French Voter Abstentions Are Key to Le Pen's Gains in Ballot

  • Some Melenchon, Fillon voters don’t want to vote for Macron
  • Abstensions may strengthen Le Pen, who has committed voters

Jean Gardon and Agathe Michallet are the sort of voters far-right candidate Marine Le Pen is banking on.

Born half a century apart, living in different cities and from opposing sides of the political spectrum, they have one thing in common: They are so unhappy with the choice in France’s presidential election, they may not vote.

Gardon, a 70-year-old retired physical therapist in the bourgeois city of Nice, voted for the center-right’s Francois Fillon in the first round on April 23, while Michallet, a 22-year-old art student in the gritty port of Marseille, opted for the far-left’s Jean-Luc Melenchon.

Faced now with a choice in the May 7 runoff between centrist Emmanuel Macron, who was an economy minister in President Francois Hollande’s government, and the far-right National Front’s Marine Le Pen, they feel no urge to go vote.

“I feel I’m in a total dilemma,” said Michallet. “One helped fuel the rise of the National Front with his anti-social and anti-labor policies, the other is from a fascist, racist, xenophobe party. That doesn’t seem like a choice we should be facing.”

The decision of voters like Michallet to stay home may have far-reaching consequences in what has been the most turbulent election in recent French history. Pollsters see high abstention levels aiding Le Pen since her supporters are more committed and likely to come out to vote. The actions of Melenchon and Fillon voters provide Le Pen a chance -- albeit slim -- for victory. Failing that, she could garner enough votes to give the National Front greater legitimacy and an incontrovertible place in France’s political landscape.

Best Chance

“Le Pen’s best chance still lies in a substantial number of Melenchon voters staying home, coupled with the potential support of some of Francois Fillon’s voters,” said Antonio Barroso, an analyst at Teneo Intelligence in London.

The closely watched election has dramatic repercussions for France’s place in Europe. Le Pen’s plans to take France out of the European Union, reimpose borders, and tax non-French workers has driven most of the country’s establishment, including President Francois Hollande and his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy to swing behind Macron.

In the first and only one-on-one debate between the two candidates on Wednesday night, Le Pen reached out to supporters of both Melenchon and Fillon, labeling Macron a “neo-liberal” who will push France toward “savage capitalism,” while at the same time branding him a Socialist.

Macron Leads

Polls before the debate showed Macron’s lead stabilizing at about 20 percentage points, though it had been close to 30 points before the first round. An Elabe poll after the debate showed that 64 percent of those surveyed found Macron more convincing in the face-off than Le Pen.

Still, conversations with Fillon voters in Nice and Melenchon voters in Marseille show an uphill battle for the independent candidate to convince many voters of the defeated candidates to back him. That may leave him far short of the record 82 percent with which Jacques Chirac saw off the National Front’s founder Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2002.

According to pollster OpinionWay, 43 percent of Fillon’s first-round voters would cast their ballots for Macron, 29 percent would support Le Pen and 28 percent would abstain. Of those who voted Melenchon, 45 percent will abstain, 40 percent will vote Macron, and 15 percent Le Pen.

Fillon, who took the most votes in Nice and in adjacent towns, home to many wealthy retirees, has endorsed Macron. Melenchon, who won in Marseille -- one of France’s most multi-cultural cities -- has said he will not vote for Le Pen while refusing to endorse Macron. In an April 28 video, the Communist-backed candidate fustigated Macron as an agent of “extreme finance.”

Voters who cast their ballots for Fillon or Melenchon in the first round are less certain of the choice they’ll make.

Fillon-backer Gardon says he thinks Le Pen is a risk because of her plans to leave the EU. But he doesn’t think he can bring himself to vote for Macron.

“Macron doesn’t inspire me,” he said as he picked up a package at a variety shop a block away from Nice’s waterfront. “He’s the son of Hollande, the choice of the big banks and big companies.”

Blank Vote

At Casa Consolat, a co-op restaurant and performance center in Marseille with a graffiti decorated exterior, Sebastien Guerlais, a Melenchon-supporting 41-year-old nurse who works with addicts, said he’ll travel for an hour to his voting center to cast a blank vote. In the final tally to determine the winner, a blank vote -- used in France as a protest tool -- is not counted. It is not considered an abstention.  

“I do care, I just can’t vote for either one,’’ Guerlais said. “Of course she’s a racist and xenophobe, but the neo-liberal policies that he’d put in place are just as frightening.’’

The need to lure supporters of Fillon and Melenchon, who between them took almost 40 percent of the ballots in the first round, isn’t lost on Le Pen. At a April 28 rally in Nice, she never mentioned her plans to take France out of the euro, an unpopular plank with Fillon voters, and instead concentrated on things that do matter to them, such as patriotism and limiting immigration.

She’s sought to appeal to Melenchon voters by attacking Macron as the candidate of the establishment. An unofficial group backing Le Pen has posted on Facebook and Twitter a list of positions she and Melenchon have in common, such as leaving NATO, opposing trade pacts, and reducing the retirement age.

‘Guilt Trip’

Michallet rejects suggestions that Le Pen and Melenchon share some positions. “Their visions of society have nothing in common,” she said. “Le Pen’s economy is based on national identity and rejecting others.” Michallet is also bothered by the “guilt trip” she feels the pro-Macron media has put on those planning to abstain.

But some other Melenchon voters have no qualms about backing Le Pen. Constantino Raymond runs a kiosk a stone’s throw from Casa Consolat. “I voted Melenchon because I liked his style, his energy, his dynamism,” the 78-year-old said. “I thought he’d be best for workers. That’s why I’m voting Le Pen. She defends the French. They have many of the same views, on Europe, on the economy. Macron, he’s just for the bankers.’’

In Nice, the two local leaders of Fillon’s Republicans party, have split over what to do in the second round. Christian Estrosi, president of the region around the city, called immediately to vote for Macron. Local lawmaker Eric Ciotti, who was Estrosi’s deputy when the latter was the mayor of Nice, hasn’t taken a stand.

At the variety store, Gardon argued with his friend Hubert Michel, an 88-year-old retired jeweller, who also voted Fillon in the first round. “I will vote Marine,” Michel said. “Macron is too close to big business.”

When Gardon said it was too big a risk to leave the EU, Michel responded: “Sadly, perfect doesn’t exist. I don’t like her views on Europe, but it’s better than someone who represents big banks and big finance.”

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