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France’s Presidential Election: Frustration or Indifference

Will the French be ready to once again vote for the lesser of two evils?

France recently held its regional elections—do not worry if you did not know, because apparently it was news to many French people as well. With a historic abstention rate of 66 percent, the French have never cared less for who is governing their region. In some regions, less than 12 percent of eligible voters took to the polls. Ironically, the same people who abstained also find the trend of not participating in elections concerning, according to a Franceinfo poll: 73 percent called it “worrying for our democracy” and 84 percent found it to be “alarming for our country.” Yet in the same poll, 41 percent said they were “busy” on that Sunday, and 24 percent were simply uninterested in the election. 

This very French double-standard, both grandstanding on the importance of democracy and institutions yet being unbothered by participating themselves, is not new. In an April poll, 7 out of 10 French people said they were in favor of new COVID-19 restrictions, but half of the same respondents said they were not planning to follow them. Outside of this rather humorous confirmation of a stereotype, there are also deeper reasons for the high abstention rate.

To understand this, a quick refresher on the French election system: All candidates (including in the presidential race) run on equal terms in a first round. If no candidate receives a simple majority, then (usually) the two candidates with the most votes proceed to a second round. What this has meant in practice is that in 2002 and in 2017, a candidate from a mainstream party stood against a National Front (now called National Rally) candidate from the Le Pen family, and won with the support of voters from other parties. In 2002, Jacques Chirac defeated Jean-Marie Le Pen with more than 80 percent, after having been endorsed by virtually all other political parties. In 2017, Emmanuel Macron defeated Marine Le Pen with 66 percent of the vote after similar events. These endorsements are justified as the “Republican Front,” meaning the parties that adhere to the norms of liberal democracy and the rule of law, to which the Le Pen family is seen as being opposed.

For the center-right Les Républicains, which in 2017 ran François Fillon and lost after a nepotism scandal, picking your poison in the second round has always been iffy. Many prominent Republicans call for the “Ni-Ni,” meaning “neither candidate.” The left, on the other hand, has been consistently upholding the principle of supporting any candidate against the far-right. But today that consensus seems to be in question.

In 2017, France’s most prominent left-wing newspaper, Libération, ran this headline. “Do what you want, but vote for Macron.” In that election, had left-wingers abstained from voting, Macron would likely have lost to Le Pen. In February this year, Libération ran a cover piece titled “2022: ‘I already blocked [Le Pen]. This time it’s over.'” The story analyses frustrated left-wing voters and why they could be fatal for Macron’s reelection bid. No wonder, given the contentious nature of Macron’s presidency from their point of view.

As economy minister under president Hollande, Macron was viewed as a hardline free-marketeer. Liberalizing industries got him into fights with the public rail sector union and notaries, yet overall Macron was rather unknown politically before he came into office. Since then, France has suffered month-long strikes that killed most of planned labor market reforms, the Yellow Vest protests, which killed the government’s more ambitious environmental reforms, and anti-police brutality protests, which opposed more resources for law enforcement.

Less politically attached voters find it hard to grapple with Macron’s initial appeal. His pandemic management did allow him to gain some points, but not enough to excite voters to support his party, which lost badly in the regional elections, the second round of which saw major losses for both Macron and Le Pen last Sunday. Macron’s party, which did not exist at the time of the last regional elections, came in last place in most regions, while Le Pen’s National Rally was also unable to secure its first regional presidency.

But even with losses accounted for, the traditional right and left’s internal divisions make it easy for Macron and Le Pen to keep steady in the race for the presidency. In current presidential election opinion polls, Le Pen and Macron are head to head, both polling around 28 percent, making them most likely to advance to the second round. 

In this likely scenario, France’s left will be confronted with a headache of grandiose proportions: Should it support Macron in a second round, despite the fact that for five years it has wanted Macron and his perceived “neoliberal” policies to disappear, or rescind support and pave the way for a President Le Pen? But larger than that, the average Frenchman will need to decide whether endorsements are something to follow in the first place. 

Bill Wirtz comments on European politics and policy in English, French, and German. His work has appeared in Newsweek, the Washington Examiner, CityAM, Le MondeLe Figaro, and Die Welt.

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