French voters have two choices in Sunday’s presidential election, far right candidate Marine Le Pen or independent centrist Emmanuel Macron, but with days to go until the ballot a third option is gaining momentum – sitting out the election entirely.
A campaign is urging voters to stay at home, leave their ballot envelope empty or submit a blank piece of paper instead of a ballot slip.
Hashtags such as #SansMoiLe7Mai (without me on May 7), #NiPatrieNiPatron (neither country, nor boss) and #NiMarineNiMacron (neither Marine, nor Macron) have emerged on social media platforms.
Official government figures show more people decided to abstain from voting in the April 23 first round of the French presidential election than voted for any single candidate – including Macron and National Front’s Le Pen.
And while many leading politicians from left and right have thrown their support behind Macron ahead of Sunday’s vote, far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon has refused to do the same. That raises the question: what effect will a high abstention level have on the result?
A survey of Melenchon’s far-left La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) coalition released this week found that 36% of its supporters want to leave their ballots blank, while 29% don’t want to vote at all. The survey didn’t include the option of voting for Le Pen.
The latest polls suggest Macron is comfortably leading Le Pen by about 60% to 40% – but many of those who plan to vote for Macron say they are doing it to stop her, rather than to support him.
‘Neither will do anything for me’
“I backed Melenchon in the first round, but the two candidates who are left aren’t mine,” said Paris taxi driver Abdel, who declined to give CNN his second name.
“Macron wants to sell France off, and Le Pen wants to get rid of the immigrants – and I’m an immigrant.”
In Bordeaux, a market stall holder said Macron is the same as the current French President Francois Hollande.
“I’m voting, but I’m voting ‘blanc,’” Patrice Mounnier said.
“He’s all about the banks and finance, not for the middle class.
“Le Pen says nice things for the little guys, but I don’t want to leave Europe or the euro,” he said, adding that he also objected to Le Pen’s views on Muslims.
Bordeaux coffee stall owner Anne-Marie (who also declined to give her second name) said she too would vote “blanc” leaving her ballot envelope empty in the final round.
“I voted for Melenchon,” she said about the first round. “Macron, Le Pen, they’re the same thing, and neither will do anything for me.”
‘The current system… does not benefit the working class’
At a trade union rally in Paris, an activist for the “Voice of the Proletariat” group said his “comrades” were divided over what to do on Sunday.
“Some of them will hold their nose and vote for Macron,” he said, “but it’s 50/50 – the other half won’t vote at all, they will find it too difficult to vote for him, because of his links to bankers.”
Voting legitimizes an anti-democratic system, according to Jeremy, a campaigner for the Boycott 2017 group, who declined to give his second name.
“The current system is not democratic – it’s a bourgeois dictatorship that does not benefit the working class.”
However Jeremy said he was concerned that Le Pen could benefit if voters abstain.
“I don’t think she will [win]. If she does, though, the struggle will continue.”
Will it change the outcome?
In 2002, when Le Pen’s father, National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, made it through to the second round against Jacques Chirac, voters from across the political spectrum united around the opposing Republican candidate, handing him a landslide win.
In that contest, some 20% of voters abstained.
Matthew Goodwin, visiting senior fellow at London-based think tank Chatham House, said high abstention levels could hit Macron’s hopes of a comprehensive victory over Le Pen.
“Macron will be hoping for a 2002-style bump in turnout against Le Pen, but it is clear that this might not materialize to the same extent,” he said.
“In 2002, lots of trade unions mobilized against Le Pen, only two have this time, and… left-wing voters appear to be saying they will abstain in larger numbers,” he added.
“The numbers suggest that Le Pen will still struggle to win, but it is clear that over the long term, she is doing much better than her father.”
James Masters contributed to this story from London.