Marine Le Pen, leader of the radical right Rassemblement National, in Hénin-Beaumont in northern France, September 10, 2023 (Ludovic Maillard/La Voix Du Nord)

Co-published with the University of Surrey:

Jean-Baptiste Lebas, Marx Dormoy, Joseph Hentges…. They have two points in common: they are historic French socialist and communist personalities, and they gave their names to the streets of Seclin, a small town in northeast France.

But after more than 90 years of Communist mayors, the current town leader is a right-leaning independent. More importantly, in the last two French presidential elections, in 2017 and 2022, the majority of Seclinois voted for Marine Le Pen, leader of the radical-right Rassemblement National (RN).

Seclin is a bellwether in the post-industrial northeast, where closures of factories and mines have weakened a region that used to thrive since the 1970s. The RN has profited from the decline, attracting those who used to vote on the opposite end of the political landscape.

The emblematic supporter of left-wing organizations — the working-class ouvrier or prolétaire — is travelling towards the radical-right party of Marine Le Pen, especially in the former mineral fields of the northeast. In the first round of the 2017 Presidential election, Le Pen took 40% of the ouvrier vote across France. In 2022, she gathered 42%.

The RN mayor of Hénin-Beaumont, Steve Briois — mobilizing the RN’s scapegoating of weakened groups in society — declares, “The Left has forgotten its fundamentals. It has supported minorities and no longer workers. Us, we defended them!”

While former left voters join the ranks of the RN, the short-term trend is of voters switching from the radical left to the radical right during the same election cycle. In the 2017 Presidential ballot, among first-round supporters of the left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, 7% voted for Le Pen in the second round. In 2022, the number rose to 18%.

These “chameleon” voters, rather than being attached to a particular position on the political or ideological spectrum, have a primary motive of expressing disappointment in the current liberal party in power or in the traditional centre-right and centre-left forces that ruled France for decades.

Care is needed in evaluating the extent of the rush from the left to the radical right. The majority of left voters, including 38% of Mélenchon supporters, did help elect Emmanuel Macron during the second round of last year’s Presidential election. Loyalty to their parties’ ideals included the desire to build the barrage républicain (Republican dam) against the extreme right.

However, the post-industrial northeast, and an increasing number of other regions, demonstrate this long-standing desire is under pressure. If Le Pen stealing voters was not enough, prominent figures within the Left are borrowing the terminology of the radical right, such as Fabien Roussel talking about “sieve borders” at the Congress of his Communist Party.

The co-optation of the radical right’s language might be a tactical move by Roussel and others, trying to stabilize a fluid electorate, rather than a change in the ideas of the Left. Even so, the rhetoric further weakens the foundations of the Republican dam.

In regions such as Seclin and its neighbors, the challenge for the French left is to convince the lost electorate to return to what was once a socialist heartland. But any success will be Pyrrhic if it is based solely on appropriation of the radical right’s language, rather than a forthright and constructive response to the radical right’s program.