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1Has the Left-Right divide survived following the 2017 election sequence? This question has arisen among political commentators, parties that claim (or not) to fall on one of its sides, and voters who situate themselves at some point across it. The victory of a candidate who declares himself to be “on the Left and the Right” [1] and the fact that many in the La République En Marche! (The Republic on the Move!, LREM) party relegate the concepts of Left and Right to the status of relics of the “old political world” [2] speak volumes about the contemporary relevance of this question. This temptation to see obsolescence can also be found among older party-political organizations. The Parti Socialiste (Socialist Party, PS) wondered about a possible name change after its historic defeat in the first round of the 2017 presidential election. As for La France Insoumise (Unbowed France, FI), its agenda focused on the people, but not necessarily on the Left as a reference or historical affiliation. [3] Finally, among voters, 71% of people surveyed by Ipsos in June 2017 took the view that “notions of Left and Right are outdated: political positions can no longer be judged in this way”. [4] Taken together, these elements may well sound the death knell of a political divide that has long structured French political life.

2Yet notions of Left and Right have had a significant impact on the political identities of the French, [5] and have proved particularly stable over time, [6] especially in comparison to how people voted or to degree of party affiliation. [7] Left and Right appeared very early among the children surveyed by Annick Percheron [8] in the 1970s. Strikingly, traces of them were still to be found among children in the 2010s. [9]

3This idea that Left and Right are outdated or obsolete is overly hasty, and not particularly new. First, there have already been political periods in the past during which governing parties have professed the eclipse of this divide, particularly during the Fourth Republic. [10] Their purpose back then was to form an alliance of the middle ground against the Communists and Gaullists, even if the concepts of Left and Right were strategically revived solely during the elections of the 1950s.

4Second, the survey question mentioned above measured an opinion that is far from new. It has been asked several times since the 1980s by polling organizations. In 1981, for example, only a third of French citizens considered the concepts of Left and Right to be outdated, with 42% feeling that they were still valid. Since then, more and more respondents have judged Left and Right to be notions that are outdated rather than valid. In 1988, this group passed the 50 per cent mark, and from 1991 to 2011, between 55% and 60% of respondents adopted this position.

5In other words, the view that Left and Right are obsolete has been widely shared for a long time, to the point where one might ask what these survey responses really mean. French voters place themselves on a Left-Right axis, and they do so much more often and much more consistently than their American counterparts place themselves on a liberal-conservative one. [11] And they are fairly capable of placing political parties and candidates on it. [12] In other words, the “obsolescence” is perhaps merely the echo of a recurring political and media discourse rather than a real opinion. As far back as the early 1960s, Emeric Deutsch, Pierre Weill, and Denis Lindon wrote in their study of French political families that “the traditional indicators of Left and Right have almost all disappeared”, [13] which, in hindsight, does not fit in well with our contemporary perception of this historical era.

6These responses indicating the Left-Right divide is outdated may also reflect a difference between what voters mean by being on the Left and on the Right and their perceptions of the positions of the parties on the political scene today that are supposed to embody the Left and the Right. In this case, grassroots Left and Right may still exist, but it would be difficult for them to be satisfied by the political platforms that seek to represent them. Here we may also find the expression of a mistrust in the political leaders who are affecting the relationships between voters and the political offer in developed Western countries. [14]

7The question thus arises: What does it mean to be on the Left or on the Right? It is difficult to disregard the proposition that their definitions have evolved depending on political actors, on political contexts, or on cleavages that are active, dormant, or becoming politicized. In Tableau politique de la France de l’Ouest, a work published in 1913 by André Siegfried, the Left is the Republic and the Right reaction, [15] and its discussion centers on the church-state and worker-owner divides. [16] In other words, it is necessary to understand what it means to be on the Right or on the Left today before one can make judgments about the disappearance or otherwise of this form of political positioning. Above all, it seems essential to consider the positions of ordinary voters rather than to focus only on political leaders’ discourses.

8This is particularly important because it is not possible to determine the nature of Emmanuel Macron’s victory from the standpoint of electoral theory. [17] Was this presidential election a deviant election resulting from an accumulation of short-term factors, or a realignment election that has prefigured the emergence of a new electoral order? After all, the situation particularly favored Macron. He was up against a PS that was divided and discredited after five years in power, a right-wing party that chose a highly divisive candidate who was beset by personal issues, a socialist candidate who struggled to find a space for himself between Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Macron, and a Front National (National Front, FN) candidate who was simultaneously strong enough to reach the second round of the election and sufficiently rejected so as to be unable to win it. Macron could very well have lost just as François Bayrou did in 2007 and 2012.

9LREM’s major victory in the legislative elections might be confirmation of the wiping out of the “old political world”, or it could be the usual amplification of presidential election results since 2002. Macron’s win may also have been an electoral translation of longer-lasting sociopolitical developments, particularly those related to the issues of globalization, Europe, and the reshaping of the role of the state.

10This article will focus on the Left-Right divide and whether it has survived or been eclipsed, as well as on what it means to be positioned on the Left, on the Right, or elsewhere. It will compare today’s situation with yesterday’s and in doing so contribute to shedding light on this election. It will first of all analyze the distribution of Left and Right self-placement over time. This will make it possible to measure how far such self-placement has evolved, in particular in step with the government’s political leaning. It will then address the social logics behind these developments. We will see that some of these—for example, religion—have persisted, but there have also been some particularly significant social dealignments, especially between 2012 and 2017. The article will then focus on the link between values and political positioning. It will demonstrate the importance of cultural values in determining the way in which voters consider themselves to be on the Left or on the Right. The last part of the article will analyze the links between placement on the Left or Right and voting. To do so, I will use the French electoral survey from 2017 that was conducted on a face-to-face basis in May and June with 1,830 people. [18] As far as possible, the analysis has been conducted by comparing the above-mentioned survey, the research available from 1988 onward on French presidential elections, as well as a cumulative file of Eurobarometer surveys that I have produced.

The Evolution of Left-Right Positioning

Figure 1

Left-Right Self-Placement in Eurobarometer Surveys

Figure 1

Left-Right Self-Placement in Eurobarometer Surveys

Sources: Mannheim Eurobarometer Trend File, compiled by the author. The data have been smoothed over a period of three years. Reading: annual proportions of respondents placing themselves on the Left, the Right, or neither.

11During the period under study, Left-Right positioning evolved substantially in France. Over the whole period, 34% of respondents placed themselves on the Left, but this frequency oscillated between an annual minimum of 30% (in 1985) and a maximum of 41% (in 1996). [19] Variations in placement on the Right are even greater, as the average for the whole period is 29%, but the minimum is 24% (in 2000) and the maximum 36% (in 1985). Nonplacement and placement at the center of the Left-Right spectrum varies between 31% in 1979 and 42% in 1991. These developments follow what some call a thermostatic logic. [20] When one camp is in power, the number of French citizens who place themselves on the same side decreases. Furthermore, the rise of distrust among French voters against politics is expressed here via the increase in “nonaligned” individuals. A refusal to position oneself became the most common positioning of French citizens from 2002, and it soared to 40% of individuals’ self-placement in 2005-2006 and in 2010. This had only happened once before, at the beginning of the 1990s.

Figure 2

Left-Right Self-Placement during Presidential Elections

Figure 2

Left-Right Self-Placement during Presidential Elections

Sources: Cevipof-Sofres postelection surveys, 1988 and 1995, French Electoral Panel (Panel électoral français), 2002, Cevipof-Interior Ministry-Ifop postelection survey, 2007, French election surveys (Enquêtes électorales françaises), 2012 and 2017.

12The balance between Left, Right, and nonalignment has also evolved in election surveys. Between 1988 and 2012, self-placement on the Left fluctuated between 39% and 44.5%, but it fell to 34% in May 2017. The Right was generally less frequently chosen by respondents (approximately 30%). The 1995 election year saw a peak (38%), probably because of the effect of rallying around the winner following the election of Jacques Chirac to the French presidency. In terms of the Left-Right differential, there are spreads ranging between three points in favor of the Left in 1995 and twelve points in 2012. In 2017, the gap between the two camps was only four points, one of the lowest for the period.

13Generally, fewer than 30% of respondents did not position themselves or positioned themselves at the center, a figure lower than that in the Eurobarometer surveys. This can be explained above all by the re-politicization effects that accompany presidential campaigns in France. [21] The proliferation of political messages, daily discussions, and the emphasizing of debates and opposing positions result in individuals becoming better informed and more able to situate candidates, [22] and, above all, to reposition themselves.

14The year 2017 is a notable exception, since nonplacement became the most popular choice, being picked by 36% of respondents. In my view, this phenomenon can be explained in two ways. First, the camp in power lost supporters (the thermostatic effect), but for the first time, the opposition (the Right) did not benefit from this in the form of winning new supporters. [23] And then there was the phenomenon of rallying around the winner, stimulated by Macron.

Classes, Religions, Cohorts, and Left-Right Placement

15The seminal works of Paul Lazarsfeld [24] and his colleagues in the United States, of David Butler and Donald Stokes [25] in the United Kingdom, and of Guy Michelat and Michel Simon [26] in France have long shown that such political self-positioning is strongly linked to sociological variables, and particularly to religion and social class. Seymour M. Lipset and Stein Rokkan [27] have demonstrated the strong link between left-wing parties and the working class on the one hand and between right-wing parties and the middle and upper classes on the other, while Richard Rose [28] and Pierre Bréchon [29] in particular have shown the strength of the link between religious faiths and political positioning.

16In terms of social balances, long-term trends have been confirmed, particularly regarding the dealignment of manual workers from the Left [30] or the persistence of religious logics behind voting affiliation. [31] But particularly significant developments also appeared between 2012 and 2017 in France.

17In 2017, there was still a strong link between religion and Left-Right positioning. [32] Among regularly practicing Catholics, self-placement on the Right exceeded self-placement on the Left by more than 30 points for the whole of the period under study. In contrast, those with no religion have continued to most frequently position themselves on the Left, even though there has been a trend toward dealignment among this group: in 1988, self-placement on the Left exceeded self-positioning on the Right by 57 points, in comparison to a figure of 25 points in 2017. We also find this erosion in self-placement on the Left among the “other religion” category, where the differential had returned to 22 points in 2017, its 1988 level.

18This evolution may be a sign that French citizens of Maghrebi or African origin have distanced themselves from the Left.

19However, it is necessary to take into account the demographic developments that have taken place since the late 1980s: Catholics accounted for fewer than 6% of voters in 2017, as opposed to 14.5% in 1988, while those with no religion accounted for just 13% of respondents in 1988 but 32% in 2017. This change has primarily been brought about by generational renewal: atheists account for approximately 40% of cohorts born between 1971 and 1990, and 52% of the cohort born in 1991 or later.

Figure 3

Left-Right Placement Differentials According to Religion

Figure 3

Left-Right Placement Differentials According to Religion

Sources: Cevipof-Sofres postelection surveys, 1988 and 1995, French Electoral Panel (Panel électoral français), 2002, Cevipof-Interior Ministry-Ifop postelection survey, 2007, French election surveys (Enquêtes électorales françaises), 2012 and 2017. Reading: for each year and each group, the proportion of individuals placing themselves on the Right has been subtracted from the proportion of those situating themselves on the Left. A score of zero signifies an equilibrium between Left and Right; a negative score corresponds to a group’s alignment on the Right, and a positive score a group’s alignment on the Left.

20In terms of occupation, the dealignment[CAT21][VT22] of working-class categories from the Left can be clearly seen. Among manual workers, placement on the Left exceeded positioning on the Right by 33 points in 1988; it has been limited to 13 points since 2007. In 2017, only 37% of manual workers located themselves on the Left, a figure barely above that for the whole population, but they did not “right” [33] themselves, since only 23% placed themselves on the Right. They distanced themselves from the two political camps. White-collar workers have stood out more from the rest of the population in terms of Left-Right placement since 1995.

Figure 4

Left-Right Placement Differentials According to Occupation

Figure 4

Left-Right Placement Differentials According to Occupation

Figure 5

Left-Right Placement Differentials According to Birth Cohort

Figure 5

Left-Right Placement Differentials According to Birth Cohort

21Positioning on the Left progressed considerably among the middle- and upper-level categories in the 1980s and thereafter. However, 2017 marked a substantial reversal. In 2012, the Left had a lead of 19 points over the Right among managers and of 24 points among the intermediate professions. In 2017, as many managers placed themselves on the Left as they did on the Right, and among the intermediate professions, the lead was down to 7 points, a historical low since 1988. On the other hand, the Right—even with a slight decline—has continued to soundly dominate in the world of self-employed individuals. This is without doubt the only “class-based positioning” that can still be spoken of in France in 2017.

22Until 2017, it was possible to highlight a political polarization of the cohorts. [34] Those born before the Second World War stood out from the beginning of the Fifth Republic owing to a very strong alignment on the Right, while cohorts that arrived on the electoral scene in the 1970s and later were characterized by a marked positioning to the Left. In 2017, we witnessed a decline in the Left across all cohorts. For example, in the 1931-40 cohort, now the oldest, the Right dominated by 26 points, against 5 points in 2012. In the cohort born in the 1940s, self-placement on the Right is now dominant, where before the Right was always secondary. There has also been a particularly strong drop in self-placement on the Left among the 1971-80 cohort (the cohort that some journalists had described as the “Chirac generation” in 1995). The Right did not benefit from this change, as was the case among manual workers and white-collar workers. This camp earned no points among the cohorts born after 1951, 3 points among individuals born in the 1940s, and 5 points among those born before the Second World War.

Figure 6

The Progression of Nonaligned Individuals

Figure 6

The Progression of Nonaligned Individuals

23The “nonaligned” group of individuals was particularly large in 2017, and this increase was not confined to just a few groups. Nonalignment progressed not only among working-class categories (27% to 39% among manual workers), but also among intermediate categories (from 20% to 34%) and upper ones (from 19% to 26%). Its growth was particularly strong among the post-boomer generations (28% to 42% among the 1971-80 generation, for example), but also among baby boomers themselves (23% to 34% among the 1951-60 generation). Finally, nonalignment has increased among Catholics, those belonging to other religions, and those with no religion.

24Nonaligned individuals form a disparate group, which includes “centrist” voters who are close to the parties that claim to embody this political segment but only represent a minority. [35] Most individuals in this group are “ninistes” (neither-nors) who either reject politics and the main political parties of the Left and Right (and some vote for the Far Right [36]), or are ordinary citizens who are scarcely politicized and lack competencies in this area. In the past, Deutsch, Weill, and Lindon [37] have called this group “le marais” (the swamp). [38]

25The recent increase in nonaligned individuals can likely be explained by a rejection of leftwing and right-wing governing parties. [39] This is how we may understand the increase in this absence of self-placement among manual workers and white-collar workers, as well as among groups that have traditionally supported the Left (other religions or those with no religion) or the Right (practicing Catholics). As for the post-boomers, one can also postulate an informed rejection of the different parties: [40] the post-boomers are often “distant citizens” who are relatively well equipped when it comes to decoding politics and have consequently developed a particularly critical relationship with political leaders. Their self-placement choice may therefore be a reasoned and informed rejection—one also produced by their experiences of handovers of government between parties and, for some, the disappointments that these have caused.

The Lefts, the Rights, and Their Values

26The Left and the Right have long been analyzed through a sociological lens. Individuals’ group memberships, their respective positions in society and in terms of the distribution of wealth, personal networks, and group norms influence how individuals position themselves in relation to politics. [41]

27But political alignments are also a matter of values, [42] and from this point of view, they facilitate a better understanding of how political identities have evolved since the 1980s. Is choosing the Left (or the Right) still a matter of socioeconomic values, of the size and role of the state relative to the market, and of redistribution? Ronald Inglehart [43] postulates that there has been an eclipse of materialistic values (and of the “old politics” that embodied their divisions). In a more diffuse manner, the Thatcherite “there is no alternative” discourse appears to have spread to all the parties of the Left in Europe [44] and France. [45] Is the same true of voters?

28There is also the question of the weight of other dimensions of values and in particular of the weight of the cultural values that group together views on immigration, authority, gender roles, and tolerance toward minorities. These values are not the equivalent of postmaterialism. [46] The dimension of cultural values should not be reduced to short-term issues; these values are found in Shalom Schwartz’s [47] model of basic values through the concepts of universalism, compliance/tradition, and security. Their link with Left-Right placement has been identified since the 1980s. Middendorp [48] notes, for example, that Dutch voters during this era defined themselves in political terms according to two axes: a socioeconomic one and a libertarian-authoritarian one.

29Nevertheless, recent developments, in particular in terms of political divisions, may make both the socioeconomic dimension and the cultural dimension of values obsolete when it comes to Left-Right positioning. Globalization appears to be significantly transforming European party-political systems. [49] Hanspeter Kriesi and his colleagues postulate that this phenomenon produces winners and losers in terms of both economic situations and cultural representations. Similarly, one may ask if other values and divides, such as European integration [50] or even environmental issues, [51] might be redefining what Left and Right mean.

30In this next part, the objectives will be to verify if a values-based approach makes it possible to understand individuals’ self-placement; to determine what values underpin placements, if any; and to verify if socioeconomic values as well as cultural values endure, particularly in the face of new and emerging normative dimensions.

Explaining Left-Right Placement in 2017

31To begin, I will turn to the 2017 survey and its different questions on values, which are grouped into dimensions (socioeconomic, cultural, environmental, pro- or anti-Europe, and pro- or antiglobalization). I will apply the terms “social” and “socioeconomic” indistinctly here to address the values of the “old politics” [52] that relate to the redistribution of wealth and to the size and economic role of the state. I will speak in terms of “cultural” or “societal” preferences to cover the dimension of the values of “new politics” that relate to the questions of authoritarianism, morals, immigration, and multiculturalism. These two axes of values are close to the approach of the economic and cultural liberalisms developed by Gérard Grunberg and Étienne Schweisguth. [53]

32To gain a sense of individuals’ positions in these two dimensions of values, I have applied a principal component analysis, incorporating the method that I have used previously [54] and that has been taken up elsewhere. [55] This involves working with the whole set of available indicators of values that have been repeated over time (a guarantee of a certain level of quality) and extracting the factors of socioeconomic preferences and those of cultural preferences. As the other dimensions are a new addition to the analysis, only the indicators available in the 2017 postelection survey have been drawn on and also processed via principal component analysis for each dimension. The list of questions used and the principles of the method are provided in the appendices.

33Table 1 simultaneously provides a response to several issues. First, the values-based approach makes sense, as the proportions of explained variance show. Model 3, which is based only on sociological variables, makes it possible to identify significant effects, particularly in terms of relationship with religion, but it only marginally explains placements to the Left, to the Right, or elsewhere. R2 has an upper limit of 4%, against 14% and 16% for Models 1 and 2, which are based on values. Model 4 brings together values and sociological characteristics, and it is clear that the latter make only a marginal contribution to explaining the phenomenon in comparison with Model 2, which includes only normative factors.

Table 1

Models of Left-Right Placement[57]

Table 1
Model 1 Model 2 Model 3 Model 4 Right Right versus Left Center/ nonplacement versus Left Right versus Left Center/ nonplacement versus Left Right versus Left Center/ nonplacement versus Left Right versus Left Center/ nonplacement versus Left Cultural factor (toward conservatism) .59 *** .30*** .55*** .29*** .57*** .29*** Social factor (toward conservative1) .86*** .39*** .88*** .43*** .85*** .42*** Europe factor (toward Europhobia) .11 -.04 .16* -.02 Political factor (toward confidence) -.02 -.19*** -.07 -.20*** Globalization factor (toward favorable) -.03 .06 -.012 .06 Environmental factor (toward unfavorable) .27*** .06 .28*** .06 Religion Practicing Catholic 1.67*** 1.11*** .60 .22 Irregularly practicing Catholic 1.05*** .63*** .39* .18 Nonpracticing Catholic .41 .47** -.72 -.07 Other religion -.02 .24 -.44 -.13 No religion (ref.) Occupation Self-employed .44* .68*** .22 .54 Intermediate professions -.23 .19 -.35 -.08 White-collar workers -.09 .51*** -.57* -.11 Manual workers -.36* .41*** -1.13*** -.26 Inactive -.06 .36 -.094 -.08 Managers (ref.) Cohorts 1941-1950 -.55** -.15 -.44 -.13 1951-1960 -.92*** -.30 -1.21** -.72 1961-1970 -.74*** -.07 -.00 -.09 1971-80 -.36 .27 -.05 .12 1981-90 -.66** -.05 -.31 -.05 1991 and later -.65** -.07 -.50 -.26 1940 and before (ref.) Constant -.20** -.21** -.25** -.12 -.05 -.60 -.41 .34 R2 14 % 16 % 4 % 18 %

Models of Left-Right Placement[57]

34Of course, setting variables of quite different natures against one another is often misleading, but the idea here is to demonstrate that the values-based approach is relevant in relation to Left-Right positioning. Model 4 clearly shows that although Catholics still place themselves on the Right, they do so above all for values-based reasons and not necessarily to comply with their fellow believers, as Claude Dargent and Guy Michelat suggest. [56] Coefficients for practicing Catholics go in the expected direction of a stronger placement on the Right, but they are either only weakly significant or not significant. In contrast, a significant aversion on the part of manual workers—relative to managers—to place themselves on the Right, regardless of their values, including economic and cultural ones, can be observed.

35Political placement essentially depends on socioeconomic and cultural values. These two dimensions explain 14% of variance; the others only improve the model’s explanatory ability by two points. Relationships with globalization or Europe do not have a significant impact, no doubt because interviewees think about them through the frames of social inequalities (socioeconomic values) or multicultural ones (cultural values). Two normative dimensions partly explain political placement. Relationship with the environment has become one of the logics behind Left-Right differentiation, alongside economic and cultural values. Finally, wariness of political leaders brings about a withdrawal from one camp or the other. Certain individuals whose values indicate that they may position themselves on the Left (or Right) do not place themselves there because they reject the political leaders who are supposed to represent the camp in question. Identification on the Left or the Right is therefore also influenced by the political leaders who seek to represent these camps. Here we can see one of the mechanisms that makes Left-Right self-placements vary according to the logic of the thermostatic approach to opinion.

Developments in Normative Logics behind Left, Right, and Nonaligned Positions Since 1988

Figure 7

Normative logics behind placements (1988-2017)[58]

Figure 7

Normative logics behind placements (1988-2017)[58]

Sources: Cevipof-Sofres postelection surveys for 1988 and 1995, Cevipof-Interior Ministry-Ifop postelection survey for 2007, French election survey 2017. The data are the probabilities of an individual’s self-placement in a camp predicted by a multinomial logistic regression model.

36Does being on the Left, on the Right, or elsewhere still mean the same thing in 2017 as it did in 1988? This is what I will attempt to verify by measuring how placements have been related to individuals’ socioeconomic and cultural values since the late 1980s.

37The normative foundations of Left-Right positioning have evolved considerably over time. This can be clearly understood if one thinks about the matter based on ideal types. We might consider four of these: the liberal-libertarian (opposed to state regulation and culturally very tolerant), the liberal-authoritarian (opposed to the state and culturally conservative), the social-authoritarian (in favor of wealth redistribution and culturally conservative), and the social-libertarian (socially and culturally progressive).

38The Left and Right of 1988 belong to a past world of an opposition based essentially on socioeconomic attitudes and values, such as wealth redistribution and the state’s economic role. During this era, cultural issues were present in individuals’ values, but they did not color their political positioning. The social-authoritarian and social-libertarian ideal types placed themselves almost solely to the Left (82% and 95% respectively) and stood very strongly in opposition to the two liberal ideal types, which leaned very heavily to the Right (65% chance in the case of authoritarians, and 86% in that of libertarians).

39From 1995, the Left’s normative nature (and to a lesser extent that of the Right) evolved and became tinged with cultural values. Rejection of or support for authoritarianism, tolerance or rejection of immigration, and the cultural battles around the role of women and the acceptance of sexual minorities became some of the forces that drive belonging to a camp, and particularly either belonging to the Left or distancing oneself from this camp. Social-libertarians had an 88% chance of choosing the Left, while for social-authoritarians, the figure was no more than 46%. For social-libertarians, the probability of self-placement on the Left remained stable compared to 1988; while for social-authoritarians, it almost halved.

40Among liberal-libertarians, the probability of self-placement on the Left rose to 29% (24 points higher than the 1988 figure), while the probability of members of this group being on the Right was down to 50%. The Right continued to strongly attract liberal-authoritarians. The results for 2007 are substantially the same.

41In contrast, in 2017, the Left and the Right converged around the social-libertarian and liberal-authoritarian ideal types only, with an 84% self-placement probability in the first case, and an 82% one in the second. In contrast, the probability of placing oneself on the Left among the social-authoritarians was limited to 25%, while there was only a 20% chance of liberal-libertarians placing themselves on the Right. In other words, cultural values now have even more importance when individuals choose a political camp.

42The nonaligned individuals of yesterday and further back are not the same as today’s ones regarding their values profiles. In 1988, the decisive factor for placement on the Left was individuals’ positioning in relation to the issues of “old politics”: the probability of nonalignment was highest among voters who were “midway” between social progressivism and economic liberalism. The probability of this placement fluctuated between 35% and 40% among the middle deciles, while it was around 5% to 15% among the most socially progressive 10% of voters.

43In 1995, the low tide for “nonaligned” individuals, this placement was highest among socialauthoritarians (who had up to a 25% chance of placing themselves here). They now distinguished themselves from social-libertarians, with whom they had shared the same placement on the Left seven years earlier. At this time, the working-class supporters of Jean-Marie Le Pen identified by Nonna Mayer [59] emerged: these individuals were particularly sensitive to the discourse of welfare chauvinism, which responded to their demand for protection and their strong rejection of immigration. On the other hand, nonalignment was no longer so characteristic of individuals with a middle position in relation to socioeconomic values; they now positioned themselves more on the Left (if they were culturally liberal) or on the Right (if they were culturally conservative). In 2007, nonalignment was more widespread, but the logics of 1995 were reproduced and the weight of cultural values increased.

44The diversity of reasons for nonalignment found in 2017 is striking. In this group, we find economic antiliberals and liberals, cultural conservatives and progressives, but also individuals who are moderates in relation to these two dimensions of values. If we consider the case of individuals who occupy the median positions in terms of cultural values (deciles 5 and 6), their chance of choosing this alignment varies between 30% and 40% depending on their socioeconomic positions, and it is highest when they are also moderate in terms of economic liberalism. These doubly moderate individuals find themselves alongside voters with very different profiles: social-authoritarians (as in 1995 and 2007) but also liberal-libertarians. Above all, the weight of cultural values has made further progress: among the most socially inclined decile, the gap between the most authoritarian and the most libertarian is still 27 points and, among the most economically liberal, the gap increased from 6 points in 1995 to 17 points in 2007 and to 24 in 2017. To summarize, nonalignment therefore brings together voters who may be attracted by candidates of very different, even antagonistic, ideological positions—for example, a candidate favorable to economic and cultural globalization (for liberal-libertarians) and a candidate who would back an economically interventionist state and the closure of borders (for social-authoritarians).

Left, Right, and Nonaligned and Voting

Figure 8

Voting According to Left-Right Positioning

Figure 8

Voting According to Left-Right Positioning

45Analyzing Left-Right placement and voting brings various findings to light. The first is that this positioning remains linked to voting choice. Votes for the Right’s candidates come first of all from individuals who place themselves in this camp, and the same is true of the Left, whether in 1988 or in 2017. Moreover, votes from right-wing voters for a left-wing candidate were marginal in 1988 (7%), just as they were during the three other elections presented here (between 4% and 7%). Similarly, the proportions of left-wing voters who “crossed over to the other side” oscillated between 9% in 1995 and 4% in 2007 and 1988.

46What is peculiar about 2017 is that a candidate who was “on the Left and Right” attracted voters from across the spectrum. In 1988, Raymond Barre succeeded as much with the Right as he did with the nonaligned. Édouard Balladur, owing to his Gaullist past and to his support for the Union pour la Démocratie Française (Union for French Democracy, UDF), also proved attractive to these two groups. But Macron’s votes came strongly from the Left (24%) and the Right (17%). However, he is not alone, as Bayrou attracted people in the same manner in 2007.

47Ultimately, the composite and changing nature of the nonaligned helps to explain the variation in electoral choices from one election to another, and particularly in 2017. During the last presidential election, Macron placed first, but with only 35% of nonaligned individuals’ votes, while Marine Le Pen attracted 23% of them and Mélenchon 19%. These nonaligned voters do not occupy a middle ground between the Left and the Right, and their heterogeneity, which has already been commented upon in terms of values, is still to be found here.

48The FN vote in 2017 proved to be stronger among the nonaligned than it was among the Right in 1995 (20% versus 17%) and as strong as it was among the Right in 2007, which can be explained via the high proportion of social-authoritarians among them. In other words, the salience of this positioning does not make for a stable electoral alignment.

49Beyond the choice expressed on 23 April 2017, however, it is useful to measure how the electoral potential of the different political alternatives is structured.

Table 2

Parties’ Electoral Potential Following the 2017 Presidential Election


Parties’ Electoral Potential Following the 2017 Presidential Election

50People’s distrust of political parties was undoubtedly still present in 2017. [60] No party was capable of eliciting potential votes from a majority of voters. LREM is the party that was able to enjoy the broadest potential vote, but it was less than 4.7/10. Above all, LREM appears rather to have been a default choice, unlike the case of the more polarizing parties, which gathered a less wide but more supportive set of voters. The probability of a vote for La France Insoumise (FI) coming from voters positioned very strongly to the Left was 7.3/10; the equivalent figure for the FN and voters positioned very strongly on the Right stood at 8.7/10. In contrast, LREM produced quite low average voting probabilities, but it did so over a wider political spectrum: 5/10 among “centrists”; 5.4/10 among somewhat left-wing voters, which puts this party at the level of FI and Europe Écologie Les Verts (Europe Ecology-The Greens, EELV), and therefore behind the PS; and 4.9/10 among somewhat right-wing voters (behind the Républicains).

Figure 9

Voting Probabilities According to Values

Figure 9

Voting Probabilities According to Values

51It is therefore too early to conclude that the end is nigh for the PS or the EELV on the basis of this investigation. These organizations still hold sway among the electorate, even after their catastrophic results in April 2017. Neither LREM nor FI can therefore claim to exclusively embody the people of the Left. Many very left-wing voters integrate in their space of possibilities the three historical partners of the pluralist Left, while among somewhat leftwing voters, the PS remains the first choice, even if these voters also opt for EELV or FI. The space of possibilities is therefore particularly fluid on the Left, meaning that the internal electoral movements experienced since 2002 may well persist beyond 2017.

52Analysis of voting probabilities according to the two main dimensions of values clearly brings out four poles, each of which relates to one of the ideal types. FI mainly attracts social and libertarian voters (8.2/10 among the most committed to these values) while economic liberals—regardless of their position on cultural values—reject it. Social-authoritarians essentially support the Front National. [61] The Républicains are supported primarily by liberal-authoritarians, though they still find recruits among liberal-libertarians. However, this latter group now largely favors LREM. In contrast, the PS seems to have been squeezed: it still resonates to some degree among cultural liberals, but most of the time it appears to be a second choice.

53* * *

54It is still too early to draw conclusions about what 2017 means in terms of party-political offerings and orderings. This presidential election may open up a path to a party-political system comprising four poles, something that Florent Gougou and Simon Persico [62] call the “new quadrille bipolaire”: a first social-libertarian pole (FI, PS, EELV), a second liberalauthoritarian pole (LR), a third liberal-libertarian pole (LREM), and a fourth social-authoritarian pole (FN). Another possibility, suggested by Pierre Martin [63] based on an approach inspired by Hanspeter Kriesi’s theory, is that France is moving toward a tripolar partypolitical system: a “democrat-eco-socialist” pole, a “liberal-globalizing” pole, and a “conservative-identitarian” pole. However, this election cycle may equally be a deviation produced by a set of short-term phenomena. Although some voters on the Left supported Macron, this can be explained in part by a rejection of the Socialists, and also by a fear of a runoff between Fillon and Le Pen. There is nothing to say that such voters will repeat this choice in the future. Several political futures are therefore possible. We may be witnessing the beginning of a realignment in which LREM becomes a dominant party that could marginalize the Left from above (and consequently from below) in the long term. We may also be witnessing a transformation of what the Left has to offer, with the emergence of new organizations (such as La France Insoumise or Génération.s). Or we may also be underestimating the PS’s or EELV’s resilience.

55However, from my analysis it emerges that the Left and Right at ground level—that is, with regard to voters—have not disappeared. Of course, the number of citizens who claim affiliation to these is particularly low, but this is something that had already come about, particularly in the early 1990s. Above all, the Left and the Right are not empty of meaning as concepts; they relate to opposing and far from obsolete key values. These self-placements continue to feed on socioeconomic values, but also on progressivism or cultural conservatism, and they are additionally beginning to be divided up based on the issue of the environment. Consequently, my analysis is a departure from the essentialist conception of political divisions. Left and Right alike are evolving in accordance with the politicization of particular debates and values and with the preservation or otherwise of certain historically stable divides. These camps may be lacking a political incarnation in the absence of a party or an alliance capable of bringing them together, but this has already happened in the past, in particular on the Left. The number of voters who claim to be on the Left or on the Right may be low, but we have seen that placements are also a matter of political context—and if some issues such as immigration or inequality are politically revived and reincarnated, then we can expect to see these two camps grow again. It is too early to bury the Left-Right divide yet.

Appendix 1

Lists of questions used to construct the values factors

Socioeconomic factor

56Unemployed people could find work if they really wanted to (agree/disagree with 4 options).

57To establish social justice, taking from the rich to give to the poor needs to take place (agree/disagree with 4 options).

58The number of public-sector workers should be reduced (agree/disagree with 4 options).

59To address economic problems, what do you think should be done?

  1. The state should trust businesses and give them more freedom;
  2. Or, by contrast, the state should control and regulate them more closely.

60To which of the following do you think priority should be given in the coming years?:

  1. The competitiveness of the French economy;
  2. Improvements to workers’ circumstances.

Cultural factor

61Women are made above all to have and raise children (agree/disagree with 4 options).

62It is right that a woman can choose to have an abortion (agree/disagree with 4 options).

63Society needs a hierarchy and leaders (agree/disagree with 4 options).

64It is acceptable to live one’s life as a homosexual (agree/disagree with 4 options).

65It is right that homosexual couples can adopt children (agree/disagree with 4 options).

66The death penalty should be brought back (agree/disagree with 4 options).

67The presence of immigrants in France is a source of cultural enrichment (agree/disagree with 4 options).

68French Muslims are French in the same way as everyone else is (agree/disagree with 4 options).

69There are too many immigrants in France (agree/disagree with 4 options).

70Regarding schools, with which of these two views do you agree the most?:

  1. Schools should above all instill a sense of discipline and effort;
  2. Schools should above all shape alert and critical minds.

Europe factor

71It is necessary to strengthen Europe’s decision-making powers, even if this would mean having to reduce France’s sovereignty (agree/disagree with 4 options).

72The European Union is a problem for the functioning of democracy in France (agree/disagree with 4 options).

73In general, do you think that France’s membership of the European Union is:

  1. a good thing;
  2. a bad thing;
  3. neither a good nor a bad thing.

74All things considered, do you or don’t you feel that France has benefited from its membership of the European Union?

  1. France has benefited from its membership of the European Union;
  2. France has not benefited from its membership of the European Union.

Globalization factor

75The economic consequences of globalization are extremely negative for France (agree/disagree with 4 options).

76Customs barriers and economic protectionism should be restored (agree/disagree with 4 options).

77Globalization greatly reduces the power of national governments (agree/disagree with 4 options).

78Globalization is currently preventing democracy from functioning well in France (agree/ disagree with 4 options).

Environmental factor

79If we really want to preserve the environment for future generations, we will be obliged to very seriously slow down our economic growth (agree/disagree with 4 options).

80Are you completely in favor, somewhat in favor, somewhat against or completely against the production of energy through nuclear power plants?

  1. Completely in favor;
  2. Somewhat in favor;
  3. Somewhat against;
  4. Completely against.

81For you, the climate change that we hear about is above all:

  1. a phenomenon caused by human activity;
  2. a natural phenomenon of the kind that Earth has always experienced in its history;
  3. a phenomenon whose origin we don’t understand.

Confidence factor

82On the whole, are you very satisfied, quite satisfied, not very satisfied, or not satisfied at all about the functioning of democracy in France?

83Most political leaders do not care about people like us (agree/disagree with 5 options).

84Most political leaders are worthy of trust (agree/disagree with 5 options).

85Political leaders are the main problem in France (agree/disagree with 5 options).

Appendix 2

Measures of normative preferences

86My intention here is to provide an overview of the method used to construct measures of voters’ socioeconomic and cultural preferences. Readers who wish to know more may refer to my article “La politique des deux axes. Variables sociologiques, valeurs et votes en France (1988-2007)” (Two-Axis Politics: Values, Votes and Sociological Cleavages in France [1988-2007]), which was published in this journal in 2012, [64] and in particular to its methodological appendix. There are two objectives here: 1/ Comparability over time; 2/ Robustness of the empirical measures of socioeconomic and cultural dimensions.

87French election surveys are characterized by flaws in the question series. For example, between 1988 and 2017, only two questions about socioeconomic values were asked systematically: opinions on privatization and profit. The situation is not as bad for cultural values, since there is a series on the death penalty, the number of immigrants, and the role of schools. But in both cases, there are not enough questions covering the whole of the period to produce sufficiently robust and reliable attitudinal scales.

88In response to this situation, I made the following assumptions: in line with the literature on the issue, there are two dimensions of values, namely a cultural one and a socioeconomic one; the available survey questions therefore offer much evidence for measuring these normative preferences; and some questions are more appropriate for doing so than others are.

89Therefore, my goal was, based on data-analysis methods, to extract the factors for each dimension of values and each survey (in the end, 6*2 cases). I did so by deploying principal component analysis, factorial analysis, and split correspondence analysis (analyses de correspondance d[CAT66]édoubl[CAT67]ées)[VT68], with very consistent results.

90To ensure comparability between these factors, several steps were followed: 1/ I selected a subset of questions, namely those that had been asked on at least two occasions, considering that their reproduction was significant to their intrinsic qualities; 2/ I also standardizedcentered the different factors: all are 0 on average and one unit corresponds to a standard deviation; 3/ I endeavored to check that the factors correctly measured the same phenomenon by analyzing their relations over time with different variables of interest.

91This approach did not allow me to measure developments among voters over time in terms of socioeconomic or political preferences (which would have been possible with an attitudinal scale or even with techniques such as mood [65]), but I did have a measure of their positions relative to the whole of their sample along these dimensions. It can be stated whether voters belong to the most culturally conservative 10% in 2017 or in 1988. The objective here is to verify if different ideological positions are induced by a difference of individual positioning in relation to the socioeconomic factor, the cultural factor, or both.


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Vincent Tiberj
Full Professor Vincent Tiberj is a researcher at the Centre Émile Durkheim and a Sciences Po Bordeaux Dean of Research. His recent publications include: Les citoyens qui viennent. Comment le renouvellement générationnel transforme la politique en France, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 2017; and (coedited with Olivier Filleule, Florence Haegel, and Camille Hamidi) Sociologie plurielle des comportements politiques, Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, 2017. He specializes in analyzing electoral and political behavior in France, Europe, and the United States as well as in political psychology, and his work focuses on “ordinary” citizens’ reasoning methods, the political sociology of social and ethnic inequalities, and xenophobic prejudices and value systems (Centre Émile Durkheim, Sciences Po Bordeaux, 11 allée Ausone, 33600 Pessac.
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