‘All rotten’: The capital of French voter abstention

May 3, 2017 10:01 am
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Polls show that 22 to 28 percent of French voters will abstain from Sunday’s run-off between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen © AFP/File / Eric FEFERBERG, ALAIN JOCARD

, Vaulx-en-Velin, France, May 3 – Abdahim Elbaz has made up his mind about the candidates in France’s decisive presidential run-off on Sunday: He’s not voting for either of them, despite urgent calls to block the far right.

The university teacher is like many people in his southeastern hometown of Vaulx-en-Velin, where a record number of voters — 41.7 percent — stayed home during the first round of voting last month.

“If Marine Le Pen has risen this high it is because people are fed up,” said 45-year-old Elbaz, referring to the anti-immigration, anti-EU candidate who is facing off against the pro-Europe centrist Emmanuel Macron.

“I think people are a bit disillusioned with politics,” he added, days before France votes in an election seen as its most important in decades.

He grew up in this gloomy Lyon suburb of 43,000 inhabitants, which struggles with an unemployment rate of about 20 percent and is associated in French memory with violent riots in 1990.

Vaulx-en-Velin has long been notorious as having one of the highest rates of abstention in France, but in the April 23 vote it was 20 points over the national average.

Even though calls are mounting to block Le Pen, who has a die-hard base and could benefit from low voter turnout, many in the city remain indifferent.

Local councillor Stephane Bertin said many think “voting is pointless”.

In one corner is 39-year-old Macron, with his pro-globalisation, pro-EU world view. In the other there is Le Pen, 48, who champions “nationalism” and a “France-first” approach.

“It’s politically motivated abstention, in other words, it is a message… It’s nearly a matter of ethics, voters do not want to associate their names with any of the candidates,” Jerome Sainte-Marie of the PollingVox group told AFP.

Polls show that 22 to 28 percent of French voters nationwide are expected to stay home on Sunday.

– ‘I don’t care’ –

Fanny Jacquier said she would not vote because she believes the policies of deeply unpopular Socialist President Francois Hollande would continue under Macron, who served as Hollande’s economy minister before quitting to launch his unorthodox presidential bid.

A record number of voters — 41.7 percent — in the gritty Lyon suburb of Vaulx-en-Velin stayed home during the first round of France’s presidential vote © AFP/File / JEFF PACHOUD

“Macron is just Hollande all over again. France needs real change and it’s not with a candidate like that we are going to get it,” said the 37-year-old, who recently started her own business.

And if Le Pen wins? “If it happens, it happens. We’ll deal with it,” she said with a shrug.

Eleven candidates were in the running for the first round, and now there are just two — leaving millions of voters without their first choice.

Marie-Ange Michel, 65, cast a ballot for hard-left firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon, who topped the first-round vote in Vaulx-en-Velin with 38.52 percent.

“I’m very disappointed and I don’t want to do what I did in previous elections — cast a vote against (a candidate),” she said, referring to 2002, when Jacques Chirac won the presidency with 80 percent of the vote in a run-off against Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie.

“I don’t want to do that anymore. I’m tired of voting out of spite. I’m fed up,” the mother of five added.

Abstention in Vaulx-en-Velin is also a function of weariness in a city that has been a laboratory for various urban renewal efforts. The millions of euros injected into the city have not undone that disaffection.

Political scandals have also had an impact, including allegations that failed conservative candidate Francois Fillon paid his wife thousands in public money for doing very little work as his parliamentary assistant.

“I think they’re all crooks, rotten to core. It’s a question of choosing between the lesser of two evils,” said 22-year-old Djallel, who declined to give his full name.

For these potential voters, the warnings against a Le Pen presidency from business leaders, activists and religious representatives have little impact.

“Marine Le Pen is a bit scary but that doesn’t make me want to vote,” said 18-year-old Khadija Dahou, covered head-to-toe in a Muslim abaya. “Even if she is elected in the run-off, I don’t care.”

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