AS France opens its polling booths for the first round of the presidential election process today (when the 12 candidates will be whittled down to the two most popular for a run-off in a fortnight) the question on the corporate media commentariat’s lips is not so much ‘who will win?’ but ‘who will vote?’ Abstention and so called ‘white voting’ (putting a blank slip, or an empty envelope, into the ballot box) has been a perennial of almost all French elections, but this time around the problem seems particularly acute. Underlying the discussion is always the real question: how legitimate is an election if the majority choose ‘none of the above’?
What has changed today, though, is that rather than indifference among the citizens, a growing number of the French are consciously turning their backs on the process and treating it with contempt. The foundation stone of French democracy – that everyone votes, and then a large number have to accept whatever decisions the President makes – is crumbling.
Macron, the ‘disrupter’ who came to power on an ‘outsider’ ticket, promising to ‘revolutionise’ the system (making him more of a Trump-like figure than he or his supporters might like to admit), has largely been responsible for this. Not only has he openly shown contempt for a large swathe of the French people by calling the mass protest movement, the Yellow Vests, a violent anti-Semitic horde before sending in police armed with military-grade weapons to maim and blind them; or saying he was keen to make the lives of those who declined the Covid vaccine ‘shitty’. He has, in recent weeks, shown a contempt for the democratic process itself. The self-styled ‘Jupiterian’ president has refused to come down from Mount Olympus into the ring of ordinary mortals to debate his record or his plans, preferring to wait until the plebs have selected their challenger before he will deign to confront anyone mano a mano.
This is of course his right. In a world where PR is king, and where all you need do to win is motivate your tribe to vote, he has understood the rules of the game and is playing it to perfection. The only trouble is that, by openly showing how the rules are stacked against people getting what they want, the game itself begins to look like a charade, and even those who are standing on a platform radically opposed to Macron already look like losers. Sadly, it doesn’t help that, with only one small exception, none of them has opposed the right of the government over the last two years to shut ‘non-essential’ businesses arbitrarily, impose curfews or bring in a vaccine pass law. Indeed, at least one mainstream candidate called for compulsory Covid vaccination for all and lockdowns for the unvaccinated. Even Macron didn’t (technically) go that far.
The irony is that in seeking to ‘relegitimise’ the Presidency as a De Gaullian ‘encounter between a man and his people’ (a form of unmediated, Tsar-like direct rule), Macron has exposed its undemocratic foundations, and ‘delegitimised’ it in the eyes of millions of citizens. That doesn’t mean those people have found a satisfactory alternative to the existing set-up. Far too many still see the state as the solution to their problems, not the problem itself. But they are on a pathway to refusing to participate in the rigged game any more, and that may offer more hope for the future than any Le Pen, Mélenchon or Zemmour could ever provide.