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PARIS — France is suffering from a crisis of democracy.
The problem was on full display Sunday when a record two-thirds of voters snubbed the polls in regional and departmental elections.
Turnout dropped a massive 16 points compared to the last regional election held six years ago.
The fall in turnout wasn’t because of the coronavirus either. Only 17 percent of respondents to an IFOP poll said the pandemic played into their decision not to vote. In contrast, elections held in the past 12 months in Italy, the Netherlands and Germany had turnout at near-normal levels.
For pollsters and political scientists, the record abstention is an alarming sign of a French crisis of representation and democratic apathy, which has been exacerbated by President Emmanuel Macron’s muddying of the traditional left-right divide that used to effectively mobilize voters.
“French democracy is sick,” said Emmanuel Rivière of polling institute Kantar. “The political options on offer have become so hard to tell apart that they give the impression that political life is a sort of shadow theater, where politicians are more interested in getting themselves elected than in solving the issues voters care about.”
That could have huge repercussions for next year’s presidential election, potentially endangering Macron’s chances of qualifying for the second round and also weakening his main rival, far-right leader Marine Le Pen. Their fates will depend on whether voters continue to feel the same sense of alienation from the political class and political debate, and whether Macron manages to more clearly define his political line.
Voters could end up repeating what they did in 2017: In electing Macron, they chose an upstart outsider as a mark 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 dynamic could benefit an unexpected third personality — although it’s unclear at this stage who that could be.
“A huge amount of voters don’t identify with a political party anymore, which has produced an electorate that is extremely fluid and unpredictable and could once again benefit an unknown personality like it did in 2017 with Emmanuel Macron,” said Jean-Yves Dormagen, a political scientist who has studied abstention for decades.
Macron’s flouting of the left-right divide and refusal to more clearly define his political line could also drive abstentions, according to Dormagen, “because the choice is muddled.”
The low turnout in Sunday’s election marked several failures for the president.
In one region, a list led by a Cabinet minister and including the high-profile interior and justice ministers, won only 9 percent of the vote — and turnout was just 33 percent.
It also showed that Macron’s main argument to encourage people to vote — that of a Manichean choice between him and the far right — has lost its potency: Voters didn’t turn out even though polls were predicting strong support for Le Pen’s party. In fact, 42 percent of French people no longer see the far right as a danger to democracy — a 6 percentage-point increase since Macron became president.
Macron has also failed to deliver on a 2017 campaign promise to reinvigorate people’s faith in the political process. During his term, two out of three elections have seen record rates of abstention, with the notable exception of the European parliamentary election in 2019.
Le Pen didn’t fare much better. Her candidates in the most important races did significantly worse than six years ago, despite the party’s ideas on security, Islam and migration permeating much of the mainstream debate in the media.
But beyond these factors, what Sunday’s low turnout shows is that as far as French voters are concerned, no election matters other than the presidential one, given how centralized the presidency has become, especially during Macron’s term.
“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 election that matters is the presidential one,” said Dormagen.
Turnout remains high in presidential elections and people tend to place somewhat unrealistic hopes on the president.
“The powers that the French president has today are not as strong as those that General Charles de Gaulle had,” said Rivière. “We live in an illusion that we should have a president who clearly commits to radically change society but given the extreme weakening of political parties as a result of the presidential system we end up in a deceptive impasse.”