When voters abstain, France notices – UK should learn to do the same | Oliver Haynes

Four distinct political blocs were revealed by the first round of the French election: a radical left, something approaching a centre-right, the extreme right and those who looked at the choices offered and said “nothing all of this “.

One of the many remarkable things about this French election was the seriousness with which abstainers were taken. In his victory speech, Emmanuel Macron recognized them bluntly: “I am also thinking of all our compatriots who abstained. Their silence testifies to a refusal to choose to which we must also respond. The next morning, Bruno Le Maire, Macron’s first-term finance minister, pledged to change institutions to address the millions of people who felt a sense of abandonment and did not vote.

Abstentionism was also covered prominently in the media. The television channels presented a tally of abstentions alongside the votes. Le Monde published a bar chart comparing abstentions to the candidates’ vote share, and countless newspaper articles explained why it happened and what it all meant. The news cycle is notoriously capricious, and it would be foolish to take Macron and Le Maire entirely at their word, but it seems that some French political types have acknowledged that Macron was elected with the lowest turnout since the Pompidou’s election in 1969. and that he would govern with the support of only 38% of registered voters – many of them hesitantly.

Taking abstainers seriously is key, especially at a time when voters feel alienated from politics. A recent report on attitudes towards democracy by think tank IPPR found that just 6% of UK voters believe their views are the main influence on government policy, and 55% of 18-24 year olds believe democracy serves them. evil. This aligns with Peter Mair’s classic political science work, Ruling the Void, which showed that as parties become more alike and disconnect from a mass base, abstention increases.

The narrowing of the policy to different flavors of the same product appears to have pushed some abstention in France. I spoke to first-round voters who supported Jean-Luc Mélenchon and abstained in the second round, concerned about the lack of mutual seriousness on the climate crisis between Macron and Marine Le Pen and the extent to which the government of Macron has moved to the right on the big issues of the far right.

Discussions of abstention can easily be drawn into flawed debates of privilege – supporters of Bernie Sanders who planned to abstain rather than vote for Hillary Clinton were asked to verify their class and racial privilege. In France, some have criticized those who have opted for the “white vote” (filing of a white ballot) in the same terms: “a white vote is a white privilege” read in some graffiti widely shared on social networks . Yet Seine-Saint-Denis, the poorest department in metropolitan France with 30% immigrants, had the highest abstention rate and blank vote with 47.8% in the second round. A middle-aged mixed-race waiter I spoke to in Bagnolet, Seine-Saint-Denis, told me he considers himself apolitical “because nothing they do will change my little life.” – which is not a sufficient expression of privilege. Overall, abstentionism was significantly more pronounced among the poorest people, with a 40% abstention rate in households with an income of less than €1,250 (£1,050) per month, which then declined with each wealthier income bracket.

Deciding to opt out of politics – at least in terms of voting – isn’t the decadent bourgeois act it’s sometimes portrayed to be, which is why it’s really important to take abstention seriously. The Conservatives are now gaining a reputation as a working-class party because they have performed better among people from the lower social classes of the NRS than Labour. Even if we accept these measures as representative of the class in Britain, what it ignores is that a large number of working class people did not vote. Exact statistics are hard to come by, but voter turnout in the 2019 election was 67.3%, and analysis by political scientists found voters in traditional working-class areas were far more likely to abstain than others. groups.

Macron’s unusual moment of humility and French media‘s focus on abstainers was significant – and other countries could learn from it. Politicians and journalists publicly acknowledging the problem of abstentionism and actively working to re-engage those voters could play a key role in restoring trust and faith in democracy.