Abstention in the recent French presidential elections was at its highest since 1969. Macron cannot afford to ignore those who abstained, as much as he cannot ignore those who voted for Le Pen.
Emmanuel Macron. Liewig Christian/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved.
At 8pm local time on Sunday 7 May, it was confirmed: Emmanuel Macron, leader of the year-old movement En marche! (Onward!) won the French presidential election with 66.1% of the vote, defeating Marine Le Pen, of the far-right Front National (FN). A collective sigh of relief passed through France, Europe and across the world.
But this election has been historic for several reasons – beating a far-right populist is only one of many. The two main governing parties in the fifth republic – the Socialist Party and centre-right Republican Party – were knocked out in the first round; it is the first time since 1969 that participation in the first round was higher than that of the second round (77.7% and 74.6% respectively); and, at 25.44%, the rate of abstention is at its highest since 1969.
25.44% amounts to around 12 million people, with a further 4.2 million who spoiled their ballot. Although the lowest turnout was registered in the French overseas territories and Corsica, the phenomenon was observed throughout the country.
An open-air abstention meet-up
On election day, under a gloomy purple-grey sky, I joined a group of around 40 people gathered at the Parc de la Villette, in the north-east of Paris.
With only a few more hours left to vote, this crowd was not rushing to the polling stations: the gathering, with the Facebook event title of “So what do we do now?”, was set up to encourage those who had chosen to abstain or spoil their ballots to come together and discuss what the future held. Most of the attendees were far-left activists, anti-fascists, some were supporters of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the candidate from the far-left La France Insoumise movement (roughly translating to "France Unbowed"), and others were members of the anarchist Black Bloc group.
Despite tension surrounding the elections, here the atmosphere was relaxed. A subversive version of a coconut shy stall was set up in one corner (ironically dubbed the “Game of the FN”) where participants won (or lost) points by knocking over cardboard boxes with the protagonists of this year’s election, including Le Pen (with “fascist hyena” scribbled under her photo), François Fillon (the candidate of the Republican party, and plagued by a corruption scandal), and of course Macron.
One of the older participants, with particularly good aim, managed to knock over the Le Pen box on his first shot, armed with a football. Amidst cheers, he chuckled: “it’s by kicking them that you get the fascists!”.
“Ni Le Pen, Ni Macron!”
Marius, a 25-year-old who lives and works in Marseille, came to Paris to participate in the gathering and the anti-capitalist protests. He told me that the first time he voted was in the presidential elections in 2012. Since then, he voted in the first round of the 2012 legislative elections but didn’t vote in the second round.
“I have since chosen not to vote,” he told me. “The 2012 presidential campaign was a struggle for me. We were encouraged to vote against Sarkozy, which I did, and it really annoyed me because I knew that Hollande would employ liberal [economic] policies.”
While Marius and his friends discussed their discontent with Hollande’s presidency, a Boycott 2017 activist – a group advocating for abstention or ballot spoiling – handed out leaflets branded with the now-popular slogan “Ni Le Pen, Ni Macron!” (“Neither Le Pen, nor Macron!”).
The leaflet begins: “When faced with the plague [Le Pen], the near unanimity of politicians give the order to vote for cholera [Macron], it’s the famous Front républicain.” It’s a succinct summary of the debate that raged amongst left-wing voters and politicians in the days leading up to the elections. It lists the initiatives and laws they had to “fight against”, including the “damned” loi Macron (Macron Law) and the loi travail (Law on Work), both of which attempted to reform the country’s economy and labour laws.
The former was drafted by him during his time as Hollande’s minister of the economy (from August 2014 to August 2016) and the latter was heavily influenced by his policies. The incumbent president is leaving office with a low approval rating – only 4% of the population are satisfied with his presidency, according to a poll published in October 2016. Macron has worked hard to dissociate himself from his predecessor’s record, but Hollande’s shadow will loom over him.
The Boycott 2017 leaflet finishes with “all the governments of the previous years have set the scene for the FN”. It cites the 2002 election which saw Jean-Marie Le Pen (Marine’s father), then-candidate of the FN, crushed by Jacques Chirac, the right-wing candidate of the Union pour un movement populaire(UMP, now les Républicains), with 82.2%. “As we can see the strategy of forming a barrage against fascism in the ballot box is not efficient against the FN which continues to gain ground,” it notes. Boycott 2017 concludes that “the only real strategy is the boycott of the elections.” As evidenced by the 25.44% abstention rate on Sunday, they were not alone in thinking that.
In stark contrast to the 2002 election, when the shock of the FN’s presence in the second round and the fear of the party mobilised politicians and citizens to call for a strategic vote for Chirac, many have put Le Pen and Macron’s policies on a par. Phrases like “I will not choose between neoliberalism and lepenism” or “neither extreme right nor extreme finance” have echoed across social media and in gatherings, pointing to the banalisation of the FN’s far-right policies paired with the rejection of the current system, which many believe Macron embodies.
Mélenchon, who in 2002 immediately called on his supporters to vote for Chirac to block the far-right, refused to call on his voters to turn to Macron after the first round of the 2017 elections, perhaps implicitly encouraging his supporters to abstain or spoil their ballot – an “irresponsible” position, according to the socialist Julien Dray.
As promised at the beginning of Mélenchon’s movement, La France Insoumise, a consultation was organised so that “les insoumis” (the unbowed – Mélenchon’s supporters) could express their voting intentions for the second round. The majority, 36.12%, planned on spoiling their ballot; 34.83% announced they would vote for Macron; 29.05% claimed they would abstain.
Op-eds mushroomed in an attempt to convince those planning to abstain or spoil their ballots: José Bové, a French Green Party member of the European Parliament, exclaimed “I call, without any constraints, to vote for Macron” in the leftist French daily Libération; the writer Raphaël Glucksmann wrote a “Letter to a friend who refuses to choose”; with a few cross-Channel articles featuring in the mix, such as Hadley Freeman’s piece in The Guardian: “Le Pen is a far-right holocaust revisionist. Macron isn’t. Hard choice?”. Several abstentionists at the Villette were looking with disdain at Libération’s front page on the weekend of the vote: “DO WHAT YOU WANT BUT VOTE FOR MACRON”, with an article by Laurent Joffrin, director of the newspaper, titled “We do not just vote for ourselves”.
Marius admitted to me that he had felt pressure to vote: “the real question for me was whether or not, in the 2017 elections, I would be able to resist the pressure from my friends who wanted me to vote for their preferred candidate.” In France, during ‘civic education’ classes in middle school, children are taught that “voting is a right, and it is also a civic duty” (“voter est un droit, c’est aussi un devoir civique”), a phrase that is printed at the top of all electoral cards stamped at polling stations. During this class, teachers explain that voting is considered a moral obligation and the exercising of one’s right to elect their representatives. As a result, abstention is, to a certain extent, considered a dirty word.
The 25.44% that Macron cannot ignore
Did the numerous articles and the endorsements of Macron from politicians and public figures in France and abroad help? That’s difficult to say.
The president-elect will have to choose a prime minister; the legislative elections, with the first and second round being held on 11 and 18 June respectively, will determine whether he will govern with a majority or not.
Macron is inheriting a divided society. Given the many records broken in this presidential election, he cannot afford to ignore those who abstained as much as he cannot ignore those who voted for the FN.
During his speech at the Louvre, addressing his supporters after his victory, Macron acknowledged those who voted for him unenthusiastically, without adhering to his ideas or his programme, “to defend the republic”. He declared: “I understand that this does not mean I will have free rein.” He then turned to those who voted for the FN: “they expressed an anger, a desperation, and sometimes convictions. I respect them but I will do everything to make sure you never have reason again to vote for extremes again.”
Those who abstained or spoiled their ballots were absent from his speech.
As more people joined the crowd in the Villette, Marius clarified his position to me. “All those people who are shouting at me saying that because [I abstained], Le Pen will get 40% in this election, I say to them: I don’t care. I am involved in anti-fascist movements; I advocate for local issues where I live. For me, voting isn’t the most important act.”
One of his friends – a fellow abstentionist – nodded away enthusiastically. She added: “anyway, you can’t fight fascism every five years with a piece of paper.”
This article was first published on openDemocracy.net.