Low voter turnout in French local elections tells a tale of disillusionment

A voter wearing a mask casts his ballot at a Paris polling station on June 28, 2020.
A voter wearing a mask casts his ballot at a Paris polling station on June 28, 2020. © Christophe Archambault, AFP

Health concerns, a drawn-out campaign due to a delayed vote, mass rejection of state institutions and overwhelming disenchantment with politicians produced a near-record low voter turnout in Sunday’s second round of the 2020 French municipal elections.


France’s green wave captured the headlines following Sunday’s vote, with the French environmentalist party, Europe Écologie Les Verts (EELV), winning in major cities, like Marseille, Bordeaux, Lyon and Strasbourg. But behind the green sweep in the second round of the municipal elections lies another story: low voter turnout.

While France traditionally has higher voter turnout figures than the US, UK and many developed countries, the abstention levels in the latest poll have been staggering by French standards. Nearly 60 percent of the country’s 16.5 million voters stayed away from the polls – around 12 points higher than in the second round of municipal elections in 2014.

"Abstentions are the major feature of this evening," concluded Chloé Morin, head of the Opinion Observatory at the Jean-Jaurès Foundation, on FRANCE 24’s election night special. It reached record highs in cities where the Socialist Party won, such as Nantes (71.42 percent), Rennes (68.32 percent) and Lille (60 percent). In Lyon, where the Greens won, abstentions were an estimated 62 percent. 

‘Fear of contamination’

The civic malaise was clearly linked to the Covid-19 pandemic, which had already affected voter turnout in the March 15 first round, when only 55.4 percent of voters nationwide cast their ballots, obvservers said.

"The context of the health crisis is still not over for voters," stressed Bruno Cautrès, researcher at the Centre for Political Science Research of Sciences Po (CEVIPOF) on French news station Franceinfo. "The fear of contamination in polling stations," despite the health measures taken, was "one of the main obstacles to participation", according to Cautrès.

For many, the first round of voting, which took place two days before France went into a nationwide coronavirus lockdown, was "kind of traumatic", Morin said.

According to a Sopra Steria poll, 43 percent of respondents cited the risk of catching Covid-19 as the main reason for their abstention.

The second election round, usually held a week after the first, was postponed this year by three months, further affecting mobilisation levels. "The thread of the election was broken," Morin said.

Many observers see the high abstention rate as a repudiation of mayors, although opinion polls show they are still the most appreciated by the French among those holding political office.

Longest campaign season in postwar history

The second round of municipal elections was also marked by an unusual campaign, the longest in France’s postwar history. “Candidates and party officials were unable to campaign in local markets, hold meetings, rallies or knock on doors," Pierre Jacquemain, editor of the magazine Regards, told FRANCE 24.

Under the lockdown and social distancing measures, candidates were forced to campaign online, but "this did not mobilise” the election or the media enough," continued Jacquemain.

On the other hand, the abstention rate – not a record for postwar France, which hit its highest of 69.8 percent in the 2000 presidential term referendum – was not mirrored in contested cities. Participation was high in several cities, including the southern city of Perpignan (52.8 percent) and the eastern French city of Nancy (57.9 percent compared to 62.9 percent in the first round).

But the low turnout is the result of a wider political saturation trend, according to experts. "With the exception of the May 2019 European parliamentary elections, which saw a resurgence in voter participation, we are gradually seeing a form of democracy based on abstentions in France," warned Cautrès, noting that while turnout is high for the presidential poll, other elections fail to motivate voters to cast their ballots.

In the Sopra Steria poll, 38 percent of respondents said they did not vote since they believed the elections will not change anything in their daily lives, while 27 percent said it was because they didn’t like any candidate or list.

‘Cold insurrection against the country's institutions’

President Emmanuel Macron expressed his "concern", according to an Élysée presidential palace statement, which noted that the low voter turnout was "not very good news".

French Senate leader Gérard Larcher, of the centre-right Les Républicains party, was less diplomatic. "Once again, French abstentions win,” he said, regretting that "mistrust is taking hold” of the country.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, populist leader of France’s far-left La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) party, worried about the "civic strike", calling it "a form of cold insurrection against the country's institutions". The abstention "is a form of disengagement” now turned "against the rules of the game to which the people no longer consent", he said.

But Mélenchon’s own France Unbowed and the ruling La République en Marche (LREM) were the biggest losers of Sunday’s polls, leading Morin to note that the discourse of high abstentions among these politicians was "a way to minimise their defeat". It remains to be seen whether French politicians will learn from it.

This article was translated from the original in French.

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