Just a month ago, the French public delivered a clear victory for the Socialist challenger François Hollande, in his Presidential runoff with Nicolas Sarkozy. Turnout was a huge 80%, with over 37 million casting their votes. Yet in the parliamentary elections on Sunday, vital for the new President as he seeks a majority to govern, this number fell to just 57%. It is fair to say that, after the Lord Mayor's show that was the Sarkozy-Hollande battle, nobody really cares about the parliamentary elections. This is bad for democracy, and depressingly predictable. Abstentions have been growing non-stop now for 15 years and more, and something needs to be done to make France, once again, politically exemplary.
The elections on Sunday saw the largest abstention rate France has ever seen. Almost 20 million of the French public didn't bother voting at all, and they had over 6,500 candidates for 577 seats to choose from! Hollande will get his majority in round 2 on 17 June, and that is what all the media will be talking about. The 43% abstention rate however is more interesting and more worrying, and tells us so much more about how France functions, or rather how it doesn't, for this is unprecedented. The French are a politically articulate nation, politically intelligent, and normally dutiful in going to the polling booth to fulfil their duty as citizens of their beloved republic. For the French, voting has traditionally been seen a privilege and a duty (and it always takes place on a Sunday, so is always a leisurely and family affair). So what is going wrong?
There are three main reasons. First, this electoral cycle has been interminable, and is ending in June 2012 in a kind of exhaustion mixed with indifference. In fact, this electoral cycle has been going since May 2011 when Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a Socialist certainty for President, was arrested in a New York hotel on suspected rape charges. From then until Autumn 2011 the campaign for who on the left (in the absence of Dominique Strauss-Kahn) would be the candidate to stand against Sarkozy dominated the media. Lots of TV debates and two voting rounds. Then, from Autumn until December the almost accidental PS candidate, François Hollande, started his campaign. From January 2012 the official campaign began, dominating the media totally. There then was - from March 20 - the official official campaign which is rather dull because of the myriad rules that come into play about electoral coverage and air time, and so on. Then the election itself reached sudden and unexpected fever pitch with round one of the elections (the political earthquake of the far right, Marine Le Pen gaining six and a half million votes being the most feverish moment). There was then two weeks of further campaigning between two run-off candidates, with Hollande emerging as the winner on 6 May. Only then did the legislative election campaign (also two rounds) begin.
The second reason for the huge abstention rate on 10 June is because of disillusion and disaffection. For the last twenty years, with few exceptions, many French people have been voting for crazy candidates, or candidates who, if they had half a chance would smash up the whole system (with varying degrees of smashing). Often, this anti-system sentiment is reflected in not voting for anyone, so lacking in confidence in the system are so many of Marianne's citizens that Marianne will help them out of their difficulties. Even the FN vote dwindled - not to near nothing this time like it did in 2007, but the 17% of 80% for Marine Le Pen in May fell to less than 13% of 60% for the FN in June. Disaffection in a system is dangerous, in spite of the fact that it means even those who would overthrow the system (or severely alter it) can't be bothered to even try that. Whatever President Normal's majority after 17 June, he really had better sort both problems out, a rising, volatile National Front, and a relentless and growing political apathy. These two constitute democracy's worst extremes.
The third reason, after exhaustion and disaffection, is that France's democracy is seriously dysfunctional. We have to ask, what the parliamentary elections are for, a very bizarre question in a democracy. France is a strange mixture of a presidential and parliamentary system, but all the emphasis is on the presidential side. It is the only really popular election (along with, funnily enough, the local council elections) among France's many: local, presidential, parliamentary, senatorial, cantonal, regional, European... All the focus is on the President, and the political cycle culminates in a fest of personality politics, beauty contests, virility contests, etc. And yet that isn't the true culmination, because after the election of the President, the parliamentary elections follow, but as a truly damp squib. Everyone has gone to sleep by then. It is like putting a supporting act on after the top billing. What is even worse, the legislative elections have no real manifestos, no programmes, as they are simply a means of supplying the President (whose programme is a weird mixture of wild promises and vacuousness) with a governing majority in order to govern; but to do what - the presidential elections themselves are more about personality than about policy proposals? For the parliamentary elections, there are virtually no rallies, no debates, no meetings, no media coverage, no nothing. And yet, although constituency based, they aren't about the constituencies either. When Sarkozy's advisers, Henri Guaino, and Claude Guéant, or the PS' 2007 presidential candidate, Ségolène Royal, and dozens of others, especially the firebrand would-be revolutionary Jean-Luc Mélenchon who took the challenge to 'overthrow' Marine Le Pen in her chosen constituency - when all these people chose a constituency in order to develop their political careers, someone had to tell them where 'their' constituency was.
As they currently stand, the two-round French parliamentary elections are a massive punch-up within and between parties to position themselves for the fights to come. Nearly half of the electorate could not care less. This is bad for democracy and for a healthy political culture. President Normal should do something to address the problem, before Marine Le Pen does.
John Gaffney is Professor of Politics at Aston University, and Co-director of the Aston Centre for Europe. His two most recent publications are Political Leadership in France (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, paperback 2012) and Stardom in Postwar France (with Diana Holmes, Oxford: Berghahn, 2008, paperback 2011).