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The undisputed winner of the French regional elections: abstention

French President Emmanuel Macron poses for a selfie during his visit to the site of the future factory of Japan-based battery maker Envision AESC group, June 2021.
French president, Emmanuel Macron: trapped in an endless cycle of crisis. EPA-EFE/Ludovic Marin/Pool

France has gone to the polls in the last elections before the presidential vote in 2022, and the resounding winner was “none of the above”. The vast majority of French people did not vote in the regional and departmental elections, which took place over two weeks – 67% of eligible voters stayed home in the first round and 66% abstained in the second.

Turnout was dampened by the Covid effect, which weighed heavily on proceedings – as was also the case in local elections in 2020. This combined with a continuing trend toward abstention in almost all recent French elections, and a poll whose stakes were not apparent to the French people – all the less so because no one was able to point them out.

With so few people turning up to vote, France is at risk of becoming “a democracy of abstention”, as described by political scientists Céline Braconnier and Jean-Yves Dormagen.

Lire cet article en français: “La démocratie de l’abstention” ou les défis d’Emmanuel Macron

And while the explanations for this trend are multiple and cannot be reduced solely to the responsibility of politicians, it nevertheless shows that the French public’s relationship with politics it deeply damaged and highlights the huge democratic fractures within the country.

It also indicates that Macron has failed to deliver on one of the most essential pillars of his original political project: to fix the broken relationship between the French and their politicians and to restore confidence in political action.

Chart showing abstention rates in French regional elections, 2004-2021
The Conversation France

A cycle of endless crisis

France has been in a cycle of endless crisis since 2018, when the gilets jaunes, or yellow vests, first burst onto the political scene. Since then, there has been a significant gap between the presidential narrative of a France that is moving forward, and the political and social reality of a country that doubts, worries and flares up at regular intervals.

As the recent results from our Barometer of Political Confidence have shown, the Covid crisis has not erased the French democratic crisis. In February, my colleagues Luc Rouban, Gilles Ivaldi and I concluded:

If public institutions have shown their resilience in the face of the crisis, the world of politics and everything that it embodies continue to be perceived negatively. The French democratic deficit has not been closed since the election of Emmanuel Macron, even if some points are improving.

This is a conclusion we share with Macron himself. Speaking at the beginning of the gilets jaunes crisis, he said:

There is impatience, there is anger. I share this anger, because there is one thing I have not managed to do. I have not managed to reconcile the French people with their leaders.

A blow to Macronism

So at the end of these regional and departmental elections, the last time the French people will go to the polls before the end of his mandate, what room for manoeuvre does Macron have to stem this crisis of political confidence?

First of all, it’s important to note that the popularity of the current head of state is today much higher than that of his predecessors. Most opinion polls place Macron’s popularity between 40 and 50%, which has been increasing for several weeks, driven by the improvement of the health situation and the gradual reopening of the country after many long months of lockdown.

According to a recent survey, 50% of respondents had a good or excellent opinion of both Macron and his prime minister, Jean Castex, with the pair coming 5th and 6th in a list of preferred French political figures (Marine Le Pen came in 28th place).

ar-right Rassemblement National (RN) party president Marine Le Pen standing at a podium makes a statement about the election, June 2021
Marine le Pen: came in 28th in a recent survey about France’s preferred political figures. EPA-EFE/Ian Langsdon

Despite this, it’s clear that the results of the regional elections have exposed weaknesses of Macronism as a political project. Going into the 2022 presidential elections, Macron no longer has a winning political machine in the form of his political-movement-turned-party, La République En Marche, or LREM.

While the party swept the legislative elections of 2017, which swiftly followed Macron’s presidential victory, it performed less well in the European elections of May 2019, faltered in the local elections of spring 2020 and has now resoundingly failed in the regional polls.

A number of Macron’s ministers, including the secretary of state for pensions, Laurent Pietraszewski, and justice minister, Eric Dupond-Moretti, ran in the regional elections and failed to make a mark, with the exception of hardline right-wing interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, who handily won in Tourcoing, a northern city of which he was previously mayor.

A second weakness is that Macronism does not seem to have succeeded in imprinting an easily identifiable ideology or political doctrine on public opinion. Macronism, in public opinion, is Emmanuel Macron. In a 2018 survey of LREM members, my colleagues and I identified a strong sense that this was a “personal party” – apart from Europe and education, our survey showed that the great cause of LREM was Macron himself.

These two weaknesses of Macronism explain a third one, which came to light during these most recent elections: Macron and his party lack natural allies. If the 2017 presidential campaign could only be based on the spectacular emergence of the “young Macron”, the 2022 campaign must explain to us with which majority and with which electoral coalition the mature Macron will govern.

There is no easy answer to this. Three potential right-wing presidential candidates – Xavier Bertrand, Valerie Pécresse and Laurent Wauquiez – had perfectly successful regional election campaigns without the need for an agreement with the party of Macron.

Laurent Wauquiez wearing a mask
Laurent Wauquiez is a potential challenger for the 2022 presidential election. Franck Chapolard/Shutterstock

Three questions before 2022

As he looks to the 2022 election, Marcon will need to answer three important questions.

First, the question of his presidential style and his leadership: after a mandate marked by major social, democratic and health crises, who is Emmanuel Macron today? What has he really learned from these repeated crises?

Second, why does Macron need a second mandate? The deceptively simple answer (to prolong the reforms he has already put in place) cannot be sufficient, as the country has experienced so many upheavals since 2017 and the economic horizon is unclear.

And finally, a second term, but with whom? An alliance with the right-wing Les Républicains? A new Macronist movement to replace LREM?

He may not have all the answers now, but it’s doubtful the French president will be able to qualify for the second round of voting in 2022 if he does not respond to each of these questions eventually.

This article was originally published in French

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