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King’s Votes: Round One for France – Reorganising the Political Landscape

Roar writer Chloe Ferreux gives an in-person account of the first round of the presidential election in France, extending the ‘King’s Votes’ series.

At the dawn of Sunday April 10, a field of 12 candidates was reduced to 2 by the evening. The French presidential election has been a special event this year, with a campaign aborted by the war in Ukraine, scandals around a 500 sponsorships rule and the blatant emergence of the extreme right. The second and final round on April 24 will determine the next five years of France’s political future.

It is 7.50pm. In the small student studio, three friends have gathered in front of a small computer screen. Among them, Antoine is the most impatient. As most of the young people around him, he supports Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the candidate of La France Insoumise (LFI), a left-wing party. Even if “the cards are already played” for him, the young man tries to hide his faint hope by sinking into the hood of his sweatshirt. The ten long minutes before the results of this “bloody” first round seem interminable to him.

Camille, at his side, can’t stand up straight. “I voted green,” she whispers in confidence. The blonde, with a worried look on her face, doesn’t want her flatmates to hear her words. “Voting is a taboo issue in France. And my friends all vote for the France Insoumise, they wouldn’t understand me.” Yet despite the blatant support for the left, when the small group is asked for their prognosis for this first round, they are all unanimous. Whatever their views, the second round will be the same as 2017: Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron. 

An election already played out

What is happening in this small flat in Poitiers, a small town in central western France, is not unique. The same spectacle is taking shape in French homes. A few months ago, polls reminded us how little this election had mobilised. Indeed, rarely has an electoral campaign engaged the French so little. Within days of the ballot, only around 75% are interested in the presidential election. This is seven points less than in 2017. And only 50% give it an interest rating of 9 or 10 on a scale of 0 to 10.

There are several reasons for this: fatigue and anxiety, but above all the discontent of the French. For the voters, this weariness translates into a withdrawal. There is also a feeling of non-renewal within French politics and the political class that accompanies it. Of the twelve candidates, seven of them were already candidates in 2017, or even in 2012.

Julien, sitting next to Antoine, was still unsure whether to go and vote this morning. The student chuckles with his friends. He confides in them with amusement that he may have put the wrong ballot paper in the box this morning. When Camille points out the importance of the event, he just shrugs. “It’s not as if my vote will really change anything. It’s all been decided already!” he says blankly, his sentence drowning out the din of the TF1 advert, the French TV channel on which the three friends intend to watch the election night. He is not the only one to think so, as many French people are defeatist about the lack of suspense in this campaign.

The Great Winner: Abstention

However, the lack of suspense also means that the campaign is struggling to get off the ground. And the big winner of this lack of interest is abstention. In France, this trend is becoming commonplace.

From the legislative elections of 2017 to the regional and departmental elections of 2021, non-participation has reached record levels. And this was again the case on 10 April 2022. On the bus from Poitiers, Simon is not happy about this campaign either. “As a young person, I was not included,” he says. And when I talk to him about the abstention on Sunday, he is far from being surprised. “It was predictable, between Macron and Le Pen, who wants to go and vote, who feels concerned?”. He is convinced that his “vote does not count”.

Arnaud next to him did not even bother to go to the polls. Although politically committed and a fervent supporter of the right, he did not bother to vote for Valérie Pécresse. “What’s the point? It’ll be Macron,” says the dark-haired man, frowning. A little later in the evening, we learned that among the 18-35 years, 4 out of 10 people would not go to the polls on Sunday April 10. Whether it’s a drop-out syndrome or a symptom of democratic deconsolidation, Arnaud is rather convinced that his participation does not carry enough weight in this democracy.

A France in three colours

Back in the small flat, it is 7.59pm and the first results start to appear on the computer screen. One minute ahead, the 60 seconds are enough to let the hearts of the three young people fall into their rib cages. Emmanuel Macron came out on top, with 27.8% of the vote, followed by Marine Le Pen with 23.1%. The students, who had prepared themselves mentally for the results of the first round, could not help but be disappointed.

Emmanuel Macron came out on top in 52 departments and dominated the first round of the presidential election. Marine Le Pen took the lead in 42 departments. But the devastating blow arrives shortly after for Antoine, the young activist of the France Insoumise. Indeed, the third man of the election, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, won in 12 departments.

“He could have been in the second round!” he choked, his voice cut off by emotion. Indeed, the candidate of the young people, having collected 36% of the votes of 18-24 year olds, was only one point behind Marine Le Pen. Like many left-leaning people that evening, some LFI party members reproached the rest of the left for not having tactically used their vote.

The next day Adrien Quatennens, second in command of the LFI party, reproached Fabien Roussel, leader of the Communist party, for having diverted votes from Jean Luc Mélenchon. Only 500,000 votes were missing for the left to overtake the extreme right, the result of an unsuccessful union among left activists. This was taken particularly bitterly by Antoine.

EELV, the Republicans, and the Socialist Party: A Fatal Blow

Camille is stunned and would have dropped her glass if Antoine hadn’t brought her back to reality with his cry of rage. Her party, Europe écologie les Verts (EELV), did not achieve the result she had hoped for, falling even below 5%. Now, in addition to being a real disappointment for the activist, she knows very well that the result could turn into a tragedy for her party. In France if the candidate does not get 5% of the vote, it means that the campaign will not be reimbursed. With debts of over 5 million euros, the worst is yet to come for the French Green Party. However, the biggest chill of the cold shower goes to the traditional political families, both also below 5%.

Thus, arriving respectively in fifth and tenth place, neither the candidate of the right, Valérie Pécresse, nor that of the left, Anne Hidalgo, reached the famous 5% of the votes cast. The Republican candidate obtained only 4.78% of the votes cast. The Socialist Party candidate only got 1.75%. This first round, although predictable, marks a historic rout. The traditional right and left are now threatened with extinction. They, who gathered more than 50% of the votes 10 years ago, only mobilised 6.6% this Sunday.

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