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EU Parliament chamber in Strasbourg, France. Photo: jeffowenphotos for Wikimedia Commons

PARIS – The French media recently stopped publishing stories about the national Municipal Elections. One of the primary topics of this coverage was the unprecedented 36.45% abstention rate. In barely over a month French citizens will be called to the polls again to elect the European Parliament, but in these latter elections abstentions are the norm.

The abstention rates have been rising in French European elections since voting began in 1979. In 2009 close to 60% of people chose not to vote. Given the turnout in the Municipals, abstentions in the European elections are also expected to increase, despite the fact that France has gained two Parliamentary seats since the last election. Still, some maintain that these elections are opportunities to effect change.

In November 2013, a new European political party Nouvelle Donne (after Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal) was founded in Paris. The party asserts that Europe is suffering from a crisis “of serious gravity” due to failure by the European leadership to address unemployment and economic strife sufficiently. The party’s founder and economist Pierre Larrouturou claimed in an interview with 20minutes.fr, “The goal of Nouvelle Donne is to provoke a counterrevolution and to restore balance that 30 years of deregulation turned upside down in France as in Europe.”

After wavering between the Socialist and Green Parties, Larrouturou announced his new, leftist party in the Parisian café where Jean Jaurès, a major historical figure of the French Left, was assassinated in 1914. Proclaiming disillusionment with the status quo and calling for civil engagement, the party’s website quotes former President Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic, “Each of us can change the world.” Nouvelle Donne reports about 7,000 members in France so far. One member of French Parliament and two Members of European Parliament (MEPs) have joined the party as well, and Larrouturou has revealed his goal to surpass the dominant Socialist Party in election results.

Yet, the shadow of voter apathy hangs overhead. Nouvelle Donne’s general secretary for the Île-de-France region, Gael Quiban explains, “people have turned away from voting because of the lies promised by politicians.” Quiban attributes the apathy to polarized party politics. He asserts that his party by contrast presents “as much energy as will” and he emphasizes the need for the continued voter participation in order to achieve solutions. Quiban explains that to get people back to the polls Nouvelle Donne needs to “show that some parties have truthful solutions.”

A senior staff member of a recent Paris municipal campaign admits she has never voted in the European elections and does not plan to. She clarifies, “The less concrete things seem, the less people vote. I just do not see how they affect me.” Since these elections rarely appear in French media and people rarely see how European Parliamentary decisions are relevant to their lives, she concludes, voters “just do not take interest.”

People don’t associate governing with the EU. They do not actually see what effect voting will have on their lives,” says Anass, a political science graduate student. He argues that the general view is that important EU decisions are made by the executive branch, the European Commission, whose members are not popularly elected. He continues, “To most, the European Parliament is some amorphous, technocratic, massive level of government, and especially since the failure of the EU Constitution referendum in France people have lost interest.”

The extreme right party in France, the Front National (FN), did especially well in the recent Municipal elections, gaining control of 11 towns. It has set its sights on securing more MEP seats as well. In a recent poll by the French Institute of Public Opinion for the Journal du Dimanche, the FN slightly leads the conservative Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) for the May elections. The FN leader Marine Le Pen (like her father and FN founder Jean-Marie Le Pen) is an MEP herself. However, even Le Pen has taken criticism for being uninvolved in the European Parliament. In an interview with the Guardian, UMP party MEP, Elisabeth Morin-Chartier said of Le Pen, “She doesn’t get involved. She showed up on only one occasion. She doesn’t vote on the issues on which she is grandstanding in France.”

This situation mirrors the lack of participation on the popular level. A French restaurateur who says he will vote in the European elections admits he cannot blame those who choose to abstain. He regretfully acknowledges, “People think that voting will change nothing. They see no difference at the national level. I will vote, yes, but only because I feel it is my duty as a French citizen. Not because I think it will matter.”

When asked if they will vote in May, most people respond as Jean, a lawyer, does, “No. It’s a waste of time.” Despite energetic and widespread meetings, Nouvelle Donne’s fundamental obstacle at the polls may may not be bigger parties, but uninterested French voters.