Europe let out a sigh of relief on Sunday night with the announcement of Emmanuel Macron’s victory over far-right candidate Marine Le Pen for the French Presidency. But since her previous electoral bid in 2017, Le Pen’s popularity has increased steadily, especially in rural France. Does her growing appeal point to a rejection of Macron’s techno-solutionism and the failures of his first term? What does it tell us about rural attitudes to Europe? Analysis by Ashley Parsons.
Marine Le Pen was the choice of more than 40% of French voters in the nail-biting final round of France’s presidential elections on April 24th 2022. This is the best result a far-right candidate has scored since World War II. A large part of her victory was her performance in rural areas. In more than 6500 communes (townships), Le Pen passed 60% of the vote margin. Her popularity in rural France has risen remarkably since her previous bid for the Elysée in 2017, as this electoral map animation by France Info shows.
Leading up to the first round of elections and currently before the second round of elections, Le Pen campaigned diligently in rural areas. Adding to the regions where she historically performed well, like the north of France, Le Pen also scored well in the Grand Est, Provence and the Mediterranean, and the “Diagonal du Vide” – a low population density, highly rural zone that cuts from northeast to southwest France.
Cash, CAP and Transition
Basing a large part of her campaign to appeal to ordinary people, Le Pen spoke frequently about increasing buying power and lowering prices on commodities like fuel, wheat and other staples: pollsters found that 59% of those who classified themselves as struggling to make ends meet financially voted for Le Pen.
What is it that many farmers and rural voters like about Le Pen? Critics call her anti-European. In the debate leading up to the election, Le Pen distanced herself from the possibility of Frexit, but stated she’d like to vastly change how France interacts within the EU.
Le Pen understands that farmers benefit from CAP subsidies: a departure from the CAP was not in the cards. But she promoted tapping the brakes on some agroecology initiatives and transitions. A slower transformation towards organic crops was part of her strategy, as is a promise to oblige large distributors to pay producers more. She also suggested changing the Egalim law to fix minimum prices that farmers should be paid.
Le Pen’s plans also pushed to revisit the implementation of crop insurance. This strategy is borrowed from the United States, and while it can be good for farmers, it can have disastrous effects for the environment.
Regarding the Farm to Fork and food security, Le Pen was in favour of cultivating fallow land. She also advocated for the use of pesticide products when an alternative is not available.
Macron’s 3rd agricultural revolution
The agricultural policy of Macron is much more macro. Agriculture in the age of Macron puts the weight of a technological revolution and generational renewal in the sphere. Today in France there are 400,000 producers, which is four times less than 40 years ago. His program included an objective for the number of farms in the country to grow by 20,000 every year.
Sticking to his tech-centric vision of the future, Macron is calling for a “3rd agricultural revolution,” where startups and farmers work together to create a new production paradigm of ‘sustainable agriculture’ that leverages artificial intelligence and autonomous machines. Although he supports the Farm to Fork initiative, in late March he said: “under no circumstances can Europe permit itself to produce less.” Macron claims Farm to Fork would diminish EU food production by up to 13%.
This was left out from Le Pen’s attacks against him during the pre-election debate, where she planted the idea that the current president had no qualms with such productivity loss (she also cited that Farm to Fork would reduce productivity by 20%).
Regarding food security and Farm to Fork rollbacks in response to the war in Ukraine, the actions of Macron and his agriculture minister Julien Denormandie have been criticized by eNGO Générations Futures (thread here in French). Further, climate activists are calling upon Macron to answer to his climate failures and inaction in his first term.
Far-right doing alright in rural Europe
In recent years, populist movements like those of Le Pen’s far-right have found footing across Europe in the rural sphere, like in Poland or in Hungary. Recently ARC covered the rise of Hungary’s far-right strongman Viktor Orbán and his FIDESZ party, whose path to power is littered with broken promises to farmers. Paradoxically, Orbán’s support continues to ride on the rural vote, despite having reduced the Hungarian countryside to what could be described as a modern day feudal system since 2010.
One thing is clear in France: business as usual is not working for many. Historian and sociologist Pierre Rosenvallon, speaking to France Inter before the election, noted: “This election is not oriented towards the future, and this election does not allow for hope. This election is a sign of a disenchantment.”
As in 2017, Macron was an urban and periurban candidate, one who was seen by many as not fulfilling his promises over the five years of his mandate. On the other hand, despite her authoritarian politics, according to Rosenvallon, Le Pen “has the image of someone who listens to people.” Here her tactics echo those of Orbán in Hungary, whose mastery of the art of seeming to listen to farmers has secured him a third term in power.
This election will boost Macron’s influence in the EU bloc, especially compared to the floundering inaction in Germany regarding the Ukraine crisis. But nationally, Macron has vast reforms ahead of him if he hopes to make good on his compounding campaign promises, from 2017 and 2022. If he continues to remain unpalatable to rural voters, his job may become just that more difficult in the coming years.
More on France
More on the far right