Historically low voter turnout in the French elections – does French youth not care about their future?



Picture of Rayan Vugdalic
Rayan Vugdalic

Programme Officer at Friends of Europe

Over 28% of voters stayed away from the ballot boxes during the second round of the French presidential elections this year. Only in 1969 had a higher abstention rate been witnessed, making this year’s face-off between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen near historic.

Disaggregated data brings a trend to light: the younger the voters, the more likely they were to abstain. According to Ipsos, 41% of eligible voters aged 18-24 did not vote, compared to 38% of those aged 25-34, with similar levels among those aged 35-49 at 35%. Voter abstention among eligible voters aged 60-69, however, dipped significantly to 20%. Young people, evidently, do not vote as much as older people do.

Is the French youth less invested in the future of their country than their elders? Not necessarily.

A high abstention rate does not equate to a high level of political disengagement or apathy – in fact, the historically low voter turnout rate of the 1969 presidential election followed the greatest social uprising in modern French history. Did an extremely politicised and active generation suddenly stop caring about politics a year later? Of course not. A similar conclusion follows the railway workers’ protest in spring 2018, the high school strikes in December 2018 and the historic scale of the gilets jaunes (yellow vest) movement that began in November 2018 and culminated in over a million people taking to the streets on 5 December 2019: the French population, including those barely old enough to vote, cares.

A distinction exists between voters’ disinterest in the French political spectacle, of which the presidential election has been a core pillar since Charles De Gaulle restructured the role of the President of the French Republic, and a disinterest in politics in a more literal sense: that is, the continuous struggle and re-negotiation of power and resource distribution. The youth has not disengaged from politics; rather, young people see no future in the current system and its structures that govern politics. The French youth is not indifferent, but hopeless, helpless and anxious.

We should instead be asking how to effectively decrease our energy consumption – not how to fuel it

It is terrifying to live in a world that is doomed before you had a chance to play your part. Though efforts are being made by individuals to tweak their lifestyle and reduce the negative impact of their activities on the environment, there is no sign of adequate preparation. The greatest challenge humankind has ever faced is impending, yet existing political institutions do not, and in fact, cannot address climate change. The structures and institutions that govern social life, political rapports and economic exchanges have been designed under assumptions of never-ending growth and resource exploitation that were suited for a world that no longer exists – and as we now realise – never existed in the first place.

As the fragility of our ecosystems and the destructive means of our production become increasingly undeniable, another realisation hits. Not even the complete destruction of our environment will prevent current political and economic institutions from seeking survival. Institutions are not living entities, but they too act in a way that ensures their long-term existence. Strengthened by the greed and short-term vision of most of the political elite, it is this institutional momentum that risks outweighing even the more determined political will of elected officials, citizens and activists.

It would be an exaggeration to claim that any candidate is as good as the next or that the rigidity of political institutions is such that individuals have no agency within the institution they represent. Yet, when the historical and ideological frameworks within which elected officials operate are agnostic to the urgent needs of our planet, the list of presidential candidates suddenly looks a lot more ideologically homogenous. Though candidates appear to propose vastly different campaign platforms, few of them seem to grasp reality.

For example, French presidential candidates of all political affiliations continuously debate reliance on different types of energy sources, from nuclear, gas and coal, to wind and solar. Considering our scientific understanding of the processes that drive climate change, we should instead be asking how to effectively decrease our energy consumption – not how to fuel it. Unluckily, that would go against the very nature of our politico-economic system. A change of paradigm is needed, but it might not happen through voting. In fact, it might not happen at all, considering that we just faced a tiny, watered-down version of the climate challenge ahead, and we failed.

Participating in the electoral process of such a system not only feels like talking to a wall, it legitimises the structures that have robbed youth of their future

On 11 March 2020, the COVID-19 virus outbreak was declared a pandemic. French hospitals were not prepared – in fact, they were already barely surviving. Throughout Macron’s first term, French health services personnel begged for adequate funding and even took to the streets a few times to implore the government to grant them the means to do their job. Finally, as the pandemic grew in intensity, a window of opportunity seemed to open: an emergency plan was launched.

Unfortunately, the situation was already far too dire. Even though the budget of public hospitals has grown by 4.7% since 2020, we are now only 1% above the Sécurité sociale’s recommended pre-pandemic budget. The government barely managed to adequately fund hospitals even prior to the greatest public health crisis in generations. In other words, business continued as usual, only slightly tweaked. Cosmetic changes were made but at no point were the underlying foundations of the public health infrastructures questioned. Despite the horrifying number of deaths that kept rising day after day, the institutional momentum was stronger than any political will for reform.

This was a wake-up call for young people. We had failed to reform the health sector. More worryingly, we had failed to address a challenge that was clearly defined and comparable, at least in nature, to previous public health emergencies. It is, therefore, naive to think that the political elite can address the profound impacts of climate change – a challenge of a kind and magnitude we have never seen before.

Our political institutions are not equipped to manage the transition from the Holocene to the Anthropocene epoch; that is simply not what they were designed to do. The vast majority of French presidential candidates emerge from the ecosystem of political institutions that are failing to address the public health and climate crises. While they have fooled themselves into believing that cosmetic changes rooted in individual responsibility will be enough to prevent an ecological transformation of tremendous scale, our collective failure to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic proves otherwise. We are not prepared to reform and transform our institutions, not even when in the direst situations. As the consequences of climate change grow in intensity, many lives will be sacrificed by a system that is designed to sustain itself above all else. Participating in the electoral process of such a system not only feels like talking to a wall, it legitimises the structures that have robbed youth of their future.

Everything needs to change, but we cannot change everything at once. If we want citizens to re-invest themselves in the presidential electoral process, the first step is to open it to all. In France, only those who can gather the endorsement of 500 mayors are allowed to run. It is profoundly anti-democratic and exclusionary. In practice, no one can run – other than the same career politicians we see every five years, namely those who have an extensive address book and deep ties to the system. We should not be surprised young people feel alienated by a system that wants nothing to do with them. Why should they vote if they cannot run themselves?

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