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Emmanuel Macron, the newly-elected French president, at a campaign rally in Dijon, France on March 23, 2017 | REUTERS
Emmanuel Macron, the newly-elected French president, at a campaign rally in Dijon, France on March 23, 2017 | REUTERS

The new opposition.

That’s how Emilia Julie, a literature student in the populous French capital that helped hand Emmanuel Macron the presidency, christened the roughly 15.5 million renegades who abstained or voided their ballots. The number amounts to a third of registered voters — staggering by French standards — who wanted no part in choosing between Macron, an independent centrist who will become France’s youngest head of state since Napoleon, and Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front.

More people abstained than voted for Le Pen, who won about 10.6 million votes, her party’s best performance in a presidential election. The number of blank and voided ballots was a record for France’s Fifth Republic, founded in 1958.


The number of blank and voided ballots was a record for France’s Fifth Republic, founded in 1958.“I choose not to enter the game,” said Julie, 18, who stayed home last Sunday.


“I choose not to enter the game,” said Julie, 18, who stayed home last Sunday to signal her disagreement with both candidates and to deny Macron a mandate. “The abstentionists are the new opposition. Winning a third of the country is not enough, clearly.”

The right to vote, she said, is important. “But it’s more important to vote for someone you actually want to be in office. And I don’t want to be guilty for what Macron does, or doesn’t do.”

Andrй Boursier, a former communist mayor of a small town north of Paris, said Macron is too similar to President Franзois Hollande, a Socialist who will leave office with historically low approval ratings.

“I wasn’t convinced,” he said, “and so I voted blank.”

So did about 4 million others, including those who spoiled their ballots, in what experts described as a militant rejection of “the political system.” They called the historic nonparticipation rate a testament to deepening polarisation and a sign of the tough road ahead for Macron, as he prepares for parliamentary elections in June that will decide whether he can govern with a legislative majority.

“It’s not just saying, ‘I don’t care about the choice, so I won’t go to the polling station,’” said Sylvain Brouard, a political scientist at Sciences Po in Paris. “It’s saying, ‘I’m going to the polling station, I’m playing the democratic game, but neither of the candidates are good enough for me. So I do not choose.”

It was not so much evidence of depoliticisation as a sign of polarisation, Brouard said, and “a brutal narrowing of the political supply, the refusal to be satisfied after strongly supporting some specific party or candidate.”

On the one hand, Macron’s victory was resounding — he won 66 percent of the vote.

“But there is also a clear sense of unease with the new president in a large fraction of the electorate,” Brouard said.

Officials count votes at a polling station in Hede-Bazouges, France | AFP
Officials count votes at a polling station in Hede-Bazouges, France | AFP

He described the abstentions as the birth pangs of political realignment. Disagreements about globalisation dominated the campaign, at times appearing to overpower the traditional left-right divide. In the end, however, many who opposed globalisation from the left were unwilling to support a party associated with xenophobia and anti-Semitism. And many of those on the right who prize free markets were unwilling to back a candidate with liberal social views.

“For me, Le Pen was impossible,” said Boursier, who voted for Jean-Luc Mйlenchon, who led Unbowed France in an alliance with the French Communists.

Polling suggested that Macron had won over more than half of those who had supported Mйlenchon, as well as Socialist Benoоt Hamon, in the first round. Le Pen’s gains in the second round came mostly from people who had cast their first vote for Franзois Fillon, the center-right candidate. She won 10 percent of Mйlenchon supporters, more than a third of whom stayed home.

Didier Rouxel, a local council member representing the National Front, said the party’s future lay in winning over voters from the right, while letting supporters of the far left fracture the other side.

Those who chose to vote blank explained their unease by pointing to the president-elect’s centrist economic ideas, namely his promise to relax certain labour codes.

Ewen Le Douget, 26, voted blank because he saw Macron as “too far to the right.” In the first round of voting, he favoured Mйlenchon, who wanted to nationalise big banks and take France out of Nato.

“Stability is not always good,” Douget said.

Macron’s election is being hailed as a victory for the centre, and for the future of a politically and commercially integrated Europe. But the number of voters who would have preferred an extreme offers a powerful counterpoint.

“If you take into account Le Pen vote, Melenchon vote, abstention and vote blank at the first round of the presidential election, the vast majority of French voters do reject the system,” said Thomas Guйnolй, an expert on contemporary French politics at Sciences Po.

Bob Hanckй, a scholar of French political economy at the London School of Economics, said it was “the quirks of the electoral system” that made Macron’s victory seem like a wholehearted embrace of globalisation.

“Forty percent of first-round votes went to anti-globalisation people,” he said.

Macron made an overture to these voters — or non-voters, as the case may have been in the second round — early in his victory speech Sunday near the Louvre.

“I’m aware of the divisions in our nation which have led some people to extreme votes,” the former investment banker and Socialist finance minister said. “I respect them. I’m aware of the anger, anxiety and doubts that a large proportion of you have also expressed.”

The low turnout on Sunday provoked comparisons to the US, which lags behind most developed countries, according to Pew Research Center data. Based on estimates from the 2016 election, turnout measured as votes cast per voting-age citizen population was about 60 percent in the US, said Drew DeSilver, a senior writer at Pew. The corresponding figure for France last Sunday was 68 percent, widely panned as a disappointing result.

Stanley-Becker is a freelance writer for The Washington Post and a graduate student at the University of Oxford.

By arrangement with The Washington Post

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 14th, 2017