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PARIS – France is suffering from a crisis of democracy.
The problem became fully apparent on Sunday when a record two-thirds of voters in regional and departmental elections rejected the polls.
The turnout fell by a massive 16 points compared to the last regional election six years ago.
The drop in voter turnout was also not due to the coronavirus. Only 17 percent of those surveyed at one IFOP survey said the pandemic played into their decision not to vote. In contrast, voter turnout for the past 12 months has been close to normal in Italy, the Netherlands and Germany.
For pollsters and political scientists, the record abstention is an alarming sign of a French representation crisis and democratic apathy exacerbated by President Emmanuel Macron’s silting up of the traditional left-right divide that used to effectively mobilize voters.
More survey data from across Europe can be found at POLITICS Poll by polls.
“French democracy is sick,” said Emmanuel Rivière of the Kantar polling institute. “The political options offered are so difficult to distinguish that they give the impression that political life is a kind of shadow theater in which politicians are more interested in being elected than in solving the problems that are important to the voters.”
That could have a huge impact on next year’s presidential election, jeopardize Macron’s chances of qualifying for the second round and also weaken his main rival, far-right leader Marine Le Pen. Their fate will depend on whether voters continue to feel the same alienation from the political class and political debate, and whether Macron succeeds in defining his political line more clearly.
Voters could end up repeating what they did in 2017: in the Macron election, they chose an emerging outsider as a sign of protest against the political establishment. Both he and Le Pen continue to position themselves as outsiders railing against a broken political system, but the current momentum could benefit an unexpected third personality – though it’s unclear at this point who that might be.
“A large number of voters no longer identify with a political party that has produced an extremely fluid and unpredictable electorate and that could again benefit an unknown personality, as was the case with Emmanuel Macron in 2017,” said Jean-Yves Dormagen , a political scientist who has studied abstention for decades.
Macron’s disregard for the left-right divide and refusal to define his political line more clearly could also lead to abstention, according to Dormagen, “because the election is confused”.
The low turnout in Sunday’s election meant several failures for the president.
In one region, a cabinet minister-led list of senior interior and justice ministers received just 9 percent of the vote – and the turnout was just 33 percent.
It also showed that Macron’s main argument of encouraging people to vote – that of a Manichaean choice between himself and the far right – has lost its force: voters have not emerged, despite polls predicting strong support for Le Pen’s party. In fact, 42 percent of French no longer see the extreme right as a threat to democracy – an increase of 6 percentage points since Macron’s presidency.
Macron also failed to deliver on a 2017 election promise to revive people’s confidence in the political process. Record abstentions were recorded in two out of three elections during his tenure, with the exception of the 2019 European elections.
Le Pen fared not much better. Its candidates in the main races fared significantly worse than six years ago, although the party’s ideas on security, Islam and migration permeate much of the mainstream media discussion.
But aside from these factors, Sunday’s low turnout shows that no elections other than the presidential are important to French voters, given how centralized the presidency has become, especially during Macron’s tenure.
“Macron has completely personalized and presidentialized the system, so the other elections seem completely useless, everything seems to be decided in the Elysée Palace, and the only choice that matters is the presidential election,” said Dormagen.
Voter turnout in the presidential election remains high and people tend to have somewhat unrealistic hopes for the president.
“The powers that the French President has today are not as strong as those of General Charles de Gaulle,” said Rivière. “We live under the illusion that we should have a president who is clearly committed to radically changing society, but given the extreme weakening of political parties by the presidential system, we are falling into a deceptive impasse.”