What if you held a French election and nobody came?
Voter apathy is putting President
Emmanuel Macron’s second term at risk.
Illustration by John W. Tomac for POLITICO
PARIS — Maël Blandin believes in a lot of things, but the power of voting is no longer one of them. The 21-year-old student spends several hours every week volunteering at a food bank, handing out parcels to other students struggling to make ends meet.
Like many of his generation, he’s concerned about saving the planet and fighting poverty. But like many of them, he doesn’t think electoral politics plays much of a role in accomplishing those things.
“I’m fed up with politicians, they are all hypocritical. There’s not one that stands out for me, whether it’s on the right, the left, the far right or the far left,” he said. “Volunteering is a very, very tangible way of helping people. But voting? If politicians don’t follow through, your vote is pointless.”
With just days left until the first round of voting in France’s presidential election on April 10, political passions should be reaching fever pitch. Instead, sentiments like Blandin’s are dominating the discourse — with worrying implications for the candidates, especially French President Emmanuel Macron.
Political participation in France has been on a downward trend for decades, but the presidential election was usually the one where people would show up. This year, if “not particularly interested” was a candidate, it would be justified in starting to measure the drapes in the Elysée presidential palace.
Polls predict a record 31 percent of eligible voters won’t bother to cast a ballot this year — more than the 27 percent of voters who say they’ll support Macron, the front-runner, in the first round of voting. One recent poll suggested that nearly half of France’s youth will skip the voting altogether.
“It’s quite worrying that several weeks before the election, we don’t feel people are that interested in the campaign,” said Bruno Jeanbart, pollster for OpinionWay.
For Macron, who faces his greatest challenges from the far right and far left, voter apathy presents a threat of its own. Not only might it favor his electoral rivals, who can count on motivated bases to turn out for them; it presents his opponents with the opportunity to cast his expected reelection as lacking legitimacy.
Many of them have already begun to do just that, accusing the president of using the war in Ukraine to avoid going head-to-head with his opponents. Macron officially announced his reelection bid five weeks before the election and has hardly done any campaigning, visiting only a handful of cities outside of Paris as a candidate, most of them held by close allies. Some say he is not playing his part in fostering a healthy political debate — and preventing a deeper political crisis.
“If there is no campaign, the question of the legitimacy of the winner will arise,” warned Gérard Larcher, the 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.
The threatening tone was not lost on Macron, who retorted three days later: “A president of the Senate should not say that.”
Some of Macron’s top lieutenants aren’t hiding their nervousness about voters’ apparent disinterest in this year’s campaign, and how their candidate’s top opponent, Marine Le Pen, could leverage the situation. “We have to be careful that the anger camp doesn’t get a full house,” one of them said.
An underwhelming win would also risk undermining the chances of Macron getting a clear majority in June’s parliamentary elections, crippling 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 up with guests sparring about which politician was a crook, which was a sellout, which was deserving of support.
These days, talk of politics — and voting in particular — is more likely to elicit a Gallic shrug, or a “bof,” as the French say when something doesn’t interest them.
“It’s a Teflon campaign where nothing sticks,” said a former minister from 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 disaffection one sees in many Western democracies: the sense that nothing changes, that career politicians don’t represent the people and the rise of fragmented political groups that are more interested in their echo chamber on social media than in nationwide elections.
But France’s electoral system also plays a role. Most important offices are filled by two rounds of voting, with the top vote-getters from the first round facing off in the second.
For decades, that system kept the fringe parties on the fringes. Even if a firebrand like Le Pen broke through on the first round, her opponents would rally to block her in the second.
And the same holds true for other members of their party. In 2017, for instance, Le Pen advanced to the second round with 21 percent of the vote. Not only did she lose to Macron by nearly a 2-1 margin in the second round; in the parliamentary election that followed, a similar dynamic gave her party just six of the chambers’ 577 seats.
“It’s clear that big chunks of the voters aren’t represented in French institutions,” said the politics academic Jean-Yves Dormagen. “[Le Pen’s] far-right National Rally and [her farther-right rival] Reconquest are likely to be almost absent in parliament, and it can encourage protest movements outside the institutions.”
Macron’s rise has complicated the picture. His ascendancy in 2017 demolished the country’s electoral powerhouses on the center right and center left, meaning that this time around it’s France’s traditional parties that are most at risk of being frozen out.
The candidates for the Socialist Party and the conservative Les Républicains are expected to take in 10 percent or less in the first round of voting.
The new dynamic is favoring the extremes. Le Pen is expected to come in second again, with 21 percent of the vote, according to POLITICO’s Poll of Polls. In third place will be the far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon at 15 percent, with Eric Zemmour, a former journalist who has been convicted of inciting racial hatred three times, in a tie with Les Républicains for fourth place at 10 percent.
On paper, the rise of the extremisms is good for Macron’s chances in the second round, if it will lead voters who don’t like him to hold their noses and support him anyway.
The French president has sought to use a tightening in the polls between him and Le Pen as an occasion to whip up enthusiasm for the vote — but he remains the distant favorite, 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 afterward to push through his agenda.
“I’m expecting a difficult mandate,” said Jeanbart the pollster. “We are heading towards an election with a high level of protest vote but that leads to the reelection of the incumbent. It’s a strange paradox.”
“I don’t know what form [the opposition to Macron] will take, but I’m sure he will have real difficulties in pushing through reforms,” Jeanbart said. Macron has pledged to push back the age of retirement and reform unemployment benefits in his second term.
Far-right and conservative candidates are already accusing Macron of “stealing the election.” Both Zemmour and Les Républicains’ Valérie Pécresse have used the phrase.
For some, seeing high-level politicians push buttons like that raises fears of social unrest.
“I’m struck by the parallels between the crisis in the U.S. and in Europe,” said Gérard Araud, a French diplomat who served as ambassador to the U.S., referring to what he sees as similarities between the political landscape in France and the dynamics at play in the U.S. ahead of the Capitol Hill attack in 2021.
“There’s the same mass of citizens who reject the system and see foul play and vested interest ruling politics,” he added. “And then there’s the hate that Macron brings out in people. There’s a segment of the population, those who were caught up in the Yellow Jackets movement, they have a gut hatred of Macron. This will be reinforced after the election.”
Already some former protest leaders are saying they will take to the streets if Macron is reelected. And with the impact of the war in Ukraine, fuel prices are already higher in France than when the Yellow Jackets were demonstrating during his first term.
“I’ll vote for anyone except Macron,” said Michelle, a pensioner from Normandy and a supporter of Zemmour, who did not want to give her surname because all her friends support Macron. “If he is reelected it’s going to kick off like in World War I.”
Elisa Braun contributed reporting.