Jhe decisive round of the presidential race in France revealed that it was a deeply fractured country. Just as the Brexit referendum laid bare the divisions of the United Kingdom, we have in France two electoral blocs characterized by opposite geographical and sociological profiles.
The gap between them is first of all generational, since Emmanuel Macron won 70% of the votes of those over 65 and 68% of voters aged 18 to 24. These two groups share a common trait: neither has a significant active presence in the labor market.
The pandemic, the war in Ukraine and inflationary pressures may have helped Macron rally the elderly, already concerned about the threat to political stability posed by Marine Le Pen. Macron’s controversial promise to raise the retirement age by three years to 65 (which he later softened to 64) also boosted his support in this older age bracket. Those who were already retired were, after all, happy with a reform that promised to make the pension system financially sustainable while at no personal cost to them. Le Pen, on the other hand, launched a massive attack on the proposal, which boosted his support among a large segment of the working population alarmed by the prospect of having to wait several more years to collect the state pension. Among working-age citizens, Macron and Le Pen were tied in the polls.
But the gap between these two different French nations that widened at the time of the counting of April 24 is more than generational, it is sociological. Macron won 74% of the votes of top business leaders and the most skilled professional classes, while his rival secured 58% of working-class voters, from workers to office workers. Across the independents and middle classes, Macron also had the edge, winning 60% to 40%.
This divide between haves and have-nots in France is partly due to income gaps (76% of the votes among those who earn more than 2,500 euros net per month were for Macron, against only 44% among those who earn less than 900 euros), but is also a cultural break. In France as in the United Kingdom, the school divide has become a decisive issue, linked to professional and salary inequalities, but also because it induces differences in mentalities.
Levels of education tend to have a great influence on people’s attitudes towards society, the world around them, minorities and authority. This phenomenon was reflected at the polls in an almost caricatural way in France. Thus, 78% of higher education graduates voted for Macron, as well as 63% of holders of a basic university degree. It was a much tighter contest when it came to the votes of people with no education or training beyond the baccalaureate: 53% voted for him, against 47% for Le Pen. As for French voters who left school without a baccalaureate, Le Pen won with 56% of their votes.
The sociologist Emmanuel Todd has rightly identified the phenomenon of school stratification causing a “modification” or displacement of voting methods. From the 1980s and 1990s in France, the proportion of young people obtaining the baccalaureate and then pursuing higher education increased sharply. Finally, this transition to a situation where baccalaureate holders and graduates are in the majority has led to a profound restratification of the entire population according to the level of education, and not only of young people. The cultural and social repercussions of this educational transformation are immense.
While not having a baccalaureate was the norm in France in the 1980s, people without a baccalaureate are a minority today. Similarly, having the baccalaureate in the 1980s was a valued socio-cultural marker, whereas today it is often the minimum required. Job seekers without a baccalaureate or basic diploma 40 years ago had access to a range of jobs. Today, opportunities have shrunk, with these groups largely confined to unskilled roles or occupations. They are the lowest paid and the least valued. It is almost as if this vast effort to raise the average level of education had combined to enable Le Pen’s movement to exploit resentment and the perceived sense of cultural and social exclusion among those who failed to move up the school ladder.
Added to this socio-cultural tension is a regional divide. Macron easily won in the capital with 85% of the votes of Parisians, but he also obtained 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. Le Pen, meanwhile, has established itself in “peripheral” France, that is to say in small towns, rural communities and former heavy industrial belts in decline.
If this sociological and cultural description bears a striking resemblance to the electoral landscape that emerged during the 2016 US presidential election or during Brexit, it is because the same tectonic shifts are at work everywhere. Globalization, synonymous with post-industrial decline, the concentration of wealth and graduates in large cities, but also an increase in migratory flows, combined with an educational revolution have profoundly reconfigured Western societies. The old left/right political divide no longer responds to a socio-economic landscape that will continue to pit the winners and losers of the new order against each other. In the French presidential race, the country’s two “clans” have found their respective heroes.