaucluse. Thirty-nine percent of Le Pen’s 2017 voters belong to households with a net monthly income of less than €1,500 a month, and 45 percent consider themselves “at the bottom of the social ladder.” By cross comparing these data, we can reasonably claim that the votes of about half of Le Pen’s base are rooted in socioeconomic difficulties.

But we can just as reasonably surmise that 90 percent of this same electorate is driven by hatred or at least fear of foreigners. These lepénistes suffer from a disease that the insoumis sometimes find difficult to name: racism. So, certainly, there have always been and there will always be repentant people. Without doubt, political identities are never fixed. Resentment can turn into revolt, and we must not abandon the workers to the far right. But, according to the most solidly grounded surveys on this subject, Le Pen’s base expresses massive hostility to the practice of Islam, and an antisemitism unmatched by any other electorate. It is culturally, ideologically, and politically rooted in the far right.

Insoumis leaders seem to underestimate the strength of these roots. In 2018, 85 percent of supporters of the Rassemblement National were avowed “racists” — that is, they claimed this term for themselves. Also, notes historian Hugo Melchior,

…when massive vote shifts took place to the detriment of the FN, as in 2007, it was Nicolas Sarkozy’s free-market right who benefited. Conversely, in 2017, Marine Le Pen managed to attract up to 14 percent of Sarkozy’s 2012 voters. These two cases, a decade apart, provide evidence of the porosity between right-wing electorates, while LFI, despite its so-called “left-populist” strategy aimed at addressing … the lower classes across partisan divides, has not managed to bring back into its fold even a fraction of this electorate … despite a discourse that sought to be more balanced on the migration issue.

Mélenchon’s Hesitations

Over the last two years, Mélenchon’s anti-fascist strategy has again evolved. This was evident in his participation, on November 10, 2019, in the March against Islamophobia (a term that the LFI leader now uses, after long rejecting it). So, too, in his praise of cultural “creolization,” a concept borrowed from the Martinican poet Édouard Glissant; and his recognition of the fact that universalism can be instrumentalized by the dominant in order to impose their culture and mores on everyone.

We also see this in his changed attitude to the police. Mélenchon today denounces the structural character of police violence (whereas he once saw it as a problem of “black sheep”), and LFI deputies refused to participate in the police demonstration this May, whereas Socialist, Communist, and Green MPs did take part. Mélenchon has moreover broken off all relations with right-wing personalities and those defending an identitarian version of French secularism (such as Natacha Polony and Henri Pena-Ruiz) while the sovereigntist wing of LFI, as embodied by figures like former defense spokesman Djordje Kuzmanović, has also been ejected.

These developments seem to suggest that Mélenchon no longer really believes he can win the “fâchés pas fachos.” The secret of his good score in 2017, soaring to 20 percent of the vote, instead lies in his ability to bring the Left together. Indeed, that year, in the first round of the presidential election, the LFI candidate rallied 70 percent of voters who identified as “very left-wing,” 48 percent of the “left-wing” and 24 percent of the “somewhat left-wing” (CEVIPOF data).

Moreover, even the geography of the 2017 Mélenchon vote closely overlaps with territories historically anchored to the Left. Admittedly, many “left-wing” voters no longer identify with this label, which was undeniably tarnished by François Hollande’s presidency in 2012–17. But, if they reject the word “Left,” they remain attached to the egalitarian content. When Mélenchon debated Zemmour in September, he was not addressing the far-right pundit or his supporters, but left-wing voters.

Looking at how Mélenchon has tried to stem the rise of the fascist danger over the last fifteen years thus provides a series of lessons. Despite its limitations, a left-populist strategy does in certain contexts seem able to allow the Left partly to reduce its distance from the working classes. Yet confronting the far right on its own terrain — on its preferred themes (immigration, security, nation, sovereignty) and in its own press organs (Valeurs actuelles, BFMTV, etc.) — is a highly risky operation, with little results to show.

But it also needs recognizing that fascism isn’t a phenomenon confined to the far right. Rather, it designates, more broadly, a dynamic of fascistization afflicting French society and public debate — with the effect that defending the fundamentals of left-wing politics is itself courageous. While the cultural arena is an important terrain of struggle, it simply cannot replace long and hard activist work on the ground — as close as possible to the working class from which the Left has gradually been isolating itself for decades.