France’s Far Right Is Gaining Where the Left Has Crumbled

French workers vote for the far-right Rassemblement National more than for other parties, but more often, they don’t vote at all. Rather than laying down roots like the old workers' parties, Marine Le Pen’s party has exploited the vacuum left by their decline.

President of French far-right Rassemblement National, Marine Le Pen, in Paris on February 7, 2024. (Gonzalo Fuentes / AFP via Getty Images)

For decades, France’s left was dominated by the French Communist Party (PCF), an organization that built up strong networks of support in working-class France over the twentieth century. Yet from the 1980s onward this mighty organization declined, leaving a vacuum to be filled. The Front National — the far-right party, led by Marine Le Pen, which became the Rassemblement National (RN) in 2018 — was a major beneficiary.

The PCF’s decline is closely bound up with the destruction of the social and organizational conditions that had long sustained workers’ participation in French political life. This shift gave social and activist groups far removed from the working class the opportunity to speak politically on its behalf. Le Pen’s Rassemblement National has no real activist base in working-class areas or on the shop floor. But today it can present itself as the “party of workers.”

The Rise and Weakening of a Workers’ Party

Founded as a workers’ party in the interwar years, from 1945 through the 1970s the Communist Party was the main activist and electoral force on the French left. The PCF’s organization was rooted in working-class France — and was usually headed by leaders hailing from such backgrounds. Its political weight was all the greater because of the relative social cohesion of these same classes. Skilled metalworkers and those employed in public firms with protected status (on the railways or in gas and electricity) played a key role in PCF ranks. Close connections between the sites of labor and residential areas also meant that workplace-level political involvement easily extended into the local context. Blue-collar union activists joined forces with the likes of teachers to challenge social elites’ power over municipal office.

But the industrial crisis of the late 1970s hurt the upper layers of the working classes, from which most Communist leaders were recruited. The restructuring of large industrial concerns dealt a heavy blow to the PCF’s organizational networks among workers. The growing precariousness of working-class employment and the lasting effects of mass unemployment led to a downturn in social struggles and undermined the transmission of a class-based culture.

Workers were henceforth increasingly employed in small establishments or in isolated tertiary-sector jobs (drivers, handlers, warehouse operatives) ever further from where they lived. At the same time, the number of service workers (home help, cashiers, etc.) soared. However, in such subaltern employment conditions, the distinction between the employees and the boss did not take the same form as on the factory floor — and union organizing was more difficult.

So, transformations in production and in working-class conditions surely worked against the PCF. But the policies pursued by its leaders also fed disaffection with the party. For many working-class households, the PCF is associated with the dismantling of industry through its role in the French governments of 1981–84 and 1997–2002. The crisis in the steel industry in eastern France worsened when the Left came to power in 1981. In 1997, the so-called “plural left” government, which included PCF ministers, launched a wave of privatizations. Disappointment with the Socialist Party–led government also affected the PCF, especially since it had been associated with this party — a moderate social democratic force — in running town halls from the 1970s onward.

There was also an ideological rift. In the 1990s and 2000s the former “party of the working class” tended to lose this class focus. Far from presenting itself as a class party, the PCF’s aim was simply to be representative of “society” in all its “diversity,” to the detriment of a specific working-class interest and the priority on the struggle against capitalist exploitation. The desire to build a new, “modern,” and “open” image of communist politics was accompanied by an explicit rejection of Stalinism, which also meant dispensing with “workerist” approaches and democratic centralist structures.

Surely, the PCF’s work of ordering its activist base left little room for internal democracy. But it did allow it to build up a body of leaders from working-class backgrounds. As the number of party militants declined, the language of “opening up to society” encouraged the even greater integration of the PCF into the institutional machinery of local and national politics. This weakened the PCF’s mechanisms for the selection, training, and promotion of working-class militants, and refocused its organization on the middle classes. Blue-collar and white-collar workers tended to be marginalized within the PCF apparatus, where the most highly educated categories — e.g., teachers and supervisory or professional staff — predominated.

The trade union movement lost Its importance in the formation of the PCF leadership group. But holders of political office gained greater influence: the proportion of elected representatives, project managers, parliamentary attachés, and other local authority figures in the PCF leadership grew. The relationship between the PCF and local populations increasingly relied on the role of managers, local elected representatives, or civil servants, and ever less on party militants’ activity. Maintaining bases in local government became a central focus, and the possession of educational resources or managerial skills was now seen as an asset for joining the PCF and climbing its internal hierarchy.

The Far Right and Social Class Structure

It was against this backdrop of the PCF’s weakening embeddedness in working-class France that the far-right party began its growth. While the Front National enjoyed significant working-class electoral support from the mid-1980s onward, its place in the social class structure was not the same as the PCF’s. The Communist movement was based on an alliance between blue-collar trade unionists and members of the cultural petty bourgeoisie (teachers, sociocultural workers).

Le Pen’s party is different: its networks are most often built around convergences between an independent petty bourgeoisie (shopkeepers, craftsmen) and the employees of artisanal production and small businesses. The latter are often caught up in relationships of proximity and personal dependence with their bosses.

The party also draws on the support of managers and intermediate professions in the retail sector — a growing socio-professional group at the heart of recent transformations in the private sector. It would thus be simplistic to see the rise of the Rassemblement National’s ideas solely in terms of deindustrialization. For it also feeds on the reshaping of the world of work and the maintenance of industrial employment in specific forms, for instance around the agri-food industry. The Rassemblement National is not necessarily driven by declining and impoverished independent categories. Indeed, individuals’ turn toward voting for the far right may be rooted in upward professional mobility, often coupled with home ownership in rural areas.

In these rural areas, however, the Rassemblement National vote has such momentum that it now rallies different types of social profiles, those who share a positive view of the model of personal independence and individual success. In certain contexts, the Rassemblement National has allowed working-class individuals to join the lists it backs in local elections, thus including those who are usually excluded from political competition. From this viewpoint, the party can support the presence of working-class groups on the political scene.

But unlike the PCF of previous decades, this does not reflect a deliberate strategy. Rassemblement National leaders are more interested in putting forward candidates with a combination of economic and cultural capital, like self-employed professionals, but it has to contend with the weakness of its activist forces and the social composition of its electoral support base.

Electoral Influence Without an Activist Base

If the far-right party took the PCF as its model in the 1990s, it is far from being structured along the same lines as the Communists, with their activist organization in localities and workplaces. In working-class areas, the Rassemblement National remains poorly organized: its activist networks are fragile, its municipal power relatively limited and its support in local associations weak.

Following the local elections of 2020–21, the Rassemblement National claims only sixteen municipalities and twenty-six departmental councilors across France — a far cry from its strength in national elections. Its candidate, Le Pen, came in second in the 2017 and 2022 presidential elections. Yet this is difficult to translate to the local and activist level. It’s true that the party has been gaining strength for several years, with an increase in the number of its elected representatives, especially MPs. But cases where the Rassemblement National has built a structured presence at the local level — like in Hénin-Beaumont, a former mining town in northern France, which today has a mayor affiliated to the party — remain exceptional.

While media often paint the working classes as the Rassemblement National’s main base of support, it is worth noting that this party has so far found little legitimacy among existing workers’ organizations. It thrives only on their margins, precisely when the big companies — the focuses of social struggle and union organization — are closing and worker solidarities are disintegrating or being reconstituted outside the unions. Workers employed in large companies, particularly in the public sector, where there are still traditions of struggle, are much less supportive of the Rassemblement National.

It would be mistaken to think that the Rassemblement National has taken the place that the PCF used to have in working-class areas, particularly in the countryside, where its electoral audience is nevertheless very strong. It is still struggling to find candidates to put forward for election in many localities, even where it has won large votes. This is not to minimize its influence: momentum is indeed on its side. But its electoral growth is not necessarily accompanied by the building of a structured local presence.

Each year May Day, which sees competing mobilizations by the trade union left and the far-right party, illustrates the discrepancy between electoral power and activist roots. The Rassemblement National’s Joan of Arc festival in Paris attracts just a few thousand supporters, with no regional spread. But trade unions and left-wing parties take part in almost three hundred marches across France — in addition to the Paris demonstration, which attracts far more people than Le Pen’s event.

The Rassemblement National’s influence is essentially electoral and much less rooted in activism. Studies by political sociologists show that expressions of the party’s support at the local level are largely informal — provided by unaffiliated supporters who meet up, for example, in a fishing club or a café. Its ideas spread against the backdrop of the disintegration of the Left. It is on this side of the spectrum — the activist left — that working-class resistance can be observed. But this takes place less through the PCF than through the trade union movement alone.

The Rassemblement National’s Rural Strength

In small rural towns, where the Rassemblement National racks up strong votes, left-wing activists are becoming increasingly rare. Very often, only trade union networks remain active in defending progressive values in the face of far-right ideas, whether in the workplace or at the local level. I was able to observe this on a daily basis during a field study in a rural, working-class locality in central-eastern France.

This is a type of area where the Rassemblement National vote is both significant and growing steadily. In the town of three thousand inhabitants in the heart of this area, Le Pen has come in first in all three presidential elections in which she has run — and has grown stronger each time: 22 percent in 2012, 30 percent in 2017 and 38 percent in 2022. In this last election, she scored 59 percent in the second round, clearly outstripping incumbent president, Emmanuel Macron.

The leading electoral force, well ahead of the other parties, the Rassemblement National nevertheless has no locally declared militants and is unable to put together a list for municipal elections. Its candidates in the 2015 département-level elections were unknown to the vast majority of local residents and elected representatives. The pair consisted of a twenty-three-year-old woman studying nursing in Paris, who had been a party member for just one year and a twenty-seven-year-old teacher who lives and works in the département’s main town. A member of fundamentalist Christian networks, he joined the party four years previously. Neither candidate lived in the area where they were running, nor did their running mates: a student lawyer working in a Parisian business law firm and a businesswoman unknown locally.

The party was unable to put up candidates for the subsequent département-level election in 2021 — illustrating the constant turnover and weak standing of its local candidates, even in areas that are highly favorable to the party electorally. The candidate for the 2017 parliamentary elections was sidelined for some time after the election, before finally leaving the region. In 2022, a new candidate for the legislative elections — a lawyer from the Paris Bar — scored a strong vote and reached the runoff.

This situation is far from exceptional. The Rassemblement National’s activist presence is weak, even in those exceptional cases where it does manage to win municipal elections. In one of the few mayoralties won in 2014, in the south of France, the far-right list was led by people little-known to the population, with little active record in the party — and who were themselves surprised to be elected.

Each time that the village in central-eastern France that I studied goes to the polls, local councilors and residents responsible for vote counting are left bewildered. The vast majority of figures involved in the local public arena (elected representatives, members of associations, trade unionists, candidates, etc.) express their incomprehension at these votes, which seem out of step with the campaign on the ground, where the Rassemblement National is absent.

Residents involved in activist organizations, associations, and the municipal scene mainly come from the upper layers of the local social space, drawn from the middle classes: teachers, middle managers, shopkeepers, supervisors, office workers, engineers, etc. Working-class figures — albeit a majority in the general population — have less of a role. Yet there is also an exception: rail company employees.

Railworkers Faced with Far-Right Ideas

I conducted my field survey mainly among railway workers, in particular members of the General Confederation of Labor (CGT), a left-wing union that represents most workers in the national rail firm. Factors that explain railworkers’ continued union involvement in this small town include a long history dating back to the nineteenth century, and indeed the continued sociability owing to the presence of a maintenance workshop that employs almost three hundred people.

Railworkers benefit from a certain professional stability that makes it easier for them to be involved. They have resources and employment continuity that other, more precariously positioned local working-class figures are lacking (metalworkers, slaughterhouse workers, woodworkers, home helps, childminders, supermarket employees, leatherworkers, etc.). Nevertheless, railworkers are not isolated from these weaker-positioned elements of the working classes.

Their spouses, like their children, often find it difficult to find stable employment, and many have worked for other companies where their status was precarious and their working conditions trying. In the private sector, they have generally not encountered trade unions, but their experience of menial work has gradually fueled a feeling of social injustice: a distrust of employer authority that can fuel a vote for the far right. It’s only when these workers have achieved a degree of stability within the rail company that the question of union membership really arises.

The far-right vote is fueled by a rejection of the fantasized figures of “foreigners,” “Muslims” and “welfare recipients” — all images transmitted by media debates and political leaders on the Right, but also increasingly on the Left. However, socialization in certain unions — such as the CGT railworkers — is geared toward progressive values, toward uncovering the social and political causes of each individual’s situation.

This politicization takes place particularly at union meetings, where the presence of “old hands” and retirees can help transmit left-wing values to younger members. While a racialized reading of social divides may hold sway among the local working class, it hardly appears within the union itself. Among the union’s leaders, proximity to the Rassemblement National and its values is explicitly condemned, a bar to taking on responsibility.

During an internal discussion, for example, a thirty-five-year-old trade unionist expressed reservations about the value of “recruiting members for the sake of it.” She uses the example of a young railworker who is a union member, but does not, in her opinion, have the “open-mindedness” expected of a CGT member. She explicitly associates trade union values with moral attitudes such as tolerance toward immigrants or gays. Some forms of racism and machismo may be expressed among CGT railworkers. But such views cannot legitimately be expressed within the union collective itself. They come at the margins — from the railworkers furthest from the union — and are bound to lead to calls to order.

Distance from the far-right party is the result of political socialization within the union. But it can also be a driving force behind CGT membership. Such is the case of Stéphane, CGT’s youth officer. In an interview, this railworker said he was “sensitive to the union’s discourse” from the moment he joined, “in relation to everything that was [his] original ideology” and “the fight for social justice.” His “revolt against injustice” stems in part from his cultural practices as a teenager, listening to left-wing punk rock bands.

Strongly aware of anti-racism, when he started at the workshop in the early 2000s, he had several “spats” with those who “said racist things” in his assignment room. When Stéphane arrived, another union dominated the room, whose representative joined in with these racist remarks. “Then he calmed down about it. He calmed down the day a guy, Mehdi, who was . . . French but of North African origin, came in.” The presence of Stéphane, who joins the CGT, and of Mehdi in the room, makes the openly pro–Le Pen atmosphere recede.

Stéphane continued his fight in the local political arena, where he joined opposition against the mayor elected in 2008 in his town (population four thousand). The mayor, a self-employed general insurance agent, had been a candidate for the Rassemblement National in the Paris region in the early 1990s. The social mobilization of municipal employees and the protests by anti-fascist activists were closely intertwined with the networks of trade unions, employees with protected status (such as railworkers and local civil servants), and teachers. They contributed to ending the mayor’s spell in office in 2014.

Absent Left

As we can see from this case, trade unionists play a key role in countering far-right influence in working-class areas. Local trade union alliances enable activists to come together outside the workplace. However, in these times of intense anti-union repression, labor activists are often forced to concentrate on their workplaces alone. Above all, the political support they can draw on is weak.

Far from seeking to strengthen trade unionism — which would be one way of countering the far right — successive French governments, including the presidency of Socialist François Hollande (2012–17) and then that of his economy minister, Emmanuel Macron, have instead further weakened employees’ counter-powers in the workplace, against a backdrop of increased destabilization of the working-class condition.

What’s more, the way that left-wing parties operate tends to marginalize the working classes and their union representatives. The main force on the Left, La France Insoumise, is organized around the figure of Jean-Luc Mélenchon and his candidacies in France’s presidential elections. For the time being, the France Insoumise leadership team has rejected any structuring of the organization with real members, congresses, the development of local groupings, etc.

As a result, a force explicitly conceived as a movement rather than a party is struggling to exist outside electoral campaign seasons and to gain a foothold in working-class life. The movement relies mainly on its members of parliament and the mobilization of educated social categories, without being able to draw on activist structures in working-class neighborhoods and rural areas.

The past model of the PCF, like that of the Socialist Party with its various internal currents, is today one that France Insoumise expressly rejects. And rightly so, as far as the PCF’s lack of internal democracy is concerned. But there may well be political lessons to be learned from the PCF’s hundred-year history in terms of mobilizing the working classes. This was ensured by various collective arrangements that placed great importance on activists’ social origins and cherished the role of trade unionists.

Today, formal organization is rejected in favor of a loose movement of sympathizers valuing “horizontality” at all costs and the individual strategies of “civil society” personalities or MPs. Yet this seems ill-suited to ensuring that a political alternative to capitalism, or indeed the fight against the far right, will take root in working-class France. This fight takes place not only at the ballot box, but also on the ground, in the everyday places where people live and work.