On the Fringe
28% of French citizens chose not to vote in the second, and final, round of the April 2022 French presidential election. This was the highest rate of abstention in over 50 years and the second highest rate in the history of the Fifth Republic.
Although the official presidential race was a narrow fight between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, the number of voters that opted to not vote in the election outnumbered those who cast a ballot for far-right candidate Le Pen. In total, 13.3 million French citizens voted for Le Pen, while 13.6 million decided to remain home. Many have argued that Macron won the 2022 election not on his platform but rather by default.
With the 2027 election on the horizon, the future of Macron’s party hangs in the balance. As Macron is prohibited by the French constitution to run for a third consecutive term, media attention has shifted to how Macron voters will cast their ballots in 2027. This uncertainty, mixed with the abstention vote, will make the road to 2027 a tricky one to navigate for potential presidential candidates.
In a study carried out by IPSOS, French people who didn’t vote in the latest presidential election were asked why they chose not to cast their ballot. The top reason selected was “the fact that not a single candidate corresponds to their political ideas”. In 2017, Macron’s party, La Republique en Marche (now Renaissance), first emerged onto the French political scene and subsequently won the presidential election. In doing so, it disrupted the political landscape many French citizens were accustomed to. It was the first time since 1958 — the year that France moved from the Fourth to the Fifth Republic — that a president came from an “out of system” party.
Macron's approach is meant to appeal to both sides. But when you appeal to all, sometimes you appeal to none.
In order to run for president, candidates must obtain 500 signatures from various elected officials, endorsing their candidacy for the highest public office in France. After this initial phase, endorsements continue to hold political weight in the presidential race for the wider French public. In the last election, former President Nicolas Sarkozy was perceived as betraying his own party, Les Republicains, when he did not formally endorse their candidate, Valerie Pécresse, in the first round of voting. In fact, he was incredibly critical of the candidate and was largely missing in her campaign. And yet in the second round, the former president openly endorsed Macron. This lack of support from a high visibility politician further undermined the traditional right in France.
In fact, the traditional left and right candidates received the lowest percentage of votes in the history of their parties. On the right, Pécresse received only 4.8% of the vote, down from the 20% of votes François Fillon gathered in 2017. Le Parti Socialiste candidate Anne Hidalgo only received 1.7% of the vote, down from Benoît Hamon’s 6.4% in 2017. The lower turnout reflects the sentiment that French citizens are increasingly feeling disconnected from their traditional party alignments.
Adding to the disruption of these long-established divides in French political parties, Macron’s “en même temps” or “at the same time” approach has further divided the French populace. The approach is meant to appeal to both sides. But when you appeal to all, sometimes you appeal to none. His government has pushed for cleaner energy initiatives, which historically aligns more with the left, while at the same time pushing for more controlled migration, which historically aligns more with the right. This has led to a state of political confusion in France, and citizens are unable to see their values and convictions represented by the candidates on the political roster, which led some to stay home on election day.
In 2018, France was overrun with Gilets Jaunes protests across the country when Macron’s government attempted to raise the gas tax. In 2020, as the world shut down due to COVID-19, France imposed some of the stricter regulations across Europe. In early March 2020, people had to fill out a form each time they wanted to go outside — if they were found violating the rules they could be fined up to $150. Many took to the streets to protest the government mandates. In 2022, the Russian invasion of Ukraine brought war to France’s backyard. Kyiv is roughly 1,500 miles from Paris, which is approximately the same distance between Washington DC and Houston, Texas. And finally, pension reforms pushed by executive order earlier this year have fueled a fire that — at the time of writing — has yet to be put out.
Crises like the pension reform and ensuing protests push voters to see the government as more of a problem maker than a problem solver.
In an interview with Le Monde, Jerome Fourquet, Director of Opinion at IFOP, described abstentionists as “people who have lost interest in politics”. Ongoing crises will continue to contribute to this disillusion with the political system. Today, many in France argue that they have been left behind by the state. Crises like the pension reform and ensuing protests push voters to see the government as more of a problem maker than a problem solver — which could in turn make abstention rates higher.
Shortly after Macron’s 2022 victory, Bruno Le Maire, France’s Finance Minister, stated in a France-Info interview that the abstention vote needed to be addressed. He asserted his belief that it was the government’s role to respond to this “democratic dissatisfaction”. Emphasizing the anger and abandonment that neglected non-voters feel, Le Maire argued that the French democratic institutions needed to respond accordingly. However, it is unclear, a year later, what the administration is doing to address this group.
One proposal to revitalize democratic institutions in France is to bring back the “septennat” — the seven-year mandate for the president. This was the duration of the presidential term limit until the year 2000 in France. Currently, elections in France happen every five years and the presidential election and general legislative elections take place only a couple of weeks apart. The closeness of these elections allows for a predictable voting pattern to unfold and does not hold the president accountable for their future actions, as their party usually secures a majority in legislative elections as well.
In an interview with Le Point, President Macron proposed this idea along with introducing a U.S.-inspired midterms as a way to encourage more active participation in democracy. In theory, midterms are viewed as holding the president accountable and yet in practice, midterms don’t translate into more active voting. In 2022, the U.S had approximately only 46% of its population come out for Midterms, with more than half opting to remain home.
Some argue that the “Parti du Vote Blanc”, or the “Blank Vote Party”, should be recognized as a formal political party.
Another solution that has been put forward is mandating the vote. In a 2021 survey, 59% of French citizens opposed making the vote obligatory. Oftentimes, mandatory voting does not solve the civic engagement countries intend on fixing. In Australia for example, mandatory voting leads to a phenomenon called the “donkey vote”, where individuals fill out their preferential voting ballots in the order that the names are listed, independently of who is first. They actively choose to make uninformed decisions that have real implications on their democracy. Alternatively, individuals show up to avoid any fines but choose to leave the ballot blank, in turn making mandatory voting a counterproductive solution to the original problem.
Blank ballots are an active part of the conversation around encouraging democratic participation in France. The “vote blanc”, translated as the “blank vote”, functions as a protest vote. Citizens choose to vote for neither of the two final candidates. While this is not recognized as an official vote, they are counted and made public to the French people. Some argue that the “Parti du Vote Blanc”, or the “Blank Vote Party”, should be recognized as a formal political party. On the left, presidential hopeful Jean-Luc Mélenchon has argued that if the numbers in this camp reach a certain threshold, new elections should be held. He is not alone: many other French politicians support this initiative. They argue that — if this change was implemented — it could reduce the number of abstention voters because citizens would feel that their vote mattered more.
To put it into perspective, in the last presidential election, the “vote blanc” accounted for 6.5% of the French population. If the “vote blanc” had been merged with the 28% of those who abstained, President Macron would not have reached the 50% threshold to be elected. Reaching a 50% threshold for any candidate is nearly impossible. If this legislation were to be put in place, France could find itself in the midst of never-ending elections, placing policy in a chokehold.
The Road to 2027
Solutions that could help make a huge impact in increasing voter engagement before the next elections in France is reducing obstacles ensuring proper voter registration. In 2017, there were an estimated 7.6 million individuals who were improperly registered to vote. One of the more active voices in this discussion is the NGO, A Voté. Inspired by the American “Rock the Vote” initiative, it advocates for more resources provided to the average French citizen to help them properly cast their ballots for different elections.
The NGO has also heavily focused on encouraging the youth vote which is the largest percentage of the population that abstains from voting. In an unusual marketing approach, the organization partnered with the Tinder dating app for the 2022 election to encourage Gen Z to go out and vote. Their slogan signaled how easy it is to vote: “If you can date down your street, you can vote down your street.”
The choice for 2027 should not have to be Le Pen or stay home.
An additional factor that could help with encouraging the youth vote is to lower the voting age. In Germany, for example, voting begins at age 16 (aside from the general election which is still set at 18). Research proves that decreasing the voting age encourages the individual to vote over time, investing early in the importance of civic engagement.
Finally, the more difficult task is to find reasonable political candidates to run for the next election. At this time it’s unclear whether unhappiness with Macron’s policies will translate to more votes for the far right in the 2027 election. But after Marine Le Pen’s attempts to make her party seem as approachable as possible, the rebranding of Rassemblement National seems to be a successful one. In April 2023, a poll asked the question: “if the election happened tomorrow, who would you vote for?” Le Pen came out on top.
Interestingly enough, the areas where the highest percentages of abstention exist usually align with where the far right performs best in France. It is difficult to predict how an abstention vote would turn out, and whether or not these disconnected voters are being successfully swayed into the Le Pen camp. The two groups can often express similar frustrations with regard to feeling left behind by the state but find themselves at odds with how to find a solution.
De Gaulle famously said: “How can you expect to govern a country with 264 different types of cheese?” And yet, the French people have this task ahead of them: to find a candidate fit for the job, who will not lead them astray. The choice for 2027 should not have to be Le Pen or stay home. The answer for an electorate that feels forgotten or ignored should be more — and better — candidates to choose from.