Apathy is a terrible thing for democracy. And often, a helping hand for determined politicians.
US president Donald Trump’s recent electoral success hinged on lackluster turnout (paywall). He won 26% of votes from eligible American voters, less than Mitt Romney in 2012, John McCain in 2008, and George W. Bush in 2004. And yet, in key Democratic states, low turnout for his opponent worked in his favor.
Now, a similar dynamic looms for French voters, who head to the polls on April 23. Not only are far right leader Marine Le Pen’s supporters more committed than their opponents; the country’s undecided electorate is generally in a funk, thanks to scandals and party fractures plaguing the election.
In the last two months, over 30% of French voters have consistently said they’d abstain from the first round. (France’s election has two rounds; if a candidate fails to win more than 50% of the vote in the first contest, the two leading candidates face off in the second.) If that kind of apathy persists, voter turnout is headed for a record low.
The paralysis has no quick fix. Last night (April 4), in an effort to lift spirits, France’s presidential debate organizers decided to trot out all 11 eligible candidates for the second televised debate, rather than just the top five. The barrage of small candidates on stage left each with “no room to develop an idea,” and voters no time “to exercise their judgment,” one critic (link in French) argued. “Does this really help the undecided to form an opinion?” another asked (link in French).
All the better for France’s far-right wing. Voter turnout in France (80% in 2012) has long upstaged that of neighboring Germany (71%), the UK (66%) and Switzerland (47%). But as that number drops in France’s multi-round system, the odds of a far-right win creep up.
That’s because fervent support for Le Pen in the first round will likely carry over to votes for her in the second. But candidates with more tepid support, including centrist Emmanuel Macron, conservative François Fillon, and socialist Benoît Hamon, may suffer if non-Le Pen voters abstain (paywall) in the second round. Right now, Le Pen and Macron are neck-and-neck in French polls for the first round.
The predicament was similar in 2002, when candidate Jacques Chirac’s famous slogan (link in French) “Vote for the Crook, not the Fascist” helped him secure a landslide victory against Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in the second round. This time, voters may have had their fill of crooks and fascists both.