The causes of abstention in élections: France as a case study

For about thirty years,  abstention is a behavior that is developing in all Western democracies (except those which have implemented compulsory voting: Italy, Belgium, Greece), in the same way as electoral volatility or the protest vote. According to a study carried out by Cevipof in 2007, it is estimated that one in two French people have already abstained in an election. Abstention is when a voter registered on the electoral roll does not participate in the poll. We therefore distinguish the abstaining from blank votes which correspond to the voters taking part in the ballot, but choosing to put a blank ballot in the ballot box, as well as invalid votes which are invalid ballots (several ballots, addition of registrations, name of the ballot box). ‘an imaginary candidate).

1 / The increase in abstention appears to be symptomatic of an increased distrust of citizens towards men and political parties, as well as of a crisis of representation.

A / Since 1965, during the presidential elections, however the most mobilizing election of all, abstention has increased steadily, with one exception, however, in 2007, when participation returned to its levels of the 1960s (16% of those registered abstained).

Graph. 1. Rate of abstention and blank / null votes during the first rounds of the presidential election (1965-2007).

While in the first round of the 1965 presidential elections, abstention was around 15%, it was 28% in 2002 (an increase of 13 points). The high abstention rate in 1969 is linked to the recent departure of General de Gaulle and the proximity of the referendum. Subsequently, the abstention rate remained between 15 and 20% until the 90s. It increased sharply from 1995 and reached a record in 2002. The shock of April 21, 2002, with the elimination in the first round of the socialist candidate, is also the result of this abstention since nearly 3 out of 10 French people did not come that day.

The electoral mobilization during the 2007 presidential election marked a stopping point in the abstentionist dynamic for this election. It remains to be seen whether this participation will be as significant in 2012. The possibility for the President of the Republic, Nicolas Sarkozy, to run for a second term does, however, augur a high rate of abstention, even if the context of the economic crisis may contribute to attract voters to the polls. But the level of abstention is difficult to predict. The indecision and volatility of the voter, the intermittence which characterizes more and more the relation to the vote, arouse the prudence of the forecasts.

However, it should be noted that abstention reached records in 2007 during the legislative elections, even if it is partly explained by its low stake, since the presidential election preceded it by a few months. But over the long term, we can also see a constant increase in abstention from this type of election: while in 1978, the abstention rate for the first round was nearly 17%, it declined. reached 35.5% in 2002 and 40% in 2007.

Graph. 2. Rate of abstention and blank / null votes during the first rounds of the legislative election (1958-2007).

More generally, we also observe an increase in blank or null votes, even if these still remain at low levels, they nevertheless reflect a growing dissatisfaction of voters with regard to the electoral offer.

B / Certain election categories are favorable grounds for abstention:

presidential elections: they are often marked by a high turnout. As the example of 2007 shows, when the stakes are high and the outcome of the ballot is uncertain, turnout increases sharply. Note that abstention is generally stronger in the first round than in the second;

legislative elections: they experience higher abstention rates than presidential elections, especially when they take place in close proximity to another election;

cantonal, regional and European elections: they experience high abstention rates (53.6% in the 2010 regional elections; in 2004, 57.2% in the European elections in France, 54.5% in Europe), being generally quite distant and often misunderstood by the electorate;

municipal elections: these are the local elections par excellence and have high participation rates;

referendums: participation depends on the stake, when it is important, abstention is low (only 30% abstention for the referendum on the adoption of the Maastricht Treaty, in 1992), if the stake is low, abstention is high (68% for the referendum on New Caledonia in 1988 and 75% for the transition to the five-year term in 2000).

To get an idea of ​​the abstention rate during the various ballots:

C / According to figures from the Cidem barometer (Civism and Democracy, carried out in March 2007:, only 56% of French people admit never having or practically never abstained, ie 1 in 2 French people, and 10% often admit to abstaining.
The main reasons given are as follows:

  • because candidates make promises they won’t keep (35%);
  • because there are too many personal attacks (14%);
  • because you think your vote will not change the result (14%);
  • to express your dissatisfaction with political parties (13%);
  • because no candidate is right for you (11%);
  • because the candidates do not make proposals in the fields that interest you (11%);
  • because you are not interested in politics or these elections (5%).

These results show that abstention is strongly linked to a crisis of confidence between the governed and their elected representatives. In a January 2011 survey carried out by Cevipof, 56% of those questioned declared that they did not trust either the right or the left to govern France. In addition, trust in banks (20%) is greater than that in political parties (13%). Finally, when asked what the feeling in politics evokes, 39% feel mistrust and 23% disgust. Note that voting remains for the majority (56%) the most effective way to influence political decisions far ahead of the demonstration (8%) and the strike (6%), but 13% nevertheless consider that none of this does not allow influence political decisions.

These rather worrying results also reflect a crisis in representation. The Cevipof study shows that 83% of those questioned think that politicians do not care or care little about what they think. In addition, according to the 2007 Cidem barometer, nearly one in two people believe that democracy works poorly and only 40% of those questioned feel well represented by at least one political leader or a political party (even if this figure is an increase compared to 2001: 22%). However, 71% believe that politics can change important things in the country and people’s daily lives, while only 27% think the opposite.

2 / Of the two variables explaining abstention, low social integration and the strategic choice to express discontent, the latter seems the most relevant for understanding its recent increase. 

A / In  Electoral abstentionism in France  (1968),  Alain Lancelot  considers that abstentionism is part of two distinct phenomena: 

  • low social integration: housewives, widows or divorcees, young voters, individuals of low socio-economic or cultural level, inhabitants of isolated areas or large groups; 
  • a voluntary choice linked to dissatisfaction with the electoral offer. 

While the increase in abstention concerns all social groups and all age groups, it should be noted that not all abstain in the same proportions. As Alain Lancelot (1968) emphasizes,  abstention is the reflection of  “integration into society” . Clearly, the more tenuous the social bond, the more we tend to abstain. 
Statistically, we see, in fact, that unemployment, insecurity and social disaffiliation (distance from social structures such as the family, school, religious community) are elements of socio-economic fragility that lead to abstention. and non-registration on the electoral rolls. 

The degree of involvement in political life also varies according to social position: in 2007, 44% of workers said they were interested in politics, while this was the case for 72% of teachers and 79% of the liberal professions. The participation in the elections knows a similar variation: 14% of the workers are interested only in certain elections against 6% of the liberal professions 

One of the reasons given is  the thesis of political competence . In  Participation in America: social equality and political democracy  (1972),  Sidney Verba  and  Norman Nie showed that participation in the United States was primarily the work of white city men, with a high socio-economic and cultural level. This social and cultural position thus seemed to give them a feeling of political competence which made them less subject to abstention.

Statistically, the degree level also plays a role in the interest shown in politics: 80% of higher education graduates are interested in politics, but only 47% of those without a degree. Participation in elections varies here too: 12% of those without a diploma and 8% of higher education graduates are only interested in certain elections. 

There is thus a phenomenon that  Daniel Gaxie  has described as  “supposedly hidden”  (in The hidden Cens, 1975). Certain voters do not really choose at the time of the vote to abstain or to vote for such or such candidate, because they do not have the means to know and to control all the stakes of the political field. The sociological analysis of the conditions for forming the vote thus shows that there never really exists a pure democracy: the problems are often imposed on individuals who do not always have the capacity to respond to them, which implies in place of electoral behaviors produced on the basis of criteria very far removed from the political logic that is generally attributed to them (taste for the person of the candidate, choice of the probable winner, preference for the most neutral or the most stereotypical positions). 

B / But as Alain Lancelot already noted in 1968, abstention can also result from a voluntary choice  on the part of non-voters. From a purely rational point of view, abstention should also be the rule since the probability that a voter will influence the final result is almost zero. Consequently, the cost of participation should automatically result in “free rider” behavior   ( Mancur Olson ,  Logique de action collective , 1966: notion which means that when one can enjoy the fruits of collective action without bear the cost, adopting a rational behavior leads to not mobilizing), and therefore to massive abstention. 

In Exit, Voice and Loyalty  (1970),  Albert Hirschman  shows that a dissatisfied individual can adopt three types of strategy against a firm: 

  • the silent reaction ( exit ): a dissatisfied consumer can quite simply change the brand of product; 
  • renouncing action ( loyalty ): the consumer remains loyal to the brand; 
  • protest or voice : demonstration against the poor performance of the company concerned. 

By analogy with this typology, we can compare abstention to defection behavior ( exit ) and extremist voting to protest behavior ( voice ) vis-à-vis the political system. For some authors, the abstention can even be of the order of speaking. Thus, in “Abstention: political democracy or political vitality?” (2007),  Anne Muxel  writes that  “abstention cannot be interpreted only as a symptom, as a lack, as a deficit. It fully participates in the transformations of contemporary forms of politicization and democratic expression and in the movement to recompose the attributes of modern citizenship. ”

Thus, a new form of abstentionism would appear which would be superimposed on the classic abstentionism linked to the fragility of socio-economic status and the feeling of political incompetence. In “To abstain: out of the game or in the political game?” (2000),  Anne Muxel  and  Jérôme Jaffré  distinguish two types of abstentionist: 

  • abstainers  “outside the political game”  : they are characterized by their withdrawal from politics and a certain apathy. They represent around 1/3 of non-voters. They are more numerous among women, within urban populations, popular, poorly educated, in difficulty of social integration. They do not see themselves in the political game and feel incompetent. They may occasionally be tempted by extreme votes and thus fall into a position of rejection of the political system; 
  • the abstainers  “in the political game”  : they are more socially integrated, they are most often young people, graduates, who abstain without it being a question of political disaffection and who resume voting when they recognize themselves in the proposed electoral offer or that the ballot presents a particular issue. They represent around 2/3 of non-voters, or nearly 19% of those registered in 2002 (an increase compared to 1995: 12.5%). They are classified rather on the left: in 2002, 62% of them declared themselves unhappy with the presence of Jean-Marie Le Pen in the second round, against only 41% of “offside”. 

According to this distinction, the increase in abstentionism would reflect less a massive depoliticization, than a form of mobilization according to the stake. It is in this sense that one can speak with  Jean-Louis Missika  (in “The false pretenses of depoliticization”, 1992) of a phenomenon of  “negative politicization”  : that is to say of a politicization which continues to be strong, but which is accompanied by a mistrust of the policies, a mixture of abstention and dissenting votes. It thus makes it possible to explain why abstention is increasing even among categories of the population hitherto not really concerned by the phenomenon, such as the upper classes with diplomas.

General bibliography

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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