Voter apathy sets President
Emmanuel Macron’s second term in jeopardy.
Illustration by John W. Tomac for POLITICO
PARIS — Maël Blandin believes in many things, but the power of voting is no longer one of them. The 21-year-old college student volunteers several hours each week at a food bank, handing out packages to other students struggling to survive.
Like many of his generation, he is concerned with saving the planet and fighting poverty. But like many of them, he doesn’t believe that electoral politics plays a big part in getting those things done.
“I’m fed up with politicians, they’re all hypocritical. There isn’t one that stands out to me, whether it’s right, left, far right or far left,” he said. “Volunteering is a very, very concrete way of helping people. But vote? If the politicians don’t follow, your vote is useless.”
With just a few days left until the first round of the French presidential election on April 10, political passions should be at their peak. Instead, sentiments like Blandin’s dominate the discourse – with worrying consequences for candidates, particularly French President Emmanuel Macron.
Political participation in France has been on the decline for decades, but presidential elections have usually been where people show up. If a candidate was “not particularly interested” this year, it would be justified to start measuring the curtains in the Elysée Presidential Palace.
Polls are predicting a record 31 percent of eligible voters who won’t bother to cast a ballot this year — more than the 27 percent of voters who say they will support Macron, the lead candidate, in the first round. A recent poll suggested that almost half of the French youth will skip voting altogether.
“It’s quite worrying that with a few weeks to go before the election, we don’t feel that people are that interested in the campaign,” said OpinionWay pollster Bruno Jeanbart.
For Macron, facing his greatest challenges from the far right and far left, voter apathy poses a threat of its own. Not only might it favor his electoral rivals, who can rely on motivated bases to lobby for them; it offers his opponents the opportunity to present his expected re-election as illegitimate.
Many of them have already started, accusing the President of using the war in Ukraine to avoid confrontation with his opponents. Macron officially announced his re-election five weeks before the election and has barely campaigned. He has only visited a handful of cities outside of Paris as a candidate, most of which are held by close allies. Some say he’s doing nothing to promote healthy political debate — and prevent a deeper political crisis.
“If there’s no campaign, then there’s the question of the legitimacy of the winner,” warned Gérard Larcher, president of the Senate and a member of the conservative Les Républicains party, in an eyebrow-raising interview with the Le figaro newspaper in March.
Macron did not miss the menacing tone replied three days later: “That’s not what a Senate President should say.”
Some of Macron’s top lieutenants do not hide their nervousness about voters’ apparent disinterest in this year’s campaign and how their candidate’s top opponent, Marine Le Pen, could take advantage of the situation. “We have to be careful that the aggression camp doesn’t get a full house,” said one of them.
A resounding victory would also risk undermining Macron’s chances of a clear majority in June’s general election and derailing his efforts to push through reforms in his second term.
The rise of “bof” Politics
Politics used to be a national sport in France. A French dinner party could hardly be called a success if it didn’t end with guests arguing over which politician was a crook, which sellout, which support.
These days, conversations about politics – and voting in particular – are more likely to evoke a Gallic shrug or “bof“, as the French say when they are not interested in something.
“It’s a Teflon campaign where nothing sticks,” said a former minister of Macron’s La République En Marche party. “Not even what the President says [gets any attention].”
Experts say France’s voter apathy stems from the same sources of discontent seen in many Western democracies: a sense that nothing is changing, that career politicians do not represent the people, and the rise of fragmented political groups more attached to their echo chamber are more interested in social media than in national elections.
But the French electoral system also plays a role. The most important offices are filled in two rounds of voting, with the front-runners from the first round going up against each other in the second round.
For decades, this system kept the fringe parties on the fringes. Even if an incendiary like Le Pen broke through in the first round, their opponents would rally to block them in the second.
And the same goes for other members of their party. In 2017, for example, Le Pen advanced to the second round with 21 percent of the vote. Not only did she almost lose 2-1 to Macron in the second round; in the subsequent general election, a similar dynamic won her party just six of the 577 chamber seats.
“It is clear that large parts of the electorate are not represented in French institutions,” said political scientist Jean-Yves Dormagen. “[Le Pen’s] far-right National Rally and [her farther-right rival] Recaptures are likely to be almost non-existent in Parliament and may fuel protest movements outside the institutions.”
Macron’s rise has complicated the picture. His rise in 2017 shattered the country’s centers of power in centre-right and centre-left elections, meaning this time France’s traditional parties are most at risk of freezing.
The Socialist Party and conservative Les Républicains candidates are expected to get 10 percent or less in the first ballot.
The new dynamic favors the extremes. According to POLITICO polls, Le Pen comes second again with 21 percent of the vote. In third place is left-wing extremist Jean-Luc Mélenchon with 15 percent, with Eric Zemmour, a former journalist convicted three times for inciting racial hatred, and Les Républicains in fourth place with 10 percent.
On paper, the rise of the extremists bodes well for Macron’s chances in the second round if it leads voters who don’t like him to turn a blind eye and support him anyway.
The French President has tried to use a tightening poll between himself and Le Pen to stoke enthusiasm for the vote – but he remains the clear favourite, 10 percentage points ahead of Le Pen in the second round.
Meanwhile, the lackluster electoral enthusiasm is already being used to cast doubt on his ability to push through his agenda later.
“I expect a difficult mandate,” said pollster Jeanbart. “We are heading for an election with many protest votes, but that will result in the re-election of the incumbent. It’s a strange paradox.”
“I don’t know in what form [the opposition to Macron] will take, but I’m sure he’ll have real trouble pushing through reforms,” Jeanbart said. Macron has promised to push back the retirement age and reform unemployment benefits in his second term.
Right-wing extremists and conservative candidates are already accusing Macron “Steal the Election” Both Zemmour and Valérie Pécresse of Les Républicains have used the phrase.
For some, the sight of high-ranking politicians pushing such buttons evokes fear of social unrest.
“I’m struck by the parallels between the crisis in the US and in Europe,” said Gérard Araud, a French diplomat who served as ambassador to the US, referring to the similarities between the political landscape in France and the dynamic he sees being in play in the US ahead of the attack on Capitol Hill in 2021.
“There is the same mass of citizens who reject the system and see that politics rule foul play and self-interest,” he added. “And then there is the hatred that Macron arouses in people. There is a section of the population, those who were involved in the Yellow Vests movement, they hate Macron from the bottom of their hearts. This will be reinforced after the election.”
Some former protest leaders are already saying so will take to the streets if Macron is re-elected. And with the war in Ukraine, petrol prices in France are already higher than when the Yellow Vests demonstrated in his first term.
“I will vote for everyone but Macron,” said Michelle, a Normandy pensioner and Zemmour supporter, who declined to give her last name because all her friends support Macron. “If he is re-elected, it will start like in the First World War.”
Elisa Braun contributed to the reporting.
https://www.politico.eu/article/france-election-president-2022-abstention-what-if-nobody-came/?utm_source=RSS_Feed&utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=RSS_Syndication What if you held a French election and nobody came? - POLITICS