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In challenge to Macron, France's biggest voting bloc may be abstainers

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By Reuters
In challenge to Macron, France's biggest voting bloc may be abstainers
In challenge to Macron, France's biggest voting bloc may be abstainers   -   Copyright  Thomson Reuters 2022

By Makini Brice and Yiming Woo

CLICHY-SOUS-BOIS, France – Capucine Blond should vote on Sunday in her first presidential election but the disconnect the French teenager feels with the ruling elite is so great that she has decided there is no point.

Blond, 18, who earns 500 euros per month working on a short-term contract at her town hall, said she doubted any of the candidates would improve her job prospects to the point where she could afford to move out of her mother’s house.

She is not alone. Pollster Ipsos last month forecast a record number of voters would abstain in this month’s election, which if confirmed would raise the likelihood of a surprise, analysts said.

“For me, politics, politicians, all of that, it’s always debates that aren’t constructive because no one is listening to one another and it never leads to anything,” said Blond, who lives in the northern city of Arras.

Politicians lived “outside everyday reality” and were incapable of delivering meaningful change, she said.

History has shown that the higher the abstention rate in the first round of voting, the lower the hurdle candidates have to clear in order to qualify.

The presidential race appears set to be a re-run of the 2017 duel between incumbent President Emmanuel Macron and far-right challenger Marine Le Pen. This time, however, polls suggest a more close-fought contest, with Macron’s projected margin of victory in the runoff within the margin of error.

“The main challenge for Macron remains a potential lack of voter mobilisation against Le Pen in the second round,” political risk group Teneo wrote in a briefing note.

Turnout rates in French elections have been on a downwards trend since the 1980s. In 2017, more than a fifth of French voters sat out at least one round, Interior Ministry data shows. A disproportionate number of them were youngsters, according https://www.insee.fr/fr/statistiques/3138704 to the official INSEE statistics office.

Ipsos forecast that nearly a third of voters may sit out this month’s election. That would be a record for a presidential vote in France and exceed the number voting for any candidate.

Among 18- to 25-year-olds, 42% say they may not vote, according https://www.anacej.fr/post/enquete-anacej-ifop-42-des-18-25-ans-n-iraient-pas-voter-a-l-election-presidentielle to an IFOP poll.

“The biggest political party in France is The Abstainers,” said Mehdi Bigaderne, a deputy mayor in the working class Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois where about 40% of voters, double the national average, abstained from at least one round in 2017.

WEAKENEDFRONT

Macron has warned of a Brexit-style upset and said he wanted voters to turn out in large numbers.

While young voters often engaged in issues such as climate change, Bigaderne said abstainers eschew party politics due to lack of interest or because politicians were seen as failing to improve their lives.

Moreover, advocacy group A Vote estimates that nearly 8 million voters are improperly registered and cannot vote, often youngsters who move for work or university.

Drama graduate Louis Labarthette, 25, voted for Macron in 2017 to keep Le Pen out of power but said he felt let down by the former investment banker’s results over his five-year term.

“I don’t feel represented by any one of the candidates,” Labarthette, who now works in a restaurant kitchen, told Reuters.

Twelve candidates are running for president. Among them are two far-right candidates, a communist, a hard-left veteran and contenders from the beleaguered mainstream centre-right and centre-left parties.

Ibrahim Gassama, 29, is old enough to remember 2002 when low turnout helped Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of the far-right Front National, stun France by reaching the second round. He was kept out of office by the mainstream left and right uniting behind the conservative Jacques Chirac, a phenomenon known as a ‘front republicain’.

In subsequent elections, Gassama said he would hear that it was important to vote against a Le Pen presidency. But he won’t this year, and polls indicate any second-round ‘front republicain’ will be weaker than in the past.

Gassama said he disapproved of Macron’s handling of the COVID pandemic and found some Macron ministers to be even more right-wing than Le Pen. As a result, he was no longer prepared to vote tactically and would cast a blank ballot, he said.

“I don’t want to condone someone that I don’t like because there’s someone that I like even less,” said Gassama. “If France has to go through five years with a president I dislike, then so be it.”

(The story is refiled to correct spelling of “disapproved” in penultimate paragraph)