The duel between President Macron and extreme-right Marine Le Pen does not mobilize the French electorate as had happened in a similar situation 20 years ago when President Chirac was challenged by Le Pen’s father. Last night, the one and only debate between the two candidates during the second round of elections took place, a two-and-a-half-hour marathon that was universally viewed as too long, and in fact drew a slightly smaller audience than the last one in 2017, some 15.6 million viewers.
It was a better show back then as both candidates were fresh in the eyes of the public and there was interest to see them up close. This time, it wasn’t the case; Marine Le Pen did not collapse in confusion like the last time and remained serene, almost aloof, while Macron was more offensive, scoring points, highlighting her climate skepticism, her anti-Islamism (she would ban the hijab in public spaces), her anti-Europe stance (the only “sovereignty” that exists, she says, is France’s), her lack of government experience (she is vague about the role of government, what can and cannot be done, and simplistic in her approach to state debt management), and her dependence on Putin as a direct result of the $9 million loan her party took from a Russian bank close to Putin and still hasn’t finished paying back.
Will this duel on television change anything, move indecisive voters to go to the voting booths? Most observers think it is unlikely, by now most people have made up their minds. Macron supporters feel Macron won the duel, and Marine Le Pen supporters say the same about their candidate. Following the debate, a snap survey by Elabe for BFM TV found that 59% of polled viewers found Macron more convincing than Le Pen. In 2017, the same polling firm found that 63% of those surveyed found Macron more convincing.
So Macron is doing better than Le Pen as he has all along, with the latest polls of voting intentions showing that Macron is set to win with around 55.5% of the vote. Again, that is less than in 2017 when he beat Le Pen with 66.1% of the vote. His present margin, 5.5%, is not that comfortable if you consider that this is three times less than it was in 2017 marking a considerable drop in consensus for the President.
Under the circumstances, with such a small margin between Macron and Le pen, everyone agrees that the level of absenteeism could determine the outcome. Absenteeism can be very dangerous and prevent democracy from functioning correctly. In this case, it could lead to the victory of Marine Le Pen, putting France in the hands of a notorious Euro-skeptic and anti-climate, anti-Islam, anti-German and pro-Putin President.
This is exactly what Europe and the world do not need while the war rages in Ukraine. Not a happy prospect.
Why absenteeism in the French presidential election is so dangerous
The danger of absenteeism on Sunday in France should not be underestimated. There are numerous historic examples of absenteeism leading to deeply undesirable results, not reflecting the will of the majority – on the contrary, disregarding the majority will and leading to a breakdown in the functioning of democracy.
Suffice here to recall the most recent example: Brexit, and yet it happened in the oldest democracy in the world. It shows that no democratic system, however solid, can be shielded against unwanted and unfair results if absenteeism reigns supreme.
In the specific case of the Brexit referendum, an anti-European government, the Tories at the helm of Britain hijacked the result of the votes, claiming it “represented the will of the people of Britain” even though the vote was uncomfortably close: a small margin of 3.78% between the 51.89% for Leave and the 48.11% for Remain.
A closer look at the numbers, including those who decided not to vote, shows what happened. The total who voted in the referendum was 46,5 million: Leave was 17,4 million; Remain was 16,1 million. The problem is the number of people who did not vote. Absentees were 12,9 million: that’s a huge percentage of the total that was called to vote.
In short, some 22 percent of the people didn’t vote. Even though polls both before and after Brexit continuously revealed a majority of Britons were against Brexit, especially among the young. Also, the news increasingly put the spotlight on the unwelcome effects of Brexit, including food and fuel shortages and a brain drain, yet no new referendum was set up and the process of exit from the EU went ahead unimpeded.
Ironically, Brexit backfired for its proponents, and the EU is stronger than ever:
If the anti-European Marine Le Pen is elected in France, can we hope for the same final result? Probably not, or at least not under her mandate, and that would be quite a long and painful five years. France, unlike Britain, is central to the European project, both historically as one of the six founding members, and geopolitically, given its central location on the continent and its economic heft. A Euro-skeptic France is practically unthinkable.
The sword of Damocles hanging over the French presidential election outcome is absenteeism.
In the first round of the election, more than one in four voters stayed away from voting booths. And the low turnout could be even higher in this second and final round.
This could turn out to be far worse than Brexit as the same paralyzing dynamic is at play here, with polls giving the advantage to Macron – though far from decisive as it had been the first time he was elected, in 2017. The problem is that once polls consistently show one of the contenders ahead, people are comforted in their absenteeism. They figure the vote is a given and that they don’t need to participate, that it would change nothing.
Why is the likelihood of absenteeism so high? Besides the paralyzing effect of polls, there is another reason.
This time, the French electorate is presented with a blah- uninspiring choice: A center-right candidate against an extreme right one, the outgoing President Macron vying for a second term (and who has therefore accumulated a fair amount of dislike as all people in power do) against the same boring conservative Marine Le Pen with few (if any) new ideas.
In theory, people that Macron and Marine Le Pen must try to win over are the absentees (some 25%) plus those clearly turned off by this rightist choice, some 26,6% of voters in the first round, counting those who backed leftist Mélanchon (22%) and “greens” who voted Jadot (4,6%). Together these two groups make up about 52 % of the electorate – a lot of people and that’s what makes this second round both so fascinating and so dangerous and unpredictable.
Interestingly, the round does not play out just through campaign trips of the two candidates, Macron and Le Pen, or through yesterday’s television debate. It is also strikingly played on YouTube and Twitch: In 2022, more than one Frenchman out of four goes online, and some 422 videos about all the candidates in the presidential election were made. A system called the “minuteur” was created by a Le Monde to clock those views and the result, surprisingly puts in first place not the candidates in the second round, but leftist Mélanchon and extreme-right Zemmour:
As is clear from the above diagram, Macron and Le Pen are far from being the most viewed online. No doubt, because both second-round candidates are on the same end of the spectrum, electors are not presented with a clear right vs. left choice, and consequently, their level of interest is understandably lower.
Worse, the choice leaves a vast portion of the electorate out of the game. Zemmour followers can easily and naturally fall in step and vote Le Pen, not so for those on the left. Followers of Mélanchon, leader of La France Insoumise, are now told to focus on the legislative round to follow the presidential round as Mélanchon aspires to be prime minister; moreover, Mélanchon has never come out with a clear vote indication, leaving his followers to decide.
A theory has been going around that Melanchon’s voters will divide three ways: one third to Macron, one third to Le Pen, one third absentee.
If true, that leaves Jadot’s 4,6% as a prize for the contender who can convinces them he has become an ecologist, something Macron apparently has managed to do and Le Pen has not.
Yet, at this point, because of the likelihood of excessive absenteeism, all bets are off. One thing is certain, if Marine Le Pen wins, the “special friendship” between France and Germany will collapse, the EU and the European dream will be at risk. Le Pen has clearly said that she would push for installing in its place a “Europe of nations”: This is not a matter of reforming the EU to make it better as Macron proposes, it is a matter of cutting it back, a return to the goal of De Gaulle who had nothing but disdain for anything outside of the “grandeur” of France. And her promises of higher wages and better retirement plans are just as likely to backfire given her total lack of experience in government.
With her, France would go back to the 1950s. A return to the Trump era of making “great again” every sovereign state in the world coupled with a disturbing tendency to “like” Putin.
This bodes ill for world peace, already badly indented by the war in Ukraine.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com. — In the Featured Photo: watching the Macron-Le Pen debate on television April 20, 2022 (screenshot, France 24 video)