A closer look at the record low turnout makes the French president’s legislative gains look rather less impressive.
Emmanuel Macron’s victory in France’s legislative elections on Sunday have been heralded as the consummation of a “political revolution” which started with his triumph in May’s presidential election. There is, however, a gaping hole in this narrative: the record low turnout. Well over half of French voters steered clear of the polling stations on Sunday, with turnout creeping in at a sluggish 43%.
This figure is down from a 55% turnout in the second round of the legislative elections in 2012, and down from 70% in 1997. Nonetheless, this historic low has been trivialised in a number of ways – some putting it down to a generalised “election fatigue” (this being the fourth in three months), others even blaming the high temperatures on Sunday. However, I believe the principal reason for the fall in turnout is Macron’s politics itself: a centrism that has sent France’s two traditionally dominant parties – the centre-left Socialist party and the centre-right Republicans – into disarray.
The support that Macron has received from many politicians from each of these two formerly dominant parties has significantly dampened the sense of a viable opposition to the new government. This no doubt played a significant role in the second round’s low turnout. With the choice reduced to two candidates in the second round – unless candidates outside the top two attain 12.5% in the first round – voters were often faced with a choice between a candidate from Macron’s La République en Marche (La REM) and a candidate from either the Socialist party or the Republicans.
Given the highly ambivalent stance of these two parties towards Macron, it is no surprise that leftwing voters would not bother turning up when faced with a choice between La REM and the Republicans. Likewise, there would be little reason for rightwing voters to bother choosing between La REM and the Socialist party.
This phenomenon – an entire political class melting into a puddle of centrism – was best illustrated by the vote in Paris’s 18th constituency. There, Sunday’s second round run-off was fought between the Socialist party’s Myriam El Khomri (former minister of work and architect of the Hollande government’s unpopular attempt to loosen French labour laws) and the Republicans’ Pierre-Yves Bournazel. While the former claimed to have the official support of Macron, the latter had the support of Macron’s prime minister, Édouard Philippe, himself a Republican. The official line of La REM was that they didn’t mind who won. No wonder Bournazel triumphed off the back of a pathetic 42.69% turnout.
Where I live, Seine-Saint-Denis – a department with a history of low turnouts – abstention hit a record high of 70.38%. While the results in this department are particular to the locality, they also shed light on the larger questions raised by low turnout. It was the area where Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Unbowed (along with the Communist party) had the most success, winning seven out of a possible 12 seats. While this may not come as much of a surprise in so far as Seine-Saint-Denis was historically a stronghold of the French Communist party, it is nonetheless a notable change from the 2012 results, in which the Socialist party won nine out of the 12 available seats.
Since the start of Mélenchon’s presidential campaign, France Unbowed has put the county’s constitutional and democratic crisis the heart of its message. For them, the abstention in this election was a form of “civic general strike” – a clear sign that people no longer believed in the existing political system. Their remedy? The abolition of France’s 5th Republic and its replacement with a new constitutional system designed by a constituent assembly, including the right to revoke elected representatives.
And yet not only did this vision fail to win Mélenchon the presidency, it also failed to increase turnout for the legislative elections in Seine-Saint-Denis. In a speech on the eve of the second round, Alexis Corbière, spokesperson for France Unbowed and newly elected deputy for the 7th constituency of Seine-Saint-Denis, put this down to a lack of trust, saying that the people he spoke to in working-class areas had had enough of politicians going back on their promises. And yet he himself was only elected on a turnout of 39.68%. Worse still was the turnout in 2nd constituency of Seine-Saint-Denis, where the France Unbowed candidate Stéphane Peu was elected on a turnout of 29.52%.
Clearly, the party that wants to rally the disaffected behind a programme of radical constitutional renewal has failed to adequately mobilise the voters of this department, many of whom are foreign-born. To do that, France Unbowed would need to build roots locally rather than parachuting in candidates from the party’s elite cadre.
While on the surface the dominance of Macron’s party – founded less than two years ago – is a huge transformation of the political landscape in France, the low turnout suggests that it is skin deep. Party politics is all too often merely the surf, spray and scum of the ocean that is society – it’s the prevailing undercurrents, the slow shifting of tectonic plates, that count in the long run. In France, growing abstention is the powerful current that risks, eventually, pulling the country under.