Looking at the striking degree of abstention in the latest French regional elections, this blog post analyzes possible causes for this phenomenon. Taking into account pandemic related circumstances and specific characteristics of regional elections, this contribution argues that ultimately the prominent position of presidential elections is the core issue causing a structural threat for the French democracy.
Getting elected as president of a French region with a vote share of 16.8% sounds either like a dream for an outsider candidate or like a truly undemocratic election. None of both is the case for Xavier Bertrand, Les Républicains (LR), who just won the regional elections in the region of Hauts-de-France for the second time. Why did he get elected? He received 52% of the votes cast, but only 33% of the voters showed up. Consequently, this means that this rather good result equals just 16.8% of the registered voters who did effectively vote for him and his list.
Is that problematic? Academic literature on abstention is quite clear in this regard as political apathy of two thirds of the electorate can never be interpreted as a sign of satisfaction. So, the question is more about the actual reasons for this massive abstention and if this is a problem specific to regional elections, still playing a marginal role in French politics. Looking at turnout data since 1986 (the first time ever regional elections have been held in France) it is evident that this type of elections has always faced a higher threat of abstention than any of the other nationally organized elections (local, national or presidential elections). While voters still do not seem to fully understand the competences of the regions, the members of the regional councils often understand their job as a second-order mandate while being members of other parliaments like the National Assembly or the European Parliament.
Even though these shortcomings of regional politics have to be taken into account, this blog entry argues that the massive abstention in this year’s regional elections displays structural problems that go beyond this type of election and that affect the French political system as a whole. The systemic shortcomings are multiple, but they all revolve around the fixation on the office of the President of the Republic as the most important position in the country. This fixation is less about a (necessary) centralization of power but more about a democratic deficit due to the lack of political counterweights. Therefore, this contribution argues that only if the French political system in itself is reformed, the regional elections can live up to their promise of being close to citizens.
The pandemic and organizational shortcomings: a bad starting point
Looking at the difference between the last regional elections in 2015 (55.7%) and the recent edition (34.7%) in terms of participation, it is evident that the current political and social context may have played a substantial role. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, some voters might have felt insecure to go to a polling station. On the contrary, others might have had the impression that after one year of the ongoing sanitary crisis they had other things to do on a summer Sunday than going to vote. Those feelings are confirmed by a survey conducted by Ipsos two days before the second round of the elections. 20% of those who intended to abstain from voting indicated that they “have other preoccupations” or they “were not able to focus on the elections” and 10% explicitly said that they do not want to go the polling station because of the virus.
In addition to the impact of these pandemic related circumstances, the organization of the elections was judged to be insufficient or in some cases even catastrophic. In the run-up to French elections, it is mandatory that every list provides information material to the interior ministry that then distributes this material together with the ballot paper to every registered voter. The material is not more than one sheet of paper, but it contains the election manifesto as well as photos of the candidates of the list. The private company that was in charge of the distribution of the information material failed to deliver the material in time and to every voter.Therefore, voters that did not receive the material might have been discouraged to go voting.
Difficulties of French regional elections to motivate voters
Secondly, local elections have been held in 2020 and despite almost the same pandemic context the turnout was still about ten points higher one year ago (42%). Therefore, there have to be additional elements that are specific to the regional elections explaining the even stronger abstention in this year’s elections.
In 2015, the number of regions has been reduced from 22 to 13 (on the French mainland), so that each region covers a larger territory today than six years ago. As some regions are characterized by a strong regional identity (e.g. Bretagne, Alsace, Occitanie), their inhabitants strongly rejected some of the reshuffling. According to Stéphane Rozès, the fact that the voters have to elect a regional council and its president for a region, they do not identify with, has a negative impact on turnout.
Additionally, it is well documented in the above mentioned Ipsos survey that regional elections are purely second-order elections compared to any other French election: First of all, 9% of those who abstained in this year’s elections did so because they did not know the competences of the regions. Secondly, 14% said regional politics does not have any influence on their daily life, and another 14% are primarily interested in topics that are regulated at the national or European level (it was possible to give more than one answer in the questionnaire). Those figures indicate that French regions have strong difficulties to present themselves as political entities close to the citizens.
Potentially even more important for the explanation of the abstention are those 23% that have said they did not like any list or candidate or that they did not know the candidates. This third element is linked to the media coverage of the elections that has been strongly criticized. The political debate mainly revolved around personal ambitions of some candidates of the center-right for the presidential election next year (including Xavier Bertrand) as well as around security politics, one of the few policy fields in which the regions do not have any competences.
The real problem: a political system based on centralism and majority voting
Especially the latter aspect is intriguing because it points to one of the structural deficits of the organization of French politics: the steady focus on the national level. Whereas in Germany or Spain there are truly regional political issues that differ from region to region, in France almost every political conflict is structured by national topics and questions, e.g. the security issue that is present in every election (from local to European elections) since 2015. This national focus of regional elections is reinforced because there is only one date for these elections. Thus, they are degraded to mere intermediate elections between the presidential ones.
Speaking of which, the presidential election is not simply a first-order election, it is the election that structures political life in France. The president is able to set the political agenda of the country. The political debate revolves mainly around possible presidential candidates and suitable alliances necessary to achieve that goal. The calendar of the legislative elections is even linked to the date of the presidential election. This fixation on the office of the President of the Republic can easily be explained by his or her far-reaching powers. In turn, these powers explain why the intermediate elections (local, regional and even to a certain extent the elections to the European Parliament) lack political importance: they are not able to fundamentally influence French politics. According to Jean-Yves Dormagen, who focuses on the reasons of the growing numbers of abstention in French elections, this problem has even aggravated since the coming into power of Macron in 2017: “Macron has completely personalized and presidentialized the system, so the other elections seem completely useless, everything seems to be decided in the Elysée Palace, and the only election that matters is the presidential one”. Accordingly, 14% of those who abstained in this year’s regional elections said they did so because they wanted to wait for the presidential election to express their opinion. In contrast to regional elections, turnout at presidential elections is still high (2017: 78%). So, where is the problem if political legitimacy and efficiency are combined in the person of the president?
The problem is that 27% of those who abstained in this year’s regional elections did so because they are dissatisfied with the political system and 17% of those who abstained think that the results are known in advance (see Ipsos survey cited above). That means, an important share of the electorate seems to think that their vote does not count. The problem is that they are right. It becomes evident when looking at how the president is elected and what being president is about: After two rounds of voting (only the two candidates who arrived first and second proceed to the second round), there is one person who shall represent the whole nation. In general, the selection of one person is in no case made to ensure the representation of political (and social) diversity. For example, Macron received not much more than 20% in the first round in 2017, i.e. more than three out of four voters deliberately did not choose to have him as their president. Even though two thirds elected him in the second round, we can doubt that the wishes and interests of the voters who preferred other candidates are being represented in today’s French politics. Normally, there are parliamentarian elections to fulfil the purpose of representation instead. Unfortunately, the French electoral system falls short of doing so. Once again, the two-round system based on a majority vote distorts the voting intentions so much that a party may receive 15% of the popular vote but ends up with less than five seats (from 577 seats).
France is in need of structural reforms to increase representation and responsiveness
So, somehow paradoxically, the lack of representation in parliamentarian and presidential elections is an important reason why people do not participate in regional elections. They use these intermediate elections (even though that is not their initial purpose) to display their dissatisfaction with the political system, as the regional elections are a symbol for the lack of political power. Therefore, the massive abstention in this year’s regional elections must be understood rather as a national political problem than as a lack of interest and knowledge in regional politics.
This has to be solved as fast as possible to avoid that the next time the dissatisfaction erupts will be the presidential election in 2022. Ironically, Emmanuel Macron who has substantially extended presidential powers during his quinquennat has to be the president that now initiates far-reaching reforms limiting the president’s powers and re-democratizing French politics. This task is not as difficult as it may seem because the possible reforms have already been discussed for a while. They especially include the end of the accumulation of electoral mandates (cumul des mandats), the election of the National Assembly by proportional representation, the introduction of citizens’ councils and the financial strengthening of political parties. If Macron fails to initiate any of those reforms, maybe it will be Xavier Bertrand who inherits this task after the elections in 2022.
 See e.g. Schäfer (2015): Der Verlust politischer Gleichheit. Warum die sinkende Wahlbeteiligung der Demokratie schadet. Campus: Frankfurt am Main.
 Rémi Lefebvre (2021): Hausse de l’abstention : la mélancolique démocratique de l‘assesseur. Libération. 30th June 2021.