The decisive turn of the presidential elections in France brought to light a deeply fractured country. Just as Brexit exposed divisions in the UK, we now have two electoral blocs in France, characterized by geographically and sociologically opposing profiles.
The gap that separates them is, first of all, generational, since Emmanuel Macron attracted 70% of the votes of those over 65 years of age and 68% among voters between 18 and 24 years of age. Both groups have a common characteristic: neither of them has a significant active presence in the labor market.
The pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and inflationary pressures may have helped Macron convince older people, who had previously worried about the threat Marine Le Pen poses to political stability. Macron’s controversial commitment raising the retirement age by three years, up to 65 (and later softened up to 64), also stimulated support from the older age group. Those who are already retired, after all, were happy about a reform that promised a guarantee to finance the pension system without costing them a personal sacrifice. Instead, Le Pen mounted a ferocious attack on the proposal, boosting support for the candidate among a large segment of the working population, alarmed by the prospect of having to wait several more years to collect retirement. The polls showed a technical tie between Macron and Le Pen among citizens of working age.
Educational and Revenue Division
But the chasm between these two opposing French nations, which took shape during the vote count on April 24, is more than generational: it is sociological. Macron won 74% of the vote among top corporate executives and the higher-skilled professional classes, while his rival garnered 58% support among working-class voters, from white-collar clerks to blue-collar workers. Among the self-employed and the middle classes, Macron won by 60% to 40%.
This division in France between the haves and have-nots is partially related to the difference in income (76% of the votes of those who earn more than 2,500 euros net per month were in favor of Macron compared to only 44). % of those with less than 900 euros), but it is also about a cultural separation. In France, as in the UK, the educational divide has become a defining issue, associated with career and income inequality, but also because it leads to different cultural views.
Educational levels tend to have a great influence on people’s attitude towards society, the world around them, minorities and authority. This phenomenon was translated into the French polls in an almost cartoonish way. Thus, 78% of those who have a higher level university degree voted for Macron, as did 63% of those who have a basic university diploma. The contest was much closer between the votes of people with no education or training beyond high school: 53% voted for him compared to 47% who did for Le Pen. As for French voters who left school without obtaining a baccalaureate, Le Pen won 56% of their votes.
sociologist Emmanuel Todd has correctly identified the phenomenon of educational stratification as the cause of a “modification” or change in voter patterns. In the 1980s and 1990s in France, the proportion of young people who obtained the baccalaureate and then continued their studies in higher education increased markedly. Over time, this shift towards a situation where high school graduates and graduates make up the majority has led to a profound restratification of the entire population, linked to educational attainment, and not just young people. The cultural and social repercussions of this educational transformation are immense.
Whereas in the 1980s in France it was normal not to have a baccalaureate, now the people who do not have it are a minority. Similarly, in the 1980s, having a high school diploma was a valued sociocultural indicator. Today it is often the minimum requirement. Job seekers without a high school or basic diploma 40 years ago could access a range of jobs. Now the possibilities have dwindled and have left these groups mostly limited to trades or unskilled positions. They are the ones with the lowest salaries and the least valued. It is almost as if this immense effort to raise the average educational level has helped Le Pen’s movement to exploit resentment and the perception of cultural and social exclusion among those who have not managed to climb the educational ladder.
A regional divide can be added to this sociocultural tension. Macron won easily in the capital, with 85% of the Parisian votes, but he also won large majorities in the main French cities: 81% in Nantes, 80% in Lyon and Bordeaux, 77.7% in Strasbourg and even 77 .5% in Toulouse. Meanwhile, Le Pen prevailed in “peripheral” France or, to put it another way, in small towns, rural communes, and in declining heavy former industrial belts.
If this sociological and cultural description bears a striking resemblance to the electoral landscape that took shape in the 2016 US presidential election or during Brexit, it is because the same tectonic plates are at work everywhere. Globalization, synonymous with a post-industrial decline, the concentration of wealth and graduates in large cities, but also the increase in migratory flows, all combined with an educational revolution, have profoundly reconfigured Western societies.
The old left/right political division no longer attends to a socioeconomic landscape that will continue to mark the winners and losers of the new order to confront them. In the French presidential contest, the country’s two “clans” found their respective heroes.
* Jérôme Fourquet is director of opinion at Ifop (French Institute of Public Opinion) and author of La France sous nos yeux (France before our eyes).
Translation of Maria Torrens Tillack