The British and American press might be presenting the choice between Macron and Le Pen as a simple one, but as the French election approaches some French millennials are considering voting blanc – revealing some haunting parallels to the US election.
A little over a week ago my boyfriend and I were invited for drinks at our friends’ house. We arrived fashionably late to the tiny top floor Paris apartment, slightly out of breath from having just climbed seven flights of stairs. As at any good French apéro we were immediately served wine and cheese, over which the talk quickly turned to the first round of the presidential elections which had taken place the previous Sunday.
Most of my friends had voted for Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the hard-left candidate that had recently made a name for himself in the foreign press with his hologram stunt, performing at many rallies at once. Though none of the polls had him picked for the second round, his base had believed in him until the very end. He had finally come in fourth and contrary to most of his fellow candidates did not rush to pronounce his support to Emmanuel Macron, the centrist independent candidate of his own movement En Marche!, who won the first round.
I admit that I had not been following the run up to this election as closely as I maybe should have considering I went to University in Paris and it is still my second home. With the American elections merely months behind us I was suffering from post-election fatigue — or post-election stress disorder, however you want to call it. Having followed every debate and read every update for months, I decided I could take a back seat on this one. I kept glancing over the headlines that Le Monde popped on my screen but had only read the few articles I happened to come across on the anglophone press, mostly on Macron who seemed to have won them over.
This is why when almost everyone at that tiny Paris flat announced they were finding it morally difficult to vote for Macron I was take aback. Wasn’t this the young outsider, the candidate who offered a break from establishment, partisan politics but who embraced the EU and defied populist xenophobia? Even if he wasn’t your first choice, surely he should be your second. Especially when the alternative was Marine Le Pen of the extreme right Front National party, who also seems to be Russia’s first choice for the job.
With the second bottle of red wine the arguments over policy, unemployment, and what should be the direction of France began to get more heated. This was supposed to be the year that France would finally vote a revolutionary leftist to the second round and at least a step closer to the presidency. Macron was criticised as a right-wing liberal who would all but feed the country to the wolves, or the banks, or Brussels. I wasn’t able to avoid flashbacks of arguments over my American friends refusing to support Hillary. Had the French learned nothing from the whole Trump fiasco?
Though I could understand their disappointment, I was surprised some of my friends had decided to vote ‘blanc’ in the second round, which means giving a blank ballot that in reality carries no political consequence on its own, though the empty votes are counted. Tired of being forced to vote for whoever Le Pen was facing just to avoid the extreme right’s ascent to power, this seemed like a way to resist the system. One of them said she couldn’t possibly, in good consciousness, vote for Macron who she saw as a pawn for the banks and big corporations. Again, the flashback from 2016 haunted my mind. The explanations also echoed all the accusations used by the Le Pen campaign to discredit Macron.
A journalist in the New Yorker wrote on the 2008 American elections that being undecided was like hesitating between a plate of chicken and a plate of shit — though you may not want the chicken, it remains largely preferable to the alternative. The metaphor seems relevant again in regards to the French election. Yet, my friends saw Macron not as chicken but rather as vomit, as one of them exclaimed, annoyed at the comparison. To them vomit might still be preferable to shit but the choice is not as clear cut.
To me, giving the Front National their chance and hoping they mess everything up in order to not have to always vote against them seemed like the nuclear option. Considering the current geopolitical climate we live in, it seemed almost like the apocalyptic option. Pointing this out only yielded shrugs and a question on why the French should pay the price of having Macron as their president, just for stability in Europe. Stunned, I couldn’t find an answer so I just shrugged in return. As our wine slowly turned into beer and there was no more cheese left the debate finally dwindled. It had drained us all and my friends seemed to already be suffering from election fatigue.
As we sat on the back seat of our Uber that night my boyfriend and I couldn’t help but feel puzzled by our friends’ stance. They seemed oblivious to the fact that they were dancing to the same tune that had found its crescendo in Trump and had already been hummed leading up to Brexit. Neither of us was crazy about Macron but found it baffling someone would consider him as bad as the racist, nationalist, anti-everything-that-is-not-French alternative. What moral gymnastics would allow you to let such a person rise to power in your country? In a top floor Paris flat, over wine and cheese, it might seem like an argument worth having but was it really a conviction worth risking on election day.
Obviously, in a democratic process each person has the right to follow their heart, consciousness or gut when they decide who to vote for or whether to vote at all. Still, if Le Pen wins this Sunday and the post-mortem reveals the blank votes could have tipped the scale, it will be hard to resist pointing fingers. Luckily, with only a few days to go, the polls show Macron with a 20% lead on Le Pen, which would mean a few blank ballots won’t matter. But, as we know, polls have been wrong before.