When voters abstain, France takes notice – the UK should learn to do the same

Four distinct political blocs were revealed by the first round of the French election: a radical left, something approximating a centre-right, the far right and those who looked at the choices on offer and said “none of the above”.

One of many noteworthy things about this French election was how seriously the abstentionists were taken. In his victory speech, Emmanuel Macron acknowledged them directly, dicho: “I think as well of all of our fellow countrymen that abstained. Their silence demonstrated a refusal to choose, to which we must also respond.” The next morning Bruno Le Maire, the finance minister during Macron’s first term, vowed to change the institutions to address the millions of people who felt a sense of abandonment and didn’t vote.

Abstentionism was also covered prominently in the media. TV channels featured a count of abstentions alongside the votes. Le Monde splashed a bar chart comparing the abstentions with the candidates’ vote share, and countless articles in the papers discussed why it had happened and what it all meant. The news cycle is notoriously fickle, and to take Macron and Le Maire entirely at their constantly changing word would be foolish, but it does seem there was a recognition among some French political types that Macron was elected on the lowest turnout since Pompidou’s election in 1969 and that he will be governing with the backing of just 38% of registered voters – many of them hesitantly at that.

Taking abstentionists seriously is key – especially in an age where voters feel alienated by politics. A recent report on attitudes towards democracy from the IPPR thinktank found that just 6% of voters in Britain think their views are the main influence on government policy, y 55% de 18- to 24-year-olds believe democracy serves them badly. This chimes with Peter Mair’s classic work of political science, Ruling the Void, which showed that as parties come to resemble each other more closely and disconnect themselves from a mass base, abstention increases.

The reduction of politics to different flavours of the same product seems to have driven some of the abstention in France. I spoke to first-round voters who backed Jean-Luc Mélenchon and abstained in the runoff, concerned by the mutual lack of seriousness on the climate crisis between Macron and Marine Le Pen and the degree to which Macron’s government has moved to the right on the far right’s key issues.

Discussions of abstention can easily become sucked into misguided debates about privilege – Bernie Sanders supporters who planned to abstain rather than vote for Hillary Clinton were told to check their class and racial privilege. En Francia, some criticised those who opted for the “white vote” (submitting a blank ballot) in the same terms: “a white vote is white privilege” read some graffiti widely shared on social media. Yet Seine-Saint-Denis, the poorest departement in mainland France with a 30% immigrant population, had the highest abstention and blank ballot rate at 47.8% in the second round. A middle-aged mixed-race waiter I spoke to in Bagnolet, Seine-Saint-Denis, told me he thinks of himself as apolitical “because nothing they do will change my little life” – hardly a smug expression of privilege. General, abstentionism was significantly more pronounced among poorer people, with an abstention rate of 40% in households with an income of less than €1,250 (£1,050) un mes, which then decreased with each more affluent income bracket.

Deciding to disengage from politics – at least in terms of voting – is not the decadent bourgeois act it is sometimes painted to be, which is why taking abstention seriously really matters. The Tories are now gaining a reputation as a working-class party because they did better among people in the lower NRS social grades than Labour. Even if we accept these metrics as representative of class in Britain, what this ignores is that huge numbers of working-class people did not vote. Exact statistics are difficult to find, but turnout in the 2019 election was 67.3%, and an analysis by political scientists found that voters in traditional working-class areas were far more likely to abstain than other groups.

Macron’s moment of uncharacteristic humility and the French media’s centring of abstentionists were important – and other countries could learn from this. Politicians and journalists publicly acknowledging the problem of abstentionism and actively working to re-engage those voters could play a key role in reviving trust and faith in democracy.

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