France’s summer was marred by the rollout of a national vaccine passport and the ensuing protests which continue to take place every Saturday across the country. In the midst of this social tension, a politically significant event was given little note.
In July, the French Interior Ministry – responsible for organizing national elections – presented the official dates for the upcoming and much anticipated 2022 Presidential election. While every French Presidential election runoff has occurred in early May since 1974, the government, with the approval of the nation’s council of Ministers, opted to advance the dates of the election to April 10th for the first round and April 24th for the runoff vote.
This change is significant because it conflicts with national public holidays.
French families typically align their vacations with the public school holidays. In fact, employers frequently require their employees to take their vacations during these breaks as a way of managing workflow.
School holiday dates are staggered depending on the different administrative regions of the country to avoid overcrowding of the domestic transportation system, and French workers often make use of their time off by traveling outside their home town to visit family and friends. During holiday seasons, certain regions experience an outflow of residents.
As a consequence, if a vote is scheduled during one of these periods, turnout is lower in regions where employees are on holiday because there is no early voting in France.
By scheduling the runoff election in early May when the workforce isn’t on break, the government was able to avoid conflicts with national holidays. Alternatively, when the dates did create a conflict, the government selected weeks when all regions’ vacations overlapped so as not to create regional discrepancies. This Presidential election will be different however because only a third of the country will be on holiday at the time of the vote. It’s the makeup of the regions which are on break during the runoff that gives rise to concern among the French opposition.
On April 24th 2022, the date of the runoff election, the northern region of France called “Hauts-de-France” and the southeastern region of “Provence-Alpes-Côte D’Azur” will be on holiday. Significantly, these are the two most unfavorable regions for the incumbent President Macron.
On the one hand, the north of France is very blue-collar, a consequence of the dying heavy industry and mining sectors of the country. The electorate is very sympathetic to the populist political platforms advocated for by Marine Le Pen as well as the national left-wing opposition to Macron. The southeast on the other hand is a conservative bastion and favors the traditional right wing parties and Marine Le Pen over the incumbent President.
In France’s regional elections this past June, President Macron’s party did not make it into the runoff round in the north of France. His party achieved a meager nine percent of the vote despite even the French Attorney General campaigning on behalf of the President. In the southeast, Macron’s party decided not to field a candidate at all because the polls were so unfavorable.
During the 2017 French Presidential election, these two regions were the areas where Marine Le Pen performed the most favorably against Macron. Polls concerning the 2022 election suggest the runoff will once again pit these candidates against one another.
If Le Pen is to stand a chance of defeating the incumbent, she needs very high turnout in both the north and southeast of the country. It is unsurprising, therefore, that she has expressed concern about the election date and has called for the schedule to be modified.
Over the past two decades, voter turnout has been on the decline in France. Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, elections have seen the lowest participation levels in the country’s history.
According to political commentators and public officials, it is critical that the 2022 Presidential election see high voter turnout. The health of the country’s democracy depends on the perceived legitimacy of this election because of its central importance under the current constitution. The incumbent French administration’s decision to advance the runoff vote date coincides with talks of allowing for mail-in ballots which have been banned in the country since the 1970s because of the risk of fraud.
These moves by Macron’s government open the door to allegations of voter suppression and manipulation by the opposition which further polarizes and already tense French political landscape.