Regional Elections

'Defeat for everyone' as French voters ignore misunderstood regional elections

People pass by electoral boards at a polling station in Paris, for the first round of the French regional elections on June 20, 2021.
People pass by electoral boards at a polling station in Paris, for the first round of the French regional elections on June 20, 2021. AFP - LUCAS BARIOULET

The on-going regional elections are being analysed as an early indicator of voter intentions ahead of next year’s presidential race. But the fact is the French weren’t in the mood to participate in last Sunday’s first round when only one of every three registered voters bothered to cast a ballot. What's behind the electoral dropout? 

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The winner in the first round of the regional elections was voter apathy: 66 percent of registered voters in France boycotted the poll, the highest abstention rate in more than 50 years.

It sent shivers down France’s political spine.

“It’s a thunderbolt, a disaster,” Roland Lescure, MP with the ruling LaRem party, told RFI on Monday.

“It was a defeat for all the parties," wrote Christophe Bouillaud in Atlantico, “they were incapable of mobilising the electorate.

“The only ones who voted were a minority for whom voting remains a civic duty, so essentially the over-50s.”

So what’s behind the electoral dropout?

“The pandemic effect played a role of course,” Jean-Philippe Moinet, founder of La Revue Civique, told RFI. “Not only because the campaign was very short, but also because during this very trying period we saw a sort of disconnection from social and public life.”

But Emmanuel Rivière, director of Kantar Public opinion polling institute, plays down the Covid factor, noting that despite the pandemic there were “high levels of participation” in recent elections in Germany, The Netherlands and Italy.

Low turnout in France, he told RFI, reflects the fact that “people didn’t feel concerned by these elections.

“As soon as we dig a bit in our surveys we discover that people don’t even know what these elections are about. A month ago, half the population didn’t know which political party the head of their regional council belonged to.”

Misjudging your electorate

As well as not knowing much about what the regions and departments actually do, Rivière says the French are no longer interested in the nuts and bolts of local politics. “They’re indifferent and that’s very worrying,” he says.

“We questioned French voters, asked them what they wanted the campaign to focus on and they said ‘the candidates’ projects and programmes, what the regions and departments are responsible for’. They wanted more on that, given they didn’t know much about it.

“What they didn’t want to hear about was deals and strategic alliances between parties and the impact of the regional and departmental elections on next year’s presidential polls!”

And yet that’s precisely what they got! Little wonder so many failed to show up.

‘Presidential’ takes all

Disaffection with elections is not new in France. Abstention rates were high in municipal elections last June (58.6 percent) and in the 2017 parliamentary poll (57 percent). But participation in presidential elections remains high; 78 percent voted in 2017.

There’s a French passion for the “personalisation and ‘presidentialisation’ of public life” says Monier, with national issues always to the forefront.

The media play into this, focusing on the big political actors like Emmanuel Macron, Marine Le Pen and hard-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, supporting the narrative that these elections are a simple test-run for 2022.

“Politicians have to question themselves, as does the media” says Rivière. “There is a real problem in the staging of political life, we’re in a kind of shadow puppet theatre.”

No appetite for extremes

The biggest losers in this first round were the hard-right National Rally (RN) and hard-left France Unbowed (LFI).

According to poll estimates, 73 percent of people who voted for RN leader Marine le Pen in the 2017 presidential abstained last Sunday; the stay-away figure was 67 percent for those who supported LFI leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

Monier says the “psychological impact of the health crisis and the ordeal France has gone through” partly explain why voters turned away from the more extreme parties.

"The French didn't want to add to the difficulties everyone is living through,” he says. "There was a kind of disdain for radical parties."

Abstention as a form of protest?

The hard-right RN had been tipped to take seats in at least three regional councils but finished ahead in only the southern Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region (PACA).

The RN’s strategy of rebranding itself as less electorally toxic than its National Front (FN) parent may have cost it dear as it became harder to defend its ‘anti-system’ identity.

“By de-demonising the FN, to make the RN party, part of the protest electorate ended up seeing the RN as part of the system,” Arnaud Mercier, a specialist in political communication, told RFI.

The RN electorate is “weary” and “discouraged” that the party still hasn’t broken through as promised in 2015 with the regionals, then in 2017 with the presidential elections.

Not angry enough to vote

While some abstained as a form of protest, others were simply not angry enough to get out there.

“I know it’s surprising but the country isn’t angry,” Bruce Teinturier, head of the Ipsos opinion polling institute said on Monday.

“There are a lot of indications that this is not a moment of anger, although it could return," he told France Inter.

What now?

Politicians are now asking themselves how they can get voters out for the second round next Sunday.

Marine Le Pen chose to chastise her electorate, telling them “to wake up”.

“In massively abstaining, the voters are giving a free rein to those in power," she said shortly after her party's disappointing results were announced. "Abstaining does not punish them."

“It was a big TV moment,” says Mercier, and it revealed a lot about the "turmoil within the RN". But "ripping into your electorate may not be the best answer,” he suggests.

All political parties are now ‘encouraging’ their electorate to head to the polls next Sunday. The ruling LaRem has announced a communications campaign on social media, in a bid to get some of the 87 percent of the under 24s who didn't vote.

“Blaming the electorate, making them feel guilty, I wouldn’t want to head down that road,” Mercier continues.

“When 66 percent don’t vote, it says something, but it’s not up to the French to question themselves, it’s up to political forces to fully measure this ‘voting strike’ [because] it’s worrying for the future.”

It may be too late for political parties to remind the electorate they should take an interest in the shape of regional and departmental councils because they are in charge of high schools, transport, economic development, tourism, child welfare and waste collection.

In the last regional elections in 2015 participation increased between the two rounds by 8.5 percent. In some cases, that margin could win or lose you a region.

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