A letter from Paris: How the European elections went in France
European elections have always been atypical in France. Most French citizens have never really understood proportional elections and single ballots. In addition, non-EU related debates and programmes always prevailed.
This year’s European elections were no exception: lack of interest by citizens and the media, lack of knowledge about the election, lack of a European programme for most of the candidates on the electoral lists.
What is different in 2019 is the context: For the past six months, the yellow vests’ movement has absorbed all the attention of the media, with protesters looking for work and riots occurring each Saturday. Some thought this movement would not even last a month; others argued it was a new beginning. Both were wrong.
A couple of months ago, the yellow vests wanted to present an independent, united list. Polls were expecting them to be able to win up to 12 % of the votes. Distortions of ideas, lack of cohesion and personal threats wrecked it, however. Eventually, three lists claimed to represent the movement. None of them succeeded in gathering more than one percent of the vote. Supporters of the yellow vest movement have probably preferred to support the far-right Rassemblement National (ex-FN) to defeat Macron.
Indeed, European elections in France were seen as a referendum in favour or against Macron. Being the first election since Macron’s election victory in 2017, this was the first real electoral test for LREM and the French President. It was also the first opportunity for opposition parties to show their strength. To this end, it would have only been logical to have lists led by widely known politicians. What happened, however, was quite the opposite: None of the six lists was led by a major politician. However, concerning the propaganda by both the far-right Rassemblement National and the far-left La France Insoumise, the respective party leaders, Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, were at least as present as their European lead candidates were.
Polls were predicting a voter turnout of around 40 percent, which means polling stations were supposed to be empty. Eventually, more than 50 percent of electors voted, with some geographical peaks climbing up to 60 percent.
Holding a polling station has always been important to me. Since I was 18, I always tried to participate in the organisation of elections; as an activist, as an assessor or by participating in the counting of votes. This year, for the first time, I was president of a polling station. We all thought the day would be long and without voters. Well… it turned out that the opposite was true. About 55 percent of voter turnout was a huge surprise, considering the past few weeks – I had less time to write this article than expected! However, the results corresponded more or less with the polls.
The Rassemblement National has won those elections. However, we need to remind ourselves that European elections in France are never in favour of the governing parties (European elections usually take place in the middle of a Presidential mandate) and that voters usually do not think what is best for the EU, or of its role. They see European elections as a means of expression on national politics. Some voters use those elections as an “electoral punching-ball”, meaning that they vote for parties they would never vote for in any other case.
This is not an excuse, nor a pretext. Nevertheless, we need to bear it in mind.
Now, political discussions and other whispers are already starting: what is next? Post-electoral debates of Sunday night were not about Europe, but about the future of French politics. Local elections are coming; politicians are already thinking about the next presidential election. Non-EU related debates, again, but we are somewhat used to it now.
Thomas Lesage is Parliamentary Assistant for la République en Marche in the French National Assembly.