Near-Record Abstensions in France Create a Paradoxical Breakthrough

The simplest explanation for what happened last Sunday, June 20th, in France’s first round of regional elections is that after a year plus of harsh COVID restrictions, an extremely narrowed personal sphere and the attendant restraint on politics, only the dead (33% of voters) showed up to vote for the conservative les Republicains and the moribund Socialists, giving both parties a certain jolt of life. Are things finally getting back to normal, or is something else afoot ? Old school pols seem not to know how to deal with voters, who can be, in the absence of party loyalty, unpredictable and demanding. They don’t really have a recipe for the current moment, except to back their friends to the hilt. Better to suppress the vote, and while France has nothing on the order of a confederate flag loving, Q-Anon sympathizer convinced that « Whites are being replaced » while making it impossible for blacks to vote, French politicians do have certain magical powers which can persuade people to stay away from the polls. Such as their ability to stay on the Paris political merry-go-round : the faces may blur and the tempos may change, but it’s a rare day when a politico gets thrown off his or her horse for good.

But maybe the big National Nothing from last Sunday – to be continued this weekend – needs a different approach and a little more depth. What if the low turnout isn’t another something else for earnest political types to fret over but an opportunity ?

Sunday’s astonishing two-thirds abstention in the regional elections, a near record, is due not only to life in the aftermath of COVID but something intensely local, tied to the reforms of the last decade. Enacted during the Hollande presidency, this attempt at decentralization was devised by Paris as a way to devolve a modicum of power from the capital to the newly created regions. It did almost precisely the opposite, and alienated people in the process. The reorganized regions made their bids for power, scuppering up whatever local courts and agencies couldn’t hold on to, depriving citizens of local access. ‘Reform’ has continued under Macron with his attack on the communes, the most local and approachable form of governance. Hence voting in the regionals must have looked like casting a vote for a far-off bureaucrat with undeserved powers. That abstention nonetheless created a certain margin for movement for candidates in various parts of the country.

Le Réalignement Radical, c’est maintenant !

France’s political parties are on life support. Individual candidates say things and parties make every effort to give a realistic portrayal of being alive but no one is fooled. Marine Le Pen and President Emmanuel Macron will both struggle to find voters next year. Based on Sunday’s first round, the Rassemblement National and La République en Marche! parties are discredited by citizens whether they voted or not. Are we facing an election in 2022 when no one votes ? Isn’t it more likely the two presumed ‘leading candidates,’ with their well-oiled machines, will fail to survive the first round ? Le Pen’s Rassemblement National could barely muster 10% of the vote in parts of the country, leading her to demand followers get up off their asses (‘j’appelle au sursaut’) while Macron’s candidates faired little better, and the chief had the hangdog Dark Night of the Soul look for days after. Thus, the voting abstention has created a paradoxical openness, both depriving the monster parties of oxygen and giving breathing room to more independent candidates.

Like it or not, as in many other parts of life, the time of the uniform block – whether political congregation, media conglomerate or publishing house – is over. The old parties will hang on, like barflies who won’t go home, while everyone else is outside on the terrace trading notes.

We can now dream of a second round in next year’s presidential elections in which both Sacred Cows, the Facho-Right and the Banker’s Liberals, have been swept off center stage, with an independent conservative candidate and some flavor of a left-wing hopeful hauling him or herself into the final round. Surprises await : we could see the popular Mayor of le Havre Edouard Philippe, who walked away from Macron only to watch his national popularity rise, throw his hat in the ring against an independent like Julien Bayrou (an Ecologist) or perennial dark horse Arnould Montebourg, who retired from politics to raise bees. Philippe will be making his decisions in September about offering ‘a destination to people who today have none’ while Montebourg says there are too many candidates already and he prefers to wait for everyone else to lose. More interesting characters with or without followings may step forward, and of course, we’ll always have Jean-Luc Mélenchon chewing the scenery. His party, La France Insoumise, did reasonably well in alliance with other left-of-center parties, Socialists included. With the Greens, his relations are much more fractious.

Hopeful signs, all in all, and not so bad for a Sunday in which nothing happened. You read it here first, from a professional pessimist. 

Below is the chart of voting results in Sunday’s first round. Parties arranged leftwing to right on the regional color charts. Results not nearly so bad for the wide left as predicted, with small parties gaining traction. Races to watch : Hauts du France, where the left is traditionally strong; the Île de France, which includes Paris, where the Three who did somehow unite (Socialist-ecolo-Insoumise) attempt to oust the gorgon Pécresse from her lair; and PACA (Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur), where Socialists and Ecologists are too busy brawling in the hall to notice there’s a race on.

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