In France’s unhappy democracy, voting for ‘lesser evil’ is a bitter pill to swallow

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For the third time in the past five presidential elections, millions of French citizens are preparing to cast their ballots not in favour of a candidate but to keep another one out of power. So far, the anti-Le Pen vote has resulted in crushing defeats for the far right – but at the cost of rising abstention, anger and resentment.

President Emmanuel Macron will again face Marine Le Pen in a presidential run-off next Sunday, five years after he crushed the far-right candidate in a lopsided contest. Polls are pointing to a much closer race this year amid widespread dismay at a rematch voters have long said they didn’t want.

The second round of France’s marquee election is supposed to mark the apex of French democratic life – the moment when a majority of the people rally behind a vision, a platform, a man (we’re yet to have a woman). Midway through this year’s two-round contest, however, all the signs point to an increasingly unhappy democracy, even by the low standards of a famously morose and rebellious nation.

Pollsters have flagged the prospect of record abstention in the April 24 run-off, following a botched campaign and five turbulent years marked by violent protests and Covid lockdowns. Many voters say they feel arm-twisted into choosing “the lesser of two evils”, and students have taken to occupying university campuses in protest at the outcome of the election’s first round.

The widespread malaise “is not good for turnout and it’s not good for democracy", said Tristan Haute, a political analyst at the University of Lille, whose research focuses on voter habits. “We’re likely to see a repeat of what happened in 2017, when turnout decreased in the second round and voters cast a record number of blank or spoiled ballots in protest at the choice of candidates,” he added.

France's abstention problem

A quarter of the French electorate shunned the polls in the first round on April 10, the highest number since the political earthquake that ushered Jean-Marie Le Pen into the second round in 2002. Observers had expected even more voters to abstain after a lacklustre campaign overshadowed by the war in Ukraine and hampered by a largely absent incumbent.

An Ifop poll ahead of the first round found 80 percent of French people felt the campaign was “poor quality”. Another survey, by Ipsos-Sopra Steria, said 55 percent of respondents were “unhappy” and 37 percent downright “angry”. In the words of ruralist candidate Jean Lassalle, it was a “campagne de merde” (crap campaign).

“Given the build-up, there was almost a sigh of relief last Sunday when abstention remained below the level of 2002,” said Haute. “But what people tend to forget about that year is that turnout increased massively in the second round. Jean-Marie Le Pen’s qualification sparked an electroshock and a remobilisation of voters. That’s unlikely to happen this year.”

>> On This Day in 2002: Doomed Socialist favourite laughs off threat of Le Pen in presidential final

Until the last election in 2017, the pattern was for turnout to increase in the second round as the country split into two broad camps, largely along a left-right divide. The system worked reasonably well in what was then a bipolar system. But the rise of the far right has shattered the equilibrium.

Results from the first round signalled the emergence of three camps of roughly equal weight: a centre-right bloc gravitating around the incumbent Emmanuel Macron, a far-right bloc dominated by Le Pen, and a scattered left that tried – and narrowly failed – to prevent a rematch of 2017.

That failed attempt accounted for the late surge in support for veteran leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the higher-than-expected turnout in places where he did best, said Haute, who observed the election in the stricken northern town of Roubaix, where Mélenchon took more than 50% of the vote.

“Mélenchon drew many young, first-time voters as well as long-time abstentionists from the poorer neighbourhoods,” he said, pointing to a pattern also witnessed in the poorer, immigrant-rich suburbs of Paris. “He drew people who wanted Le Pen out of the race and who hoped immigration and identity politics would not be an obsessive theme in the run-off.”

A lack of choice

With Mélenchon now out of the race, the concern is that many of his supporters will shun the next round, feeling disenfranchised. Across France, the sense of a lack of choice is especially acute among younger voters, whose preferred candidate was the veteran leftist.

Between them, the two finalists garnered fewer than half the votes cast by those aged 18 to 35. For many young voters, the left’s absence from the second round means issues that are critical to them – such as the environment, education, women’s and minority rights – have also been shut out.

“There is clearly a disconnect between the aspirations of young voters and the political offer available in the second round,” said Haute. “Many young people feel their voices are not being heard and that their main concerns have been ignored during the campaign.”

It is not just the absence of their preferred candidates and topics that is problematic. Despite her best efforts at normalisation, and her own inroads in the youth vote, Le Pen remains an anathema to swaths of French voters, young and old. This has left many feeling they have only one option in the run-off, depriving them of the essence of democracy: choice.

At the same time, Macron’s government has alienated many young woters with its rants against “woke” ideas and “Islamo-leftism” in academia. Brutal police clampdowns on protesters have also blurred the line between far right and mainstream in the eyes of some, encouraging the spread of the slogan, “Neither Le Pen, nor Macron”.

As a result, many young voters are likely to abstain on April 24, though this should not be interpreted as a lack of interest in politics, Haute cautioned.

“Young voters are no less politicised and no more individualistic than in the past, and yet they are increasingly tempted by abstentionism,” he said. “This discrepancy is explained by a yearning for different forms of political participation that are not limited to elections and the formal institutions of representative democracy.”

By protesting ahead of the run-off, Haute added, French youth are sending a signal to Macron, “warning him that they won’t lower their guard if he is re-elected".

Presidential monarchy

Talk of breathing new life into French democracy has been a recurrent theme during Macron’s first term in office. It was at the heart of the Yellow Vest insurgency that rattled his presidency and fostered debate on democratic reform.

One of the defining features of the Yellow Vests was their attempt to reclaim politics by wresting it from the control of parties and institutions they saw as undemocratic. As Magali Della Sudda, a researcher at Sciences-Po Bordeaux, explained in a recent interview with FRANCE 24, “one can credit the movement with getting the French to show interest in their institutions and constitution – a remarkable feat in its own right".

The promise to convene a constitutent assembly tasked with drafting a new constitution for France – and usher in a Sixth Republic to replace the current one – helped Mélenchon rally swaths of the Yellow Vest movement behind his banner. It also drew other voters who were otherwise uncomfortable with the veteran leftist’s divisive personality, but who were eager to end France’s “presidential monarchy”.

A long-time advocate of a Sixth Republic, Paul Alliès, a professor of political science at the University of Montpellier, said rising abstention and increasingly violent protests are a consequence of a dysfunctional system that invests too much power and attention on the figure of the president. The corollary of this lop-sided system, he added, is “a parliament that is totally impotent”.

“This cult of the leader, our habit of framing elections as the ‘meeting between a man (sic) and a people’, it’s all nonsense,” he said. “We have the worst regime in all of Europe, and it’s fuelling violence and resentment.”

Critics of the presidential role fashioned by General Charles de Gaulle have long pointed to fundamental defects in France’s Fifth Republic: presidents ruling from their ivory tower, answerable to nobody; parliaments stripped of powers and initiative, reduced to rubber-stamping the Élysée Palace’s directives; prime ministers appointed and dismissed at the president’s whim, and promptly scapegoated when things go wrong.

In a 2014 study calling for political reform in France, the Peterson Institute for International Economics said: “The era of regularly electing a new king and regularly tossing him out again should be over in France.”

“France must change its system, preferably reducing the status of its presidency to the largely ceremonial level seen in other European republics,” the think-tank wrote. “At the least, it should (..) remov(e) the president's right to name the prime minister, call new elections, and serve as commander-in-chief.”

A political ‘accident’

Designed to legitimise those sweeping powers by ensuring the president wins at least 50% of the popular vote, France’s two-round electoral system increasingly has the opposite effect, the study added. It noted that tactical voting aimed at keeping the far right out of power means the winner “command(s) a negative political mandate of ‘not being Marine Le Pen’, a leader without a popular mandate to lead or enact the change France needs.”

Macron’s refusal to acknowledge a “negative mandate” has led him to recuse the idea of a “republican front” – the united front of voters of all stripes that has so far kept the far right out of power at the national level and, in the vast majority of cases, at the local level too.

As he returned to the campaign trail on Monday, Macron disputed the fact that the “republican front” was crucial to his landslide win in 2017, implying that 66% of French voters had chosen him and his project. It’s a risky strategy, said Haute, noting that Macron needs to sway left-wing voters who are reluctant to back him once more.

“Of course candidates prefer to claim that their support is motivated and not tactical. No-one wants to be elected on the basis of a vote by default,” he said. “That’s the strategy Macron is sticking to in the second round, but it could easily anger many left-wing voters who clearly don’t feel they have a choice.”

Macron’s abrasive style and policies that veered to the right have upset many voters on the left. Rightly or wrongly, the perception that he has done everything in his power to engineer a repeat of the lopsided contest of 2017, framing the election as a showdown between the liberal mainstream and nationalist extremes, has left many feeling trapped.

“Macron has spent the past five years explaining to us that Marine Le Pen is his only opponent, it was his idea to introduce this divide,” said 31-year-old Felix, a Dijon-based designer who grudgingly backed Macron in the second round in 2017 but plans to abstain this time. “I know Le Pen is much worse, but I’m also radically opposed to Macron’s policies,” added 38-year-old Coraline from Bordeaux, who said she felt “arm-twisted” into voting for the incumbent.

Just hours after first-round results came in, an Ipsos poll for FRANCE 24 suggested as many as 30% of Mélenchon’s voters might switch to Le Pen – a huge proportion that sent shivers down the spines of Macron supporters. Later polls, however, have brought that number down considerably. On Saturday, the same pollster projected around 16% of Mélenchon’s vote going to Le Pen, against 33% backing Macron and the rest abstaining.

The first figure had much to do with left-wing voters raging at having come so close, said Erwan Lecoeur, a political analyst at the Pacte institute in Grenoble.

“Many despondent voters will have reacted by saying they would not bail out the ‘right’ for a third time, after having done so for Jacques Chirac against Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2002, and then Macron against Marine Le Pen five years ago,” he explained. “Since then, however, a number will have come to realise that if everyone does the same, then there’s a chance Marine Le Pen might squeak through.”

Mélenchon himself has urged supporters not to hand Le Pen “a single vote”, repeating the injunction four times as he conceded defeat on April 10. But he has refrained from backing Macron and a party consultation this week found that 33% of members would back the incumbent while the rest plan to abstain, leave their ballot blank or spoil it.

The outcome of Sunday’s election will depend largely on whether such voters can overcome their frustration and agree once more to a “vote barrage” (blocking vote) against the far right. While polls still favour Macron to win, widespread anger and disillusion mean a “political accident” is a distinct possibility, Lecoeur warned.

“If left-wing voters were to abstain in significantly larger numbers than the ‘populist block’ Marine Le Pen has courted and moulded over the years,” he explained, “then we could end up with a ‘political accident’: the election of a candidate whose political and ideological DNA is incompatible with a majority of the French.”

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