Voter turnout issue looms over French legislative elections after record first-round abstention

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With 52.49 percent of voters choosing to stay away on Sunday, France recorded its highest-ever abstention rate in the first round of the legislative elections, surpassing the 2017 record by a full point. Voter turnout will remain a major issue for next Sunday's run-off, as candidates cajole voters head to the polls for the fourth time in two months following April's two-round presidential election.

One key challenge for Emmanuel Macron's centre-right Ensemble ("Together") alliance and Jean-Luc Mélenchon's pan-leftist NUPES coalition – the two factions that topped first-round voting on Sunday, with just over 25 percent each – will be to get voters to spend yet another spring day at the ballot box.

"We have a system wherein the presidential election has taken up so much space that voters consider all bets are off once the president is elected," said political scientist Martial Foucault, who heads Sciences Po's CEVIPOF research centre. The country's legislative elections tend to pale in comparison to the earlier, flashier presidential vote. Less focussed on individual personalities, they are seen as less accessible, with 577 individual races waged for as many lower-house seats. Voters have measurably lost interest in the parliamentary polls over the past 30 years. The National Assembly itself has, in parallel, often seen its role overshadowed by the reigning executive.

Both those sentiments have been bolstered since 2002, when the French electoral calendar was rejigged to set legislative elections just weeks after the presidential run-off. "The sequence of four elections, the two presidential rounds and now the legislative elections, has flattened turnout," said Foucault.

High abstention rates like the ones France is seeing raise concerns about democracy, worries the specialist, who calls the parliamentary polls "fundamental" because they "allow the election of the representatives who make law".

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"It's a bit of a paradox, because a segment of the French people who don't vote reproach President Macron of exercising power alone or even in an authoritarian way," mused Foucault. "And yet the National Assembly is where opposing powers express themselves. One wonders whether the French are still politically aware because the opportunity to send their representatives to the National Assembly doesn't incite them to take part."

A 'non-existent' campaign

Sciences Po Professor Emeritus Pascal Perrineau says one thing reinforcing the crisis in the French electorate's relationship with politics is the virtual absence of electoral campaigning. "One must recognise that politicians have not put themselves out there much. The campaign for the presidential election was very short, but the one for the legislative elections was practically non-existent," said Perrineau. "The French are fine with going back to the polls as long as someone moves them to action. But in this case, there was no debate on substance, no debate on platforms...."

One of the challenges of this one-week period between voting rounds is to motivate voters via real democratic debate, said Pierre Jacquemain, editor-in-chief of the left-wing weekly Regards. "We have to hope that the different NUPES currents and the (incumbent) presidential majority will hold debates in order to mobilise voters," he said. "I heard (Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne) say she wanted voters to get more involved for the second round, but to get more involved, one has to understand this election. And while people know Mélenchon's programme, that is less, even not at all, the case for Macron's programme."

Indeed, the president – who isn't, institutionally speaking, tasked with leading his side's charge ahead of legislative elections – has opted for a strategy of silence, steering clear in recent weeks of speaking up on the most divisive aspects of his platform, like pension reform. "Things accelerated at the end of the (first-round) campaign, but only one candidate was filling the airwaves and it was Mélenchon," said Foucault. "That gave rise to remobilisation in the left-wing camps and a kind of wait-and-see attitude among voters of other political affiliations."

As such, NUPES managed to mobilise swaths of young people and the working classes, demographics that tend to turn out to vote in lower numbers. But the leftist coalition's vote reserves are now very low for the run-off round, which may prove a challenge for Mélenchon's designs on becoming France's next prime minister.

Specialists agree the most likely outcome next Sunday is a hung parliament for Macron's centre-right alliance. While the leftist and centre-right coalitions were neck-and-neck coming out of Sunday's first round, pollsters see Ensemble winning a new majority – albeit not necessarily an absolute one – with between 255 and 295 seats next Sunday. They project Mélenchon's NUPES settling for between 150 and 210 seats. The seat target for an absolute majority in the National Assembly is 289.

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In joining forces ahead of the first round, the NUPES candidates – which includes Mélenchon's far-left La France Insoumise (LFI), the French Communist Party, the Socialist Party and the Greens – have a shallower well to draw from than the centre-right Ensemble, which can count on some support from conservative Les Républicains voters. The centre-right camp also reaches demographics less likely to abstain on Election Day.

"The one that wins will be the one that manages to gather support beyond their normal margins," said Perrineau. "Ensemble appears better-placed to do that than NUPES, which has already pulled in as many votes as they could and have fewer left to fall back on."

Fewer reserves on the left

Hoping to tap into the coveted fount of abstentionists to keep his NUPES hopes alive after the polls closed on Sunday, Mélenchon called for "the people" – the young and the working classes, in particular – to "surge next Sunday".

But the task won't be an easy one. Coaxing support from individuals who would otherwise abstain tends to require a sort of lengthy fieldwork that is difficult to implement in a single week. The upshot, said Mathieu Doiret of pollster Ipsos, is that "NUPES could be beaten in constituencies where it is currently in the lead".

On the far right, the National Rally is also dependent on working-class voters and suffers the vagaries of voter turnout. But despite appeals from Macron allies and leftists alike not to give Marine Le Pen's party a single vote in next Sunday's second round, the National Rally is looking well-placed to win at least the 15 seats needed to form an official parliamentary group in the next legislature.

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Still, as the political editorialist Pascal Jalabert noted, it can be very difficult to predict how votes may transfer between rounds from an eliminated candidate to a finalist, or how likely those who abstained one week are to turn up the next. "Beware of projections. These are wide ranges. One needs to go district by district, and there are many votes that may turn up from those who abstained in the first round," Jalabert stressed. "We don't know how votes will transfer, where the National Rally votes will go in districts where their candidate is eliminated, nor how left-wing votes will translate in run-off duels between the National Rally and Ensemble. So one must be careful."

It is also tough to predict what centre-right Macron voters will do in the 58 districts nationwide where NUPES leftists and far-right National Rally candidates are going head to head. Election Night commentary from the Ensemble camp appeared equivocal on the issue, but government spokesperson Olivia Grégoire looked to set that right on Monday. "Let's be clear," she said. "Not a single vote for the National Rally."

This article has been adapted from the original in French.

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