French Local Elections: Crisis Of Abstention

France’s local elections this week yielded the highest level of abstention ever recorded. The abstention rate for the first round of voting, which took place this Sunday,  is projected around 66%, although some polls suggest an abstention rate of closer to 68%. These local and departmental elections, seen as an indicator for next year’s presidential elections, ultimately revealed little. Emmanuel Macron’s ‘En Marche’ party, taking part in their first-ever local elections performed poorly, taking only 11% of the vote, whilst Le Pen’s ‘Front National’ also performed below expectations, taking only 19% share. However, few conclusions can be drawn given that the views of the majority have gone unexpressed. In failing to allude to France’s next president, these elections have instead painted the picture of western democracy in crisis. 

Marine Le Pen was scathing in her assessment of both her own party’s performance, whilst also recognising the despondency and apathy that has dominated the narrative around this first round of voting. Le Pen has described the record level of abstention as a “civic disaster” that reveals the widespread “mistrust of an electoral system, which leaves voters feeling that nothing can change”. She also sought to galvanise ‘Front National’ voters ahead of the second round of voting next Sunday, calling on them to “respond urgently”. 

Aurore Bergé, an MP for Macron’s ‘En Marche’ party, was understandably downbeat in her assessment, not only of her own party but also of the election in its entirety. About the historically low turnout, she called it a “democratic slap in the face for all of us”, whilst she also recognised her own party’s poor performance. Although surprising by its scale, ‘En Marche’ had foreseen a poor performance in their local electoral debut, with one minister last month admitting that the party in power “always get it in the neck”. Perhaps their performance is even less surprising when factoring in widespread criticism from the French public during their troubled quinquennat. A series of controversial reforms ultimately drew a violent reaction from the French people, culminating in the creation of the ‘Gilets Jaunes’, who continue to be a potent political force in France, and a thorn in the side of Macron’s ‘En Marche’ government. 

These local elections will be defined by apathy. Faced with the choice between a centre-right, hyper-neo-liberal ‘En Marche’ party, or a far-right ‘Front National’, the French people have, en-masse, abstained. Many in France, especially those on the left, are experiencing a crisis of representation. There is simply no mainstream, plausible left-wing candidate that threatens the hegemony of the emboldened French right. In the absence of such a figure, many feel as though they have no choice at all. In fact, it is the youth that had the highest levels of abstention in this round of voting, a demographic that is predominantly left-wing. Out of every 100 voters, only 13 were under the age of 35. In the absence of the youth vote, the center-right has thrived, amongst the major beneficiaries were the ‘Les Républicains’ party, which achieved 27% of the vote, the largest share of any party. The generational divide is palpable. 

Short of providing any indication into the most likely victor in next year’s presidential elections, this year’s local elections have however provided a revealing insight into the state of French politics. This insight does not cast it in a positive light. It reveals the apathy, despondency, and lack of representation, which culminate to paint a portrait of French democracy in the midst of a grave and deepening crisis. 

Luke Entwistle