Abstention and blank votes in the final round may tilt the balance in favour of right-wing leader Marine Le Pen.
The French presidential elections have never garnered so much global attention. The 2017 elections come at a time of global political unpredictability, when the world – and particularly Europe – faces the challenge of rising populism.
Scandals and intrigues, unexpected departures and the rise of new political contenders have all contributed to make the 2017 French presidential election different. The manner in which the French voted in the first round of the elections is a reflection of their deep disenchantment with the political establishment. The traditional left and right wing parties – the Socialist Party and the Republicans – were left completely upended with the victory of the relative outsider – centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron. While he is way ahead of opponent Marine Le Pen in the latest opinion polls (Macron at 61%, Le Pen at 39%), one cannot discount the possibility of massive abstention in the final round, which could tilt the balance in favour of Le Pen.
The vote of protest: a boon for Le Pen?
As tradition goes, the French vote with their hearts in the first round and with their heads in the second. By voting in favour of Macron and Le Pen, the French voter has redrawn political lines. However, the sands are now shifting again. There is a growing sentiment amongst the French electorate that neither the centrist, former investment banker Macron nor the xenophobic Le Pen represent their aspirations. Online campaigns like #SansMoile7Mai (May 7 Without Me) or slogans like Ni…Ni (Neither, Nor) have gained a huge number of supporters who wish to boycott the second round by either abstaining from casting their ballot, or turning in a blank vote to protest against the state of French politics.
French President François Hollande and Socialist Party candidate Benoit Hamon have both urged voters to support Macron in the second round. However, leader of the far-left Jean Luc Mélenchon – who won 19.5 % of the votes in the first round – remains undecided; a majority of his supporters, as a third of the supporters of Republican candidate François Fillon who also won the same share of votes, have decided to either abstain or cast a blank vote.
When Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, made it to the second round of the 2002 presidential election, the country’s other parties came together to collectively cast the ballot against the National Front. This required supporters to vote for candidate Jacques Chirac who was not their first choice.
In the second round slated for May 7, polls predict an abstention rate between 19% and 22% – the highest ever for a French presidential election. The expected high abstention rate coupled with the votes of her supporters could tilt the balance in favour of Le Pen and improve her chances of winning considerably.
The Muslim vote: a decisive factor?
The series of terrorist attacks amid the burgeoning refugee crisis have contributed to heighten the wave of Islamophobia that is currently sweeping across France and other European countries. This situation has inadvertently put the spotlight on France’s Muslim population. Needless to say, the situation has worked in Le Pen’s favour of Le Pen. While much has been said about Islam in France, scant attention has been paid to what the Muslim electorate of France is thinking.
Traditionally, the ‘Muslim vote’ in France has gone in favour of the left – socialist and communist parties. A majority of the Muslim population in the country belongs to the lower income category, which tends to lean towards political parties that provide substantial social programs. In recent years however, the ‘Muslim vote’ is also dictated by another factor – the rise of Islamophobia. In 2012, the swell in the ‘Muslim vote’ in favour of Hollande, the Socialist party candidate, could be seen as a response to the bellicose anti-Muslim rhetoric of his opponent Nicolas Sarkozy.
Priorities cited by most Muslims in France are no different from those of the majority population – access to employment, decent housing, access to education and decent living standards. They would tend to vote for the candidate who promises to deliver on all these fronts, with the exception of course, for an Islamophobe like Marine Le Pen.
Recent studies show that there is no homogenous ‘Muslim community’ nor is there any form of organised Muslim political engagement in France. Therefore, the basis of the “Muslim vote” in France is not religion; it is a vote cast in favour of socioeconomic progress and today, particularly as a response to check Islamophobia.
The Muslims, like the rest of the population, are disenchanted with the political establishment that has failed to provide them with any substantive opportunities for upward economic mobility. Macron’s victory does not guarantee any change in the fortunes of France’s Muslims; it could very well turn out to be just another case of business-as-usual. However, abstention is not a choice for France’s 5 million Muslims who constitute about 5% of the electorate. They would have to vote “massively” for Macron – as Dalil Boubackeur, the rector of Paris’ Grand Mosque, puts it – to counter “the threat of xenophobic ideas”.
The ‘Muslim vote’, therefore, could play a crucial role in Macron’s accession to the Élysée.
Whither Fifth Republic?
Although there is uncertainty about who will win this crucial election, it is certain that the days of the current Fifth Republic are numbered. This election has marked the beginning of the departure from politics dominated by the traditional parties, thus creating space for new actors and new alliances. The result of this election will also determine the future of the European Union, as France along with Germany, forms the cornerstone of this alliance.
As the world waits to see how the political fortunes of Le Pen and Macron unfurl, it is certain that a challenging quinquennat awaits the next president of France.
Shivali Lawale is the director of the Symbiosis School of International Studies.