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The French Reluctant Radicals

By Lila Caballero and Marley Morris

The academic, policy and media spheres that surround populism tend to focus on specific types of ‘far right’, or ‘extreme right’ extremist mobilisation in Europe.  The research on these topics has tended to privilege the more radical aspects of these movements but ignores the wider group of voters who are less extreme but just as important in making a political impact.  While preoccupation with radicalisation of this sort is understandable, it has tended to lead away from studying and countering xenophobic populist parties (hereafter XPPs) effectively.

These are the voters who we have chosen to refer to as Europe’s ‘Reluctant Radicals’—voters whose overall outlook cannot be classified as ‘extreme’.

While small strident groups of committed XPP supporters grab the headlines, it is a less extreme, less vocal group of voters that have allowed these parties to make significant electoral progress across Europe. These are the voters who we have chosen to refer to as Europe’s ‘Reluctant Radicals’—voters whose overall outlook cannot be classified as ‘extreme’ and whose background does not fit any of the profiles of post-war ‘radical’ mobilisation; voters who are willing to overlook the more extreme statements, policy pronouncements and harder edges of the XPPs because they are attracted to their populist component.

It is important to identify and engage with these voters because the erosion of their support for mainstream, liberal democratic values is a contributing factor in legitimising policies that will contribute to the marginalisation of minority communities, thereby making the latter more susceptible to radicalisation.

Our preliminary research released today from the 2006/2007 French Political Barometer suggests that Front National (FN) supporters are largely ‘reluctant radicals’ – who we define here as voters who do not see themselves as close to the party. We estimate that with regard to the 2007 presidential election up to approximately 80 per cent of Front National voters – and at least 61 per cent – were reluctant radicals. On the other hand, according to our higher estimate the percentage of ‘committed radicals’ – supporters who do see themselves as close to the party – was 20 per cent. (It’s hard to get a very accurate estimate because so many FN voters are reluctant to tell the truth to interviewers). In some ways this is to be expected: the core support of most parties is relatively small. But it challenges the notion that right-wing populist support is sustained by committed extremists.

Another important finding was that 13 per cent of the French electorate were ‘potential radicals’ – defined as people who are sympathetic to Le Pen’s ideas but who do not vote for the FN. Both groups – reluctants and potentials – are important as they constitute the wavering voters who make or break XPPs  like the FN. Our research aimed to find out more about them, as well as to see what motivated their radicalism and what diluted it.

We highlight that because of the relatively small sample sizes we should be cautious in drawing very confident conclusions from these results. But they do indicate some highly interesting trends. To be as transparent as possible we have given sample sizes where appropriate.

We found that reluctant radicals (N=516) were more likely to be older men than the mainstream electorate (N=3759). 54 per cent were male compared to 47 per cent of the mainstream and 63 per cent of committed radicals (N=126). Reluctant radicals had an average age of 48 compared to an average age of 46 for the mainstream electorate. 31 per cent were manual workers, compared to 19 per cent of the mainstream and 35 per cent of committed radicals. Reluctant radicals were more religious than both committed radicals and the mainstream. 75 per cent were Catholic, compared to 62 per cent of the mainstream electorate and 67 per cent of committed radicals. 22 per cent said they were not religious, compared to 30 per cent of the mainstream electorate and 31 per cent of committed radicals. Interestingly, only 5 per cent were unemployed or looking for their first job. The figure was 8 per cent for committed radicals and 6 per cent for the mainstream.

We found that potential radicals (N=643) were also older than the mainstream – with an average age of 53. The results also indicated they were more likely to be women than men. Although it should be noted that the French mainstream (and the population as a whole) is also more female than male, this still challenges the stereotype that extremism and populism are fundamentally male problems. 78 per cent were Catholic, compared to 62 per cent of the mainstream electorate. 18 per cent said they were not religious, compared to 30 per cent of the mainstream electorate.

While only 24 per cent of potential radicals were manual workers, 28 per cent of potential radicals had the status of ‘employee’, (This compared with 25 per cent of reluctant radicals, 20 per cent of committed radicals and 26 per cent of the mainstream electorate.) Only 5 per cent were unemployed or looking for their first job.

The results from our regressions are even more interesting. Controlling for age, gender and education level, what we found suggests that both those who positioned themselves further on the right of the political spectrum and those who positioned themselves as ‘neither left nor right’ were more likely to vote reluctantly for the FN. Reluctant radicals were also motivated to vote by anti-immigration attitudes (including the belief that there are too many immigrants in France and that they should be blamed for integration problems), a feeling of insecurity, a belief in capital punishment, protectionist views and preference for less regulation over business.

We also analysed why potential radicals did not take the extra step of voting for the FN. Out of those who agree with Le Pen’s ideas, it was those people who were less anti-immigration, less protectionist, less authoritarian, and – crucially – those who felt more secure in France and more confident in government who were more likely to recoil from taking that extra step of voting for Le Pen. This last finding with regard to confidence was also reflected through cross-tabulation. All of the regression results given here are significant at the .05 level.

Based on our new knowledge of the fact that it is the reluctant radicals who are likely to tip the balance in favour of populist parties at election times, we are convinced that we must dig deeper into their grievances, beliefs and feelings. It is essential that we study them from within their cultural context. In the next few months we will not only build profiles based on national survey data for other European countries, but also explore local dynamics in each place through narrative pamphlets commissioned to high profile individuals in each nation. We will focus particularly on the Netherlands and Finland but will also look at Greece, Italy, Poland, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and the UK.


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Rory Cronin
Press Officer, Counterpoint

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Data used

Baromètre Politique Français (2006-2007) CEVIPOF-Ministère de l’Intérieur (Vague 3)

Les données du BPF 2006-2007 ont été produites par le CEVIPOF avec le soutien du Ministère de l’Intérieur et de l’Aménagement du Territoire. Le BPF 2006-2007 se déroule en quatre vagues de mars 2006 à janvier 2007 réalisées par l’IFOP. Les données seront également déposées et disponibles auprès du Centre de données socio-politiques de Sciences Po au printemps 2007

Interested in this topic? Don’t forget our lunchtime event on the upcoming French elections, being held in partnership with the UCL European Institute.


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