France-Abstention: A Spark Will Start A Forest Fire

Massive abstention in French Regional Elections not only delegitimises the results, but demonstrates the French have lost confidence in the system. History shows that the French will vote with their feet in the streets.  There will be blood.

Is Paris Burning? Just Wait.

The French people lost the June 27 second round of Regional Elections. The crowing of those who won the presidency of the Regional Councils shows they learned nothing from high abstention in 2017 which produced the Yellow Vests uprising.

Legal But Totally Illegitimate

Let’s take one example; that of conservative hopeful for next year’s presidential elections, Xavier Bertrand, who won the North West Region (Hauts de France) with 52.4% of the votes cast:

  • Abstention was 67%
  • Bertrand actually got 700,000 fewer votes than in 2015
  • Bertrand was elected with less than 12% of the six million registered voters in the region

Yet Bertrand brags as if he had a plebiscite, using his “victory” speech as a springboard for his 2022 presidential bid. How is that a “victory?” The reality is, although legally elected, he has no legitimacy.

Regional Elections have never really mobilised the French electorate but they were used by voters to let off steam and express their preferences and discontent. This time the French voiced through their refusal to vote their dissatisfaction with the system as a whole. In 1992, 70% of the electorate took part in Regional Elections while this year 70% abstained. So, what happened?

Disaffection has been growing with each election since the 2005 Maastricht Treaty Referendum. Here’s the nationwide abstention rate in the second-round of each Regional election:

  • 1992—31%
  • 1998—42%
  • 2004—34%
  • 2010—49%
  • 2015—41.6%
  • 2021—65.7%

The reason the 2005 Maastricht Treaty Referendum is an important marker is because President Sarkozy completely ignored the French vote against greater European integration and had the pact rectified under a new name: The Lisbon Treaty.  It seems this is where people began believing their vote doesn’t mean anything.

The Young, The Poor, and The Angry

Let us break down this abstention by group:

  • 85% of those under the age of 34 did not vote
  • 70% of those aged 35 to 64 abstained
  • 78% of the poorer (less than €900 month) abstained
  • 68% of those with less than €1,900 month

You are looking at the people who formed the Yellow Vests revolt in the Fall of 2019 when Macron made the same mistake of believing his large parliamentary majority was a plebiscite to get blank checks to do whatever he wanted even though his En Marche party only got 23% of registered voters.

With no parliamentary debate, rule by decree, and Macron refusing to speak to the French press, using his communications experts to promote his ‘image’ rather than content, the ‘losers’ in a globalised world economy felt unjustly targeted by harsh reforms while the rich were getting tax breaks, and getting obscenely richer.

The two-round voting system in France allows small minorities to actually win control of the majority of Parliament, just as these Regional Elections allowed Council Presidents to be elected with less than 12% of registered voters.

Mayors of large cities in France were elected in 2020 with 6% to 12% of registered voters due to high abstention. As those who voted were mostly urban elite (what the French call “Bobo”), the Greens did well for the first time taking large cities like Strasbourg, Bordeaux, Lyon and Grenoble. The Greens miserable performance this year shows 2020 was a freak. The Left in general in France has been practically erased. The Polls credit the Greens with 8%, Socialists with 7% and far left Unbowed with 9%. The far right National Rally Party is still the most popular with as high as 28% of voter intent.

A Shot Across the Bow

For the elite, pundits and political class to not understand that the massive abstention by the have-nots is the opening salvo of a major revolt in the making is incomprehensible after the street protests which have clobbered them since 2017. This elite is just as divorced from the reality of those at the bottom as the ‘Bubble People’ in the USA in 2016 who couldn’t see Trump coming.

It is well known that a spark will start a forest fire and nowhere has this been more true than in the history of French revolt and insurrection. 

The Yellow Vest movement stopped Macron’s reforms dead in their tracks. He has basically been a lame duck president ever since. He is still expected to, and he hopes to, run off against Marine Le Pen in the second-round next year.

The National Rally party has clearly understood what the abstention rate means, who abstained, and how this can work in their favour.  They have been the most vocal in pointing out the danger of a system the people no longer believe in.

An estimated 68% of Le Pen’s National Rally voters abstained but they haven’t changed their minds. Le Pen is favoured to come out on top in next year’s first-round of presidential elections. However, many on the far right are looking for a candidate with a less toxic name to carry the same colors.

Marine Le Pen recently said she would step aside if another candidate with a better chance of winning was put forward but insisted there isn’t one. However, over the past two months, at least two names are being put forward as an alternative to Le Pen. We will know better this Fall when France’s ‘Deplorables’ take to the streets and the candidates step forward.

Updated Notes added:

  1. Despite the massive abstention rate, all the incumbents, that is those of the incumbent old traditional parties, which have been erased from the scene since 2017, were re-elected to head the Regional Councils, albeit with a fraction of the votes they got in 2015.
  2. The last Regional Elections were held two years before the beginning of the Macron era which broke down the traditional Socialist vs Conservative back-and-forth and saw many from both parties jump ship, i.e., betray their parties and their comrades, and join Macron. Given voter intention, it is surely a career move they will live to regret next year.
  3. Macron’s ministers were not elected to a Regional Council. They in fact failed miserably. But, given there is less than a year until the Presidential elections, Macron has opted to keep them on rather than force them to resign as had been the custom under other presidents.
  4. Those who vote the most, that is who have not lost all confidence in the system, are those from the rebellious generations of the 1960s and 1970s, the Baby Boomers, when there was less economic inequality, stronger unions, much less immigration and something which could be described as “French Identity” as opposed to today’s “multiculturalism.”