Will older voters be enough to carry Macron to victory over Le Pen?

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While Anglophone countries have seen right-wing populists achieve strong electoral performances thanks to older voters, a different dynamic is playing out in France: President Emmanuel Macron goes into the April 24 second-round runoff against nationalist Marine Le Pen after relying on over 60s to outpoll her in the first round.

Macron can thank older voters for his place in the runoff: Le Pen got her best first-round scores in the 35-49 and 50-59 age brackets, according to pollsters Ipsos, while far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon prevailed among voters aged 18-24 and 25-34.

Shocking many Anglophone observers, Le Pen came in second among these youngest age groups, ahead of Macron.

FRANCE 24 spoke to Mathieu Gallard, account director at Ipsos, whose research broke down the first-round results by age, about how this demographic aspect might play out in the second round – which is expected to be far closer than the 2017 Macron-Le Pen duel.

Gallard said Macron’s strong performance among pensioners will only increase in the second round and that he has a good chance of edging Le Pen among young voters – although he will likely have more difficulty establishing a solid lead among voters aged 35 to 59.

Your research for Ipsos showed that Le Pen beat Macron in the first round among all age groups under 60, leading the entire pack amongst voters aged 35 to 59 (she came second among voters under 35, with Mélenchon in the lead). What explains Le Pen’s relative popularity among middle-aged voters and, to a large extent, among young voters?

I think that was because purchasing power is exceptionally important for French voters. By a long way, it was the biggest factor people gave us for why they voted the way they did; 58 percent of French people said it was the most important – and after that came immigration, at 27 percent. Then followed the national health system and the environment, both at 26 percent.

So we can see that the election was very polarised over the question of purchasing power. And we’ve seen that Marine Le Pen put a lot of emphasis on this issue over the course of the campaign – she’s talked about it an awful lot. Le Pen didn’t do so during her previous campaign, in which her predominant message was about issues like immigration and security.

Voters aged 35 to 60 are more anxious about purchasing power than other age categories. Amongst this section of the French electorate, about 65-70 percent said this issue was the biggest motivating factor behind their choice at the ballot box. Quite simply, this is because people in this age range are active in the jobs market – they either work or they’re looking for work. So they feel a great sense of difficulty, notably when it comes to high fuel inflation. It has an enormous impact on their budgets, because of course in many cases people have to drive to work – and a lot of French people have to drive very long distances.

As a whole, the under 60s are most concerned about purchasing power; issues like immigration come after. And where they stood on matters like immigration tended to decide whether anti-Macron voters favoured Le Pen or Mélenchon.

Voters’ choice between these two candidates was also correlated with whether or not they have a university degree. If you want to tell whether the average voter went for Le Pen or Mélenchon, it’s a good bet to look at their level of post-secondary school education.

When it comes to the under 35s, no age category is homogenous and even among young people there are voters who are opposed to immigration and conservative on cultural issues, even if young people in France are generally socially liberal.

But the main reason why Le Pen’s young supporters chose her was perhaps socio-economic. You have young people living far from France’s big cities, living in areas which aren’t necessarily doing very well economically – and they perhaps felt closer to Le Pen than they did to Mélenchon [who has a much more urban support base].

Why was Macron so much more popular among voters aged 60 and over – and especially 70 and over – than his two biggest first-round rivals Le Pen and Mélenchon?

It’s not a great surprise because the surveys we did for the second round in 2017 showed that Macron got 78 percent of the vote among people aged 70 – so even then it was an enormous majority.

Towards the start of his mandate some of his measures didn’t go down brilliantly with pensioners. But then the various crises Macron has had to deal with – and we’ve had a lot of crises, from the Yellow Vests to Covid-19 to the war in Ukraine – all of them reinforced Macron’s stature in the eyes of this section of the electorate. And traditionally these age groups have demonstrated a tendency to back the incumbent president.

So from a historical perspective it’s not surprising to see this play out – and in Macron’s case it seems very much linked to the crises he faced. Older voters generally judge him to have managed quite well, they’re much more inclined to think this than the median voter.

It’s a section of the electorate that doesn’t want to take risks and ergo they’re thinking: Macron’s managed things fairly well so let’s keep him for another five years.

How do you think the age dynamics we saw in the first round will play out in the second?

I think we’ll see the same patterns we saw five years ago; in the last presidential election you had a U-curve in terms of how people voted by age. Voters aged under 35 voted for Macron by 66 percent, so a huge majority. Somewhat older people – those aged 35 to 49 – also voted in Macron’s favour, but only 57 percent. Those aged 70 and older voted for Macron by 78 percent. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a similar U-curve on April 24.

But now it is very clear that it will be way closer than five years ago, so maybe the middle-aged category will be very close between Macron and Le Pen. I would not be surprised if the 35 to 49 age category has a neck-to-neck result between these two contenders.

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