The sun was shining, finally after endless days of rain, in practically all of France this Sunday of the presidential elections in which almost 49 million French people are called to vote. But not even the splendid blue sky could prevent the shadow of abstention from looming, threatening, over a democratic process that has been marked by high social disinterest between the tailwinds of the coronavirus pandemic and the war in Ukraine and an electoral campaign almost invisible. Added to this is the general feeling that everything is decided in advance, that the 2017 finalists, outgoing President Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen, will repeat the play and meet again in 15 days in the round definitive.
Like every Sunday, Simon waved the communist paper L’Humanite from one corner of the Saint-Denis square market, to the other end of the basilica where all the kings of France are buried until 1789, in this town on the impoverished outskirts of Paris. From midnight on Friday to Saturday, campaigning is prohibited, but nothing prevented him from showing the cover with the photo of the Communist Party candidate, Fabien Roussel, and starting a conversation with whoever wanted to listen. He acknowledges that this election day is rare, with little electoral atmosphere after an also atypically soulless campaign. “It seems like any other Sunday,” he said. Of course, the market and the church were more crowded this Sunday than the polling stations in this city of the banlieue Parisian, which traditionally registers one of the highest abstention rates in all of France. “The challenge is no longer just that people vote communist, but that they even go to vote today,” admitted this communist militant.
At noon, the voting rate in France was 25.48%, according to the Ministry of the Interior. Three points less than those of 2017 at the same time (28.54%) and also below the previous calls for the presidential polls of 2012 and 2007. Only in the year that everyone now looks with apprehension, 2002, when the far right qualified for the second round for the first time, the rate was even lower, 21.39%.
Queuing for the bus to return to the neighboring town of Stains, where she lives and works as a municipal official, Sandrine, a French woman of Moroccan origin in her fifties, acknowledged that she still did not know who she would vote for. Normally, she would have voted first thing in the morning. This time, she preferred to give herself a little more time. “This is the first time I really doubt. I don’t know who to vote for, I have the feeling that all the candidates could be put in the same bag, ”she sighed.
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Sebastien, a 40-year-old resident of Saint-Denis, had just cast his vote, but he was not satisfied either. “There is no candidate that excites me,” he acknowledged. If he had decided to go to his polling station, it was to avoid what analysts and polls have been warning for a long time: that the extreme right not only reaches the second round, as planned, but even wins or loses it by a minimum margin of votes. “It is terrible to have to make a strategic vote, not out of adherence or conviction,” lamented this “left-wing” voter, as he defines himself.
If abstention is in the minds —and fears— of many analysts and political leaders, it is because, according to the polls, it could reach a new record, up to 30%, which has never been seen in a presidential election, although in recent days this figure could have been reduced. In any case, it will be close to or could exceed the 28.4% that it reached on a cursed date that these days also brings back many (bad) memories: on April 21, 2002, now almost 20 years ago day by day, the extreme right managed go to the second round at the hands of Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the National Front and father of today’s candidate Marine Le Pen at the head of the same party renamed National Regroupment (RN) but with a base ideology —nationalist, anti -immigrant, protectionist—nuanced but still similar. Also then, like today, many French people thought that the first round had already been decided (the favorite, the socialist Lionel Jospin, and the conservative Jacques Chirac would pass) and that nothing would happen if they did not vote, that they would do so in the second round.
The precedent of 2002
The fact that the polls have been saying for weeks that the presidential duel will be resolved between Macron and Le Pen could discourage many voters from going to the polls this Sunday. With the danger that the advance of the RN now is not a circumstantial accident, but a stable progression —Le Pen already managed to get to the second round in 2017 and his party has maintained a stable vote base for years— and that, for the first time Once again, some polls and analyzes indicate that it would not be impossible to have a Le Pen as president, with the national and international consequences that this would have.
In an attempt to set an example, candidates and politicians soon showed up at their polling stations. The socialist and mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, was this Sunday the first of the 12 presidential candidates who cast her vote, in the 15th district of the capital, shortly before 9 in the morning. Hidalgo is not expected to lead at any time more than a vote in which the most disastrous and potentially devastating results in the history of the French Socialist Party (PS) are predicted, less than 3% of the vote and so far behind. not only from the communist Roussel, who also voted early, but even from the ruralist and almost anecdotal candidate Jean Lasalle.
The only candidate from the left with any chance is the populist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, whom the polls place in third place in voting intentions, but with little chance of qualifying for the second round. All attempts to present a single candidacy of the left have failed miserably since the great debacle of the left in 2017. “It is deplorable”, Sebastien in Saint Denis was outraged. “Then they will come to cry because the extreme right is advancing.”