- Polls say up to 32%, or 14 million, French voters are planning to hand in blank protest votes in the upcoming elections.
- French distaste for mainstream politics has reached record levels.
- Most people don’t think National Front candidate Marine Le Pen will win: “‘If a goat was qualified in the second round of the presidential election against Marine Le Pen, the goat would win,” one voter told Business Insider.
- But the non-voting movement strengthens the fringe vote — which is especially to the advantage of Le Pen.
Traditional political parties have been struggling to gain traction in 2017 as French voters are — like voters in many other nations — tired of the status quo.
Scandal-hit candidates, no hope for change, and a refusal to vote “tactically” have led to a predicted surge in the number of people who will not vote or “voter blanc” (hand in a ballot without selecting any candidate).
Up to 32% of French people — or 14 million people — could decide not to vote this year, according to estimations from the Cevipof (Sciences Po’s political research centre), which would be 13% more than in the 2012 presidential elections.
This apparent apathy comes at a time when much of the world’s eyes have turned to the Hexagon to see whether the French will stop the wave of populism that has swept over the Western world in recent months — or be flooded.
The race to the Elysée has so far been tumultuous. The main conservative candidate François Fillon has been mired in scandals surrounding supposedly unjustified payments to his wife and kids. The ruling Socialist party has all but imploded. And the two candidates leading the race are not from the traditional parties — which has not helped restore faith in the French government.
Business Insider talked to voters who have decided to not vote in the upcoming presidential election, and experts to try and understand why this apathy has taken a hold of what could represent up to 14 million voters.
“There’s scandal after scandal … it’s indecent”
At least part of the voter apathy can be explained by a weariness of “scandal-proof” candidates.
Irène Glénisson, a 20-year-old au-pair in the Netherlands, has previously voted in the municipal elections, she might vote in the first round of the elections although she’s not sure yet, but intends to not vote in the second round of the presidential elections if it pits Macron, or Fillon, and Le Pen against each other.
“I don’t really believe in the promises of the candidates in the presidential election. The issues are too big, there is scandal after scandal, yet everything always comes back to normal, it’s indecent after a while. So that does not really make me want to vote for people like that,” Glénisson said.
A 24-year-old who currently works in the film industry and has voted in previous elections, has experienced the same disillusionment: “The main reason why I do not wish to vote is that I do not feel represented by any of the candidates running for election, and I prefer to deliberately not express an opinion in this vote. I fundamentally believe in politics, but the way it is practiced today seems incoherent and dated. “
This election especially has been rife with scandals. Fillon, the candidate of Les Républicains, one of the two main parties in France, was the frontrunner before being hit by accusations — which he vehemently denies — that he paid his wife, son, and daughter huge sums of taxpayers’ money for minimal work as parliamentary aides. Both Fillon and his wife are being investigated over the allegations.
Accused of nepotism, Fillon’s ratings tumbled. Right now, he is polling in fourth position in the first round of the elections, a position which would keep him from getting to the second round.
Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right Front National (FN) has also been hit by accusations of misusing European funds to pay her personal aides a European Parliament assistant’s salary. She has used her immunity as an EU lawmaker to refuse to respond to a police summons. Accusations against her go even deeper, as every campaign (except the senatorial ones) led by the FN since Le Pen took over from her father in 2011 are now being investigated, according to Le Monde.
The Socialist party has disastrous approval ratings under François Hollande. A number of party members decided to back Emmanuel Macron, a centrist and leader of the newly-founded party “En marche!” instead of their own party’s candidate in the race.
Although Macron has so far been spared from any major political scandal, his background as an investment banker for the Rothschild has done nothing to alleviate the public’s worry that the elite has lost touch with the common man.
Most of the coverage of the campaign has also centred around those scandals rather than around the policies put forward by the different candidates. Although the televised debates over the last few weeks have re-centred the debate slightly around the candidates’ ideas, much of the criticism was that candidates did not challenge each other’s policies enough.
Martial Foucault, the director of the Centre for Political Research at Sciences Po, said that a lack of “adhesion for the political offer” in France led to the situation the country is facing today.
“The political context of mistrust toward representatives has certainly grown after the judicial grievances of candidate François Fillon. The feeling of corruption, small arrangements, of a political practice over a certain ethic, contributes to the democratic malaise in France,” Foucault said.
There is a perfume of a presidential campaign without direct confrontation about ideas and propositions.
Foucault also argues that while the problem is certainly not aided by the scandals, a lack of debate among candidates of different parties is at the heart of the problem.
“There is a perfume of presidential campaign without direct confrontation about ideas and propositions. Certainly, the Fillon affair has focused a lot of attention in recent weeks and changed the tone of the campaign. But what seems new to me in 2017, compared to the previous presidential elections, is the role of primary elections open to the left and right.”
For the first time this year, the candidates of the different parties were elected by party members, which according to Foucault “profoundly changed the codes” of the presidential campaign and “asphyxiated the debate of ideas.”
He also says that it’s worth noting that the only time since 1965 that voter turnout was really low was in 2002 (when Jean-Marie Le Pen made it to the second round of the elections) where participation was around 70% instead of the usual 80%. “In 2017, that’s a rate toward which we could converge,” he adds.
For Thomas Guénolé, a political science professor at Sciences Po, said the problem is due to concentration of the media on those scandals rather than the scandals themselves: “The problem is the extreme focus of the mainstream media on the internal party disputes, whether on the right or the [Socialists], as well as on legal soap operas, especially concerning François Fillon.”
But whether the media is to blame, or the scandal-hit candidates, a distrust of the whole political system has now enveloped France.
An entrenched lack of trust in the French political system
This lack of trust also goes much deeper than the individual politicians.
Many people have stopped trusting politicians as they feel that once they are elected, they cease to be accountable. As a result, a number of campaigns calling for people not to vote in the election have spread all over the country and on social media.
Myriam, who heads a boycott campaign in the Bordeaux area for the 2017 presidential election, says she thinks that French people don’t live in a democracy anymore because once they vote “we don’t have any control until the next elections … We vote and then we are not asked our opinion anymore.”
“Here we are in a representative democracy so we delegate our vote … from then on, we see that they do what they want. Including doing the opposite of why they were elected.”
Rémi, a 30-year-old photo editor, echoes many of those sentiments. He says he doesn’t vote because, on one hand, everything that “affects the economy and stability of a country is very complicated,” and doesn’t think his opinion and vote would have any value. “Secondly, for a few years I have become very negative in my vision of politics. For me it is out of the question to vote for a comedian in search of power who will no longer be accountable once he is at the head of the State.”
A 27-year-old who founded a digital creative agency also says his lack of trust is what has always kept him from voting: “I do not intend to vote in the presidential elections … I have absolutely no confidence in politics and I never needed this to advance in life. I have never really been interested in it. I am too focused on my life to waste my time debating everyone’s beliefs (which are only money and power, and lobbying).”
The mistrust and feeling of betrayal has been growing in recent years especially as unemployment has remained high, the refugee crisis has worsened, and the state has failed to keep its citizens safe from terrorist attacks even though the country has been in a continuous state of emergency since November 2015.
Margot Bouhier, a 21-year-old student, said she voted before but would not vote in these presidential elections:
“I went to vote because the candidates supported my convictions. However, between those elections and the upcoming presidential elections, there have been several events in France (a new labour law, attacks by police officers on protesters, a state of emergency … ) which have led me to question French politics and democracy.”
This deeply entrenched lack of trust in the French political system also points to something else that might influence the rate of non-voters.
No more ‘tactical’ votes
Whenever Le Pen or her father came close to power in the past (2012 presidential elections, regional elections in 2015), people from all parties would band together and vote for the candidate opposing them, and the number of non-voters would shrink in the second round of voting.
In 2002 for example, after Jean-Marie Le Pen — in what was a major surprise — made it into the second round of the presidential elections, he was crushed in the second round, with 18% to 82% favouring right-wing candidate Jacques Chirac. The rate of non-voters dropped by eight percentage points between the first and the second round of the elections.
But voters’ dissatisfaction has grown a lot in the last 15 years, and people want to vote for people who represent their ideas, and support their convictions, not for the least-worst option. For Foucault, the absence of the main political parties in the second round could therefore affect the voter turnout:
“A confrontation between Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron can lead millions of voters to give up [voting] to only prevent the victory of the candidate of the Front National. Indeed, some voters consider that such a scenario has already occurred in 2002 with millions of left-wing voters who voted for Jacques Chirac against Jean-Marie Le Pen. In 2017, the vote ‘against’ is no longer enough to massively mobilise voters …” Foucault explains.
The disillusionment and mistrust nowadays is so high though, that people do not want to vote tactically anymore.
“I do not wish to vote in this election … because my rapport to the vote is no longer the same. I no longer wish to carry out a ‘resistance’ vote because it seems to me inevitable that a popular revolt-like movement should take place sooner or later in France,” a voter who preferred to stay anonymous said.
Bouhier, shares that opinion, she says she doesn’t think a vote should be tactical. “I am not going to vote for a party I do not support just to counter a far-right party,” she says.
Guénolé though, thinks the number of French people staunchly opposed to Le Pen will still prevent her from getting elected. Although a small number of people would not vote just to oppose her, a confrontation between the FN leader and a candidate opposing her would still lead to a victory for the anti-Le Pen tactical vote:
“I remind you that whatever the candidate envisaged against Marine Le Pen in the second round, the far-right candidate is beaten flat. So I know that British and American investors are increasingly afraid of a victory for Marine Le Pen, but they must understand that if a goat was qualified in the second round of the presidential election against Marine Le Pen, the goat would win.”
Not voting seen as a political choice, not a lack of political opinion
Not all the non-voters are apathetic about political life in France. Many of the people who will technically not vote plan on going to the polls and casting a ballot, they just won’t select a candidate. This practice is called a “vote blanc” in France — and sometimes referred to as a “blank vote” in English — and at every election, those votes are added up.
“Abstention is not a movement of withdrawal, on the contrary for us it is a movement of hope and emancipation,” Myriam said.
In the 2012 election over 2 million people in France handed in a blank or spoiled ballot.
Today, many want this vote to represent something. As many people will not vote because they feel that none of the participants represent them, some people want the blank vote to count — it is the only way they have to reject the political offer.
Bouhier does not like the fact that the blank vote is not taken into account. “If 90% of the French population handed in blank ballots, a candidate wins the victory even if he has only 10% of the vote. I do not think that is fair.”
A survey done by Ifop for Synopsia at the end of March, shows that 86% of French people are in favour of the blank vote being taken into account when calculating the result of the presidential elections. The same survey showed that if the blank vote were to be taken into account, 40% of French people would use it during the 2017 presidential election.
But even without it being taken into account, many voters see it as their best option. Some hope that if enough people hand in blank votes it will eventually have to be acknowledged. Glénisson says that she will hand in a blank ballot in the second round of the election. “Either I don’t vote, or I at least express a refusal to choose ‘the least worst’ candidate,” she says. But she adds that she would like her refusal to be acknowledged:
“I would like the status of the blank vote to be enhanced and really taken into account because I think it expresses a lot of weariness and wish for change and real proposals.”
Gaelle also doesn’t like how not voting and handing in a blank ballot are often portrayed as being the same thing. She says that a blank vote is a symbol, an option people have to show their dissatisfaction. “Symbolically a blank vote for me means not to agree with the candidates that are proposed to me whereas the abstention reflects more a general exasperation of politics and ‘I do not care attitude’.”
Especially in an election where the two main traditional parties will probably not be part of the second round of the election, it is hard to predict how the French electorate will react, which is why many non-voters are even more determined to make the blank vote count.
“Apart from anarchists and monarchists, there is something for everyone,” Guénolé has said of the political offer in this race, yet many groups of voters still think their best option is not voting in 2017.
Who benefits when voters abstain?
Among experts, the consensus is clear. Any form of abstention will benefit new and extreme parties, and will penalise traditional parties.
“Political opposition to the Socialist Party and the Republicans has opened the way to a new political game characterised by a strong demand for a renewal of the political offer and an aspiration for a democracy of accountability,” Foucault said.
This is also reflected in the fact that both candidates for the extreme FN and the brand new “En Marche!” parties are polling with the highest numbers. Yet if a high number of people abstain in the second round of the election, this would play in favour of Le Pen.
Although the Le Pen voter base is smaller than Macron’s due to her extreme agenda, people who say they will vote for her are very sure of their choice, whereas Macron voters are much more volatile. This, coupled with an extreme dislike and mistrust of mainstream politicians — which he is widely regarded as being part of — could give Le Pen the advantage should the abstention rate be high.
The scandals, the media’s focus, the new players and the disillusionment that has gripped many French voters over the last five years has made the 2017 presidential election one of the most unpredictable of the last few decades, and have made clear that many French people are prepared to show their dissatisfaction one way or another.
“It is a real election of uncertainty: the decision of the electors to participate and to choose a candidate will be made in the last days, it is a new phenomenon in the French political life,” Foucault said.
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