While the first round of the 2022 France presidential election will be held on April 10th, a concern is surfacing about the significant decline in the participation of French people in political life, an essential element in strengthening French democracy. Indeed, the Guardian’s article on “France’s regional polls: democracy a big loser” discusses the record-low turnout in the regional elections for the democratic party with consideration of the Yellow Vest movement and COVID-19 crisis as well as the concerning dramatic level of abstention. It also points out the rise of the right-wing in recent decades combined with the lack of engagement in political life. However, I will argue that the French skepticism and frustration toward democracy and its institutions lead to a decline in participation and a rise in right-wing support as signs of electoral protest.
Historically, France has been known for its beliefs and principles that strongly defend human rights and democracy. However, democracy, which is etymologically defined as “people’s power,” falls short of the goal of an autonomous, equitable society. According to Dahl, free and fair elections combined with civil liberties are necessary conditions for democracy. However, they are not sufficient for full and consolidated democracy. Indeed, The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index 2020 shows that it needs to be accompanied by a transparent and functioning government, greater political participation, and a supportive democratic political culture. Therefore, even in long-established democracies like France, democratic backsliding can occur if these principles are not preserved and fostered.
In 2020, almost 70% of a large majority of countries recorded a democratic decline. Particularly, France lost its “full democracy” status to join the ranks of “flawed democracies”. One of the reasons for this democratic erosion is the dissatisfaction of the French with how the political system and its institutions function. Indeed, after the decline of the French Communist Party, the working classes were left with no representation and no voice. This loss in citizens’ preferences leads to a social contract disruption as argues Hochschild in “Strangers in Their Own Land”. Sometimes this social contract disruption will be expressed through the emergence of “expressive” delinquency. Indeed, rather than using political language and representation, citizens are expressing their outrage through confrontation. For example, the Atlantic’s article on the Yellow Vest movement demonstrates frustration and anger felt by “citizens who felt ignored by a leader they saw as arrogant and out of touch”. On top of the Yellow Vest movement, the Covid-19 pandemic and the formation of the movements that followed, the anti-vaxxers and then the anti-health pass movement have contributed to a more hateful climate, with much frustration among the population. Furthermore, a similarity can be observed between the emotional aspect at the origin of the yellow vest movement and Gilens and Page’s conflict theory which involves an emotional response as anger to the ‘left behind’ feeling and the status threat that felt the French rural population. Thus, this physical confrontation and the feeling of being ignored promote social division and threaten democracy and its institutions by questioning the actual representation of citizens.
Particularly, this social division will worsen with the growth of economic inequality. The Yellow Vest movement “began as a protest of a fuel-tax hike and have now evolved into a wave of economic anxiety and anti-establishment sentiment”. Indeed, as indicated in the New York Times’ article, France is divided by deep inequalities: between urban and rural areas, full-time employees and temporary workers, prestigious university graduates and the plebeian masses, retirees, who believe they have a divine right to pensions, and younger people who are not eligible for social assistance. Using the difference between urban and rural populations, Katherine Cramer explains in “The Politics of Resentment” that it influences the division because different consciousness belongs to different geographical places which will result in different social identities that will confront each other. Moreover, by using the relative power theory of political engagement, Solt argues that the economic inequality and general anxiety of the public are impacting democracies’ ability to maintain citizens’ active participation in the political process. It correlates with the left behind thesis developed by Rivera and Hajnal that underlines the feelings of despair and frustration that demotivate the “economically left behind” citizens to participate in political life. The indicator of electoral protest developed by Fondapol and the OpinionWay Institute in partnership with Le Figaro indicates that 49% of French people might abstain or leave the ballot blank as a sign of protest behavior rather than disappointed withdrawal. Thus, the rising economic inequality and frustration due to the lack of responsiveness of the government to the preferences of the citizens explain the rise of rejection of institutions within the society. As a result, the electoral protest is rising and threatening French democracy.
Indeed, the electoral protest indicator considers the possibility of various electoral protest behaviors, such as voting absentee, casting a blank ballot, or voting for populist parties or candidates. All these behaviors are threatening the democratic principles in France. As explained in previous paragraphs, the first two protesting behaviors come from the willingness to reject the democratic institutions and the democratic model because the government doesn’t respond to the citizens’ preferences. However, the vote for populist parties or candidates as a consequence of protest behavior can be even more concerning for French democracy. Marine Le Pen, the extreme right-wing candidate, received 7.7 million votes in the first round of the French presidential elections in April 2017 to advance to the second round. Additionally, according to Statista, the share of votes cast for extreme right-wing parties in the first round of presidential elections in France between 2007 and 2021 has more than doubled from 10.44% to 26.92% respectively. As we can see, the popularity of the far-right wing has continued to grow over the last years especially among the working classes since they are at the origin of the manifestations and electoral protest.
On a final note, democracy is difficult to maintain because of the different conditions and the constant threats to it. On the one hand, the lack of representation can lead to a sense of frustration with the supposedly democratic government that fails to meet the needs of its citizens and of irrelevance that can lead to a decrease in participation in political life. On the other hand, it can lead to the expression of hatred through violent physical manifestations. In both cases, this constitutes a threat to democratic principles. This feeling of despair and frustration may be more strongly felt and may be a consequence of a deep economic and social inequality between urban and rural populations. Thus, the decline in participation appears to come with skepticism and frustration due to the ineffectiveness of government and its institutions. Distressed citizens will either want to turn to another political system such as the right-wing, or decide to no longer participate in the political life of their country. Furthermore, the decreased voter turnout is one of the symptoms of democratic erosion. It would be then interesting to see how many other symptoms can be observed as a result of the last sanitary and economic crises that hit France. Economist Intelligence Unit. “Democracy Index 2020 In Sickness and in Health?” Economist Intelligence Unit, 2021, https://pages.eiu.com/rs/753-RIQ-438/images/democracy-index-2020.pdf . Accessed on 04/01/2022.  Reynié, Dominique. “2022 The Populist Risk in France – Wave 5.” Fondapol, 23 Nov. 2021, https://www.fondapol.org/en/study/2022-the-populist-risk-in-france-wave-5/ . Accessed on 04/01/2022  Donadio, Rachel. “France’s Yellow Vests Are Rebels without a Cause.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 18 Mar. 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2019/03/france-yellow-vest-protesters-want/585160/. Accessed on 04/01/2022  Reynié, Dominique. “2022 The Populist Risk in France – Wave 5.” Fondapol, 23 Nov. 2021, https://www.fondapol.org/en/study/2022-the-populist-risk-in-france-wave-5/ . Accessed on 04/01/2022  BBC News. “Marine Le Pen: Taking France’s National Front out of the Shadows.” BBC News, BBC, 7 May 2017, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-12202197 . Accessed on 04/01/2022  France Info. “Share of Votes Cast for Extreme Right-wing Parties in The First Round of Legislative, Regional, European and Presidential Elections in France between 2007 and 2021.” Statista, Statista Inc., 21 Jun 2021, https://www.statista.com/statistics/1085546/score-far-right-main-elections-france/ . Accessed on 04/01/2022