Abstentionist voting – between disengagement and protestation in neglected areas: a spatial analysis of the Paris metropolis

Photo : Abstentionist voting – between disengagement and protestation in neglected areas: a spatial analysis of the Paris metropolis

How to explain abstention in elections? Over the last ten years, sociology, political science and geography have tended to converge in terms of analysis of electoral behavior. Abstentionist voting can be considered in two ways. First, in areas where there is a concentration of politically and/or sociologically marginalized populations, there is a higher abstention rate. This hypothesis refers to non-voters who are peripheral to political life (e.g., young people, those with low levels of education or the unemployed, and those whose parties have failed to reach them).

Political scientists explain this through the fact that voters no longer bother to go to the polls because they have lost confidence in politics or lack interest in it.  They have a disenchantment attitude as they feel abandoned by politicians and public policies and believe that voting will not change their lives. Second, territories with sustained economic hardship and marginalization are more likely to experience high levels of abstention. This hypothesis refers to non-voters living in peripheral/shrinking territories who tend to have a protestation attitude  and, by abstaining, aim to show that they are protesting against the politicians and their political and ideological offerings. 

Our results support the hypothesis that socially and politically marginalized populations are more likely to abstain. It is as if the left/right alternation, in place since 1981 without any improvement in the population’s living conditions, has ended up producing a strong feeling of pointlessness with regard to voting (disenchantment attitude). Thus, we can say that an unfavorable territorial context can be the catalyst for disengagement, leading to abstention.  

Our results support the idea that abstention can also be interpreted as a protest vote. In this case, people use the decision not to go to the polls to show their dissatisfaction with politicians. People living in municipalities that experience above-average growth in basic local services over the long term tend to abstain less than those who experience a relative decline in local equipment and services. This abstention can be interpreted as a non-voting protest of people who live in areas that have been left behind, in other words, populations that have experienced a decline in the number of local shops/stores and in the supply of public services (linked to the closure of schools, police stations and post offices).

This situation directly relates to the emerging literature in regional science on places that are left behind or that appear not to matter. The resulting discontent of people living in these places may lead them to use the ballot box as a sign of protest. This protest vote results from the fact that such people feel dissatisfied with their living conditions. They are not necessarily in social difficulty and often have a job (upper-middle class), but they have the impression that they pay a lot of taxes and yet see a decline in public services in their municipality, leading to the feeling that the fiscal pressure they are under is unfair. Consequently, we can postulate that an unfavorable territorial context marked by a relative decline in local amenities and services can be the catalyst for an electoral protest attitude. 

This paper assumes that heterogeneous electoral participation rates have territorial extensions, with the consequence that certain areas tend to remain on the margins of political life in the lead up to and during elections. Consequently, public policies should seek to match the needs of inhabitants with the quality of life offered. The current mismatch between the real needs of inhabitants and the supply of services to the population is liable to have a major impact on electoral results (a continual increase in protest votes, to the benefit of votes for extreme political parties and abstention) and the marginalization of part of society, particularly in large urban areas. 

The research of Sebastien Bourdin.

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    Sebastien Bourdin Sébastien Bourdin is a Professor of Sustainable and Regional Development. He joined EM Normandie 2012. He has a PhD in geography from the Université de Rouen-Normandie, awarded in 2012. His thesis is on economic and regional development, and the evaluation of public policies. His research interests are the effectiveness of cohesion policy, economic integration in the European Union and the circular economy. His main research interests are the European Union with a specific interest in the countries of central and eastern Europe and France. He has been Deputy Dean of the faculty on the Caen campus since 2019.

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