Eligible voters who abstain are often criticized for not understanding the system. But what would it mean to take their protest seriously?
Aside from some campaign posters, one could be forgiven for forgetting that there was a presidential election going on at all in France this April. The centrist President Emmanuel Macron barely campaigned against his second-round rival, the far-right politician Marine Le Pen. He seemed comfortable with his lead over her in the polls. There was only one debate between the two candidates, nearly three hours long, during which they favored detailed policy explanations over any overarching vision. So I was not surprised that when the election results came in on April 24, the most notable outcome was not that Macron had won again but the number of people who had not voted. The abstention rate was 28.01 percent, the highest since 1969.
Political commentators like to tut-tut about people who do not vote, as if these do not know better. It is true that voting in France is quite easy, unlike in many countries. Elections take place on a Sunday, and the process is straightforward. Polling stations are limited to around 1,500 voters, so lines should never be too long. And yet, abstention has been steadily increasing over the past three decades.
But to understand abstention, one should look at where it occurs. It may be better understood as a choice, not laziness—a process to be studied rather than dismissed.
One of the places with the highest abstention was Seine-Saint-Denis, the département northeast of Paris. It is a collection of towns and cities that have long been home to many of the newest arrivals in France. It is also the poorest département and has a high unemployment rate.
The abstention rate in Seine-Saint-Denis was 10 points higher than in the rest of France. There are a few reasons for this. In the first round, many of its residents voted for Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the far-left candidate, who made stronger social services a platform of his campaign. When he did not make it through to the second round, they may have decided that the choice between a center-right and far-right president was not good enough.
But the candidates on offer is not the only explanation. Seine-Saint-Denis has borne the brunt of the rising inequalities in France. Its residents have less access to doctors. The region is one of the largest “medical deserts” in the country; as doctors retire, few new colleagues take their place. Absent school teachers are so infrequently replaced with substitutes that students lose a year’s worth of schooling compared to their peers elsewhere.
The coronavirus killed more people in the département than in other parts of the country because of the lack of care but also because so many of its inhabitants were performing “essential services” like collecting garbage and driving public transportation and could not stay home.
“Inequalities kill in Seine-Saint-Denis,” wrote a collective of its mayors and local officials at the height of the pandemic. “The municipalities of Seine-Saint-Denis are those where inequalities, pointed out by many reports, persist in many areas: education, justice, security or health. These inequalities make our inhabitants, the working classes, more and more vulnerable to the virus.”
The stakes were high in the election. Le Pen and her National Rally have a history of racism and xenophobia. She inherited the party from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who has been convicted of Holocaust denialism. As president, she would have banned the headscarf in public places and reinstated identity checks at France’s EU borders in violation of the Schengen Agreement. She would have redefined the EU by creating what Le Monde called a de facto Frexit. She has long-standing ties to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and the National Rally is still paying back a loan from a Russian bank.
But for the inhabitants of Seine-Saint-Denis, the case for reelecting Macron was not particularly strong. His five years in office have not notably improved life there. While his economic reforms have led to lower unemployment, the rate is still higher in Seine-Saint-Denis than elsewhere in the country. Changes that have increased purchasing power have not benefited the poorest 5 percent of society. Little has been done to expand the housing stock, something that has particularly deleterious effects in the Paris region. The price of housing increased by 8.6 percent in 2020 alone. This has been exacerbated by gentrification and new building projects for the 2024 Paris Olympics.
Nor did Macron do much to energize his campaign, barely engaging with voters. The government in an apparent effort to stave off the far right took on many of its talking points by rattling fears about “woke culture” or “Islamo-leftism.” In the months leading up to the vote, commentators debated proposals on immigration and the place of diversity in French society, rather than talking about the social services and public systems that exist to keep the country together. These conversations seemed especially far from the reality of French lives.
Before the election, Ville et Banlieue—a group of mayors of many of France’s poorer towns—issued a warning. In a video they circulated to the press, they said that mayors were often the only elected officials with a physical presence in their towns. Otherwise, the state had vanished. “There are fewer teachers, fewer policemen, fewer civil servants,” they said. The mayors noted that the inhabitants of their towns had taken care of the French during the coronavirus crisis, but seen little in return. “[Our inhabitants] cared, they cleaned, they served, they welcomed... They were present at a time when we knew nothing about the virus.”
In La Courneuve, a city some five kilometers north of Paris, 45 percent of eligible voters did not vote in the second round of the election. This is almost the same as the proportion of residents—43 percent—who live below the poverty line, according to France Info. Unemployment is at 25 percent, far higher than elsewhere in France. One young man told France Info that, despite investments from the state into the town, “People don’t feel associated with the state. One spark, and everything can start again like in 2005,” when inhabitants of the city rioted for three weeks.
The non-voters deserve to be understood as well. In their video, the Ville et Banlieue mayors noted that inhabitants of their towns had felt a rupture of the French motto of liberty, equality, fraternity. “In our daily lives, ‘liberty’ is not great, and we think more of inequality [than equality],” said one. The social contract, they indicated, was already broken. Perhaps that is why so many voters considered it unnecessary to keep up their side of the bargain.
Madeleine Schwartz is a journalist based in Berlin. She has written for Agence France-Presse, The London Review of Books, The Guardian, Harper’s, Politico, and The New York Review of Books. She is a Milena Jesenská Fellow at the IWM (2022).