French regional elections: where were all the voters?

Photo by @ev on Unsplash.

On the last two Sundays in June, French polling stations opened for the final time before next year’s presidential election. But just over one in three adults went out to vote, a record abstention figure since 1958.  

For a country known as a revolutionary spirit (not entirely unjustified, having had three widely recognised revolutions, as well as several other near-revolutions in its recent history and omnipresent strikes and protests in the modern day), that is not a lot of people who felt inspired to go out and change things. And not much did change. Every one of the twelve regions in mainland France was held by the incumbent party.

Regional elections are a two-week affair in France. The first round was held on Sunday 20th June and the second and decisive round the following Sunday 27th June. Parties had to achieve at least 10% of a region’s vote to make it through to the second round.

These dates coincided with the easing of lockdown in France and the arrival of summer weather, so a stuffy polling station on a Sunday may not have been as attractive an option as to enjoy the newly rediscovered liberty of kicking back with an apéritif on a bar terrace. Still, the French are used to voting on the Lord’s day and turnout is normally significantly higher - 58.5% at the last regionals in December 2015. Other European countries including Italy and Germany have put on elections during the pandemic, with minimal impact on turnout levels.

One may be even less inclined to vote during the second round than in the first if their preferred candidate has been eliminated. In the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region, for example, it was a two-man race by week two, between the centre-right Republicans (who went on to win) and the far-right National Rally (RN). Voters on the left had to hold their nose and vote for who they saw as lesser of two evils, or abstain. Nationally though, the turnout was slightly higher in the decisive round. The group democracy is failing to get through to is those (most of society in this case) who did not even participate in the first round.

The picture is even bleaker amongst young people - over 80% abstained. Among a group of students in Nice, the main consensus was that there is a lack of parties they felt represent them. “For me, it’s not worth the time. If I do go to vote, it’s to cast a blank ballot” said one student, who wished to remain anonymous.

“No party is really directed towards our group of society. On top of that, we have a big lack of information, despite the advertising campaigns which are not well targeted,” believes Paméla, a Université Côte d’Azur student.

During his successful presidential campaign in 2017, Emmanuel Macron promised to return people’s faith in democracy with his centrist platform and image of breaking away from the traditional left-right dichotomy. Four years later, this is one pledge that has not exactly been fulfilled - two out of three elections under his term have seen record rates of abstention.

Macron has tried to appease young voters with policies aimed at them over the past few months. In May, he handed out a culture pass of €300 to every 18-year-old in the country to spend on cinema tickets, books, or a myriad of other things as they please. In an effort to move closer towards égalité, he announced the closure of the École Nationale d’Administration, a top graduate school that congregates elite students from privileged backgrounds and sends them on their way to the top jobs in both the French public and private sectors, of which he is an alumnus, to be replaced with a fairer, more diverse, modernised version. He even has a popular TikTok account.

His party, La République en Marche (LREM) is so young that these are the first regional elections it has participated in. Having no establishment within regional politics, it was never expected to do well, but it did dismally, only just scraping by into the second round and failing to win a single region.

The party was formed for Macron’s presidential campaign, and as such has no grassroots base. The president may have tried to attract young people through policies, but his party lacks the excitement and sense of hope that grassroots politics often brings and to which young people are often drawn. Think Jeremy Corbyn’s campaigns as Labour leader - though ultimately unsuccessful, he drew a lot of young people into politics and got them out to vote for him.

Macron may relax somewhat in the fact that his main challenger to the presidency next year, Marine Le Pen, also had a disappointing election. Her party, the far-right National Rally (RN), failed in its aim to win a region for the first time in its history, a feat which could have significantly boosted her presidential campaign in giving the party more credibility as well as the resources that come with having power of a region.

Le Pen blamed the party’s poor showing on the low turnout, which she labelled “a civic disaster”. The week before the first round of elections, the RN candidate in Ile-de-France and the party’s vice president, Jordan Bardella, tried to excite his supporters by saying: “We will win my friends, we will win if and only if we succeed in defeating a fearsome enemy: abstention.” Needless to say, abstention was not defeated, but Mr Bardella was, finishing in third place.

People of extreme views have always been attracted to RN since it was led by Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. His daughter has spent the last few years trying to undo this image, through changing the party’s name (previously the National Front) and taking less extreme stances on issues like the European Union. With this strategy, she hopes to attract mainstream voters turned away in the past by the more outlandish sections of the party.

But going down this road also carries the risk of losing the extremely loyal base the party has had for years, who may complain it is no longer what it was. Marine Le Pen’s party, in the ways it appeals to this core group of voters, inspires anger in people towards society. Angry people go out to vote. Floating voters thinking of trying out RN for the first time, because it seems more acceptable nowadays, do not have such a motivation to go to the polling station. They are more likely to skip it for the beach on a sunny day than a core voter in whom the RN has managed to inspire anger or fear.

There is no turning back on this strategy now for Marine Le Pen before next year’s presidential elections. Macron will have to hope that even if it can’t do local politics, LREM will function as a successful election campaign vehicle once again. Despite the disappointments, the two are still the favourites to battle it out for the Elysée, though the biggest winners from these elections, the Republicans, are creeping up the polls.

The next opportunity the French have to go to the polls will be for the presidential election in 2022. No doubt many more will go out to vote then. But one point every French politician seems to agree on was that the turnout level in this year’s regional elections was a huge problem - something whoever becomes president of La République next year will have to address.