Abstention, the far right, and five more years of Macron

#RadioLondres. Foreign observers, including news outlets, have been known to use this hashtag—named for the service that broadcast from London to Nazi-occupied France during World War II—to share partial returns, projections, and rumors as election day unfolds in France. So it was again yesterday, with early indicators leaking out via French-speaking Belgium, in particular. Outlets inside France were banned from covering any of this until 8pm local time, when the last polls close; when I started watching France 2, a public-TV channel, at 7:30, they were killing some time by reliving the moments at which various past elections had been called. At 8, we finally got an estimation—based on data samples, historically highly accurate, analyzed by polling institutes—of the result, which showed Emmanuel Macron, the incumbent, beating Marine Le Pen, his far-right challenger, with 58.2 percent of the vote. The result was very quickly officialized—“French elections are a joy from a data journalism standpoint,” one Financial Times editor noted—and Macron’s score only ticked upward, confirming that France will get five more years of him, and we will get five more years of US TV anchors pronouncing his name “Mah-crone.”

The result quickly unleashed a torrent of takes across the world’s media and political spheres, some good, some very bad; many observers expressed relief at Macron’s bigger-than-expected win, while others stressed that a far-right candidate scoring more than forty percent of the vote in a major democracy is nothing to celebrate. (Le Pen got thirty-four percent in 2017, when, like this year, she lost to Macron in a runoff.) In France, yesterday capped a long campaign, the coverage of which was dominated by far-right themes and personalities—not least the journalist-bashing journalist Eric Zemmour, who ran to the right of Le Pen, hoovered up disproportionate media attention that might have been better expended on her, then flopped—when it cut through at all. The runup to the first round of the election two weeks ago was overshadowed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, while Macron refused to engage his rivals in a debate or do much campaigning. “What really sets the 2022 presidential campaign apart… is that it never really existed,” Abel Mestre, a political journalist at Le Monde, said on the eve of the first round. “It was always secondary in the news cycle.” When Macron did finally debate Le Pen on TV last week, the ratings were the lowest ever for such a broadcast.

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As people voted yesterday, news outlets, including in France, were able to report on one official datapoint—voter turnout—and many did so prominently. That figure was slightly higher than its first-round equivalent by midday but slightly lower by 5pm; the final tally of seventy-two percent was the lowest for a runoff in more than fifty years. In a global context, this is still high—turnout for the US presidential election of 2020, which set a recent record for that country, was lower—but the decline is still consequential: more people abstained yesterday than voted for Le Pen, and Macron did not come close to winning a majority of eligible voters.

Altering the way we relate topline election scores to account for abstention would be a radical, not to mention confusing, change. Still, the clock striking 8 yesterday seemed to relegate turnout to a mere afterthought in much coverage, and that’s jarring. Declining political participation is a major part of the global story about the erosion of democracy. In this particular election, it’s notable not only that a far-right candidate got more than forty percent of the vote, but that even more people than that saw a far-right candidate on the ballot and didn’t vote at all.

On France 2, after the results came in, a panel of high-level politicians from across the spectrum broke it down, in between reports from correspondents at the election-night parties. A cameraman riding alongside Macron’s motorcade en route to a celebration in front of the Eiffel Tower captured him cracking open his car window and waving; after Macron gave his victory speech, a reporter snatched an interview with his wife, Brigitte, who spoke of her honor as she retreated behind a wall of security guards. (The reporter at least remembered to turn on their microphone, unlike another journalist—who definitely isn’t me—when he grabbed Emmanuel Macron for a reluctant, thirty-second student-radio interview ahead of the 2017 election. But I digress.)

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Macron has long been accused of a high-handed attitude toward the press; writing for CJR in 2017, shortly after his first victory, Jeff Israely compared him to Trump, arguing that while Macron “would never incite violence against reporters or shout ‘fake news’ at articles he doesn’t like,” he was “actively keeping his distance from the press in ways his immediate predecessors haven’t.” Early in his tenure, Macron moved to hand-pick which reporters would accompany him on trips, and skipped interviews, bailing on one traditional press conference because, in the words of an adviser, his thought processes were too “complex” for the format; his government’s intelligence services have since called journalists in for questioning over sensitive stories, while public prosecutors attempted to raid a newsroom in connection with its coverage of a political scandal. In 2020, Macron griped to Ben Smith, then the media columnist at the New York Times, about Anglophone-media coverage of Islamist terrorist attacks in France, decrying what he saw as apologism; around the same time, his party tried to push through a bill making it harder to share images of police officers online. During the campaign, he not only skipped a first-round debate but also a one-on-one interview on France 2. He blamed his schedule, but journalists at the channel sensed a snub.

In his first campaign appearance this year, Macron pledged to do away with a “license fee” contribution by which many taxpayers currently fund public broadcasting in France, a position already advocated by Le Pen and Zemmour. (“The way he’s copying my manifesto,” Zemmour said, “he’ll soon be suggesting ending immigration.”) Unlike the latter candidates, Macron insisted that he does not want to privatize public media or, as critics charged, undermine its financial independence; last week, he proposed replacing the license fee with a budget fixed several years in advance. As one observer noted to Le Monde last week, beyond public broadcasting, neither Macron nor Le Pen’s election manifestos mentioned the words “press” or “media,” though Macron pledged that he would launch an expert debate around regulating a public right to “free and independent information” by “protecting informational spaces,” online and off. We’ll have to wait to see what this might entail, as well as Macron’s broader intentions vis-à-vis the press as he enters his second term. If further aloofness, and perhaps worse, seems a safe bet, the French press has not this morning been plunged into the uncertain world of life under Le Pen, a regular critic of journalists who would likely have moved not only to undermine French public media but to reshape the country’s whole institutional culture.

Not that she, or the French far right, is going away with Macron’s win. The challenge for international media, now, will be to continue to cover them, and not take Macron’s bigger-than-expected victory margin as a cue to look away until 2027. The challenge for French media will be to continue its coverage, which certainly won’t wait until 2027, without letting far-right themes hijack the national discourse again. The abstention story will continue to matter to all of us, even if, in its multifaceted absence of intention, it’s harder to pin down.

Below, more on France and elections:

  • Voting while incarcerated: Last night, Daniel Nichanian, the editor in chief of Bolts, drew attention to “another, neglected angle on the election”: the fact that many incarcerated French people are permitted to vote, and that “a ton of advocacy and legal work in the past work made it much easier for them to cast a ballot.” Cole Stangler recently reported for Bolts that “turnout among people in prison soared north of 12,500” in the first round of the election two weeks ago, up from barely a thousand in 2017. Macron had since “endorsed the push to improve ballot access for incarcerated people.”
  • Editorial interference?: Last week, journalists at Marianne, a French political magazine, alleged that Daniel Křetínský—its billionaire Czech owner, who claims to be a Europhile democrat—demanded that a pre-election front page be changed to more strongly endorse voting for Macron. (The planned headline read “Anger or chaos?”; the published version read “Despite anger, avoid chaos.”) The journalists complained that their independence had been compromised; Marianne’s top editor said that the newsroom alone makes editorial decisions, but acknowledged being “attentive” to the owner’s desire that the magazine’s position not be ambiguous. (In 2020, I interviewed Jérôme Lefilliâtre, who wrote a book on Křetínský, about Křetínský’s growing influence.)
  • Meanwhile, also in Europe: Voters in Slovenia also went to the polls yesterday, handing a heavy defeat to the party of Janez Janša, the incumbent prime minister. During his tenure, Janša, an ally of Hungary’s authoritarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, repeatedly demonized reporters as “presstitutes,” with RSF noting that he also “took tentative institutional steps to undermine the editorial and financial independence of the public TV broadcaster and the national press agency.” Pro-Janša outlets are already claiming that Russia interfered in the election due to Slovenia’s support for Ukraine.

Other notable stories:

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: Macron's supporters gathered in front of the Eiffel Tower to celebrate French President Emmanuel Macron second term on Sunday. Macron won with 58.5% of the vote against far-right Marine le Pen. He was cheered by his supporters waving French and EU flags. (Photo by Siavosh Hosseini / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)