President Nicolas Sarkozy’s ruling UMP party was accused this week of deliberately failing to encourage voter registration ahead of next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections.
New voters – those who have recently turned 18 and those who have moved to a new district since the last elections – have to register at their local town halls by the end of December if they are to take part in next year’s polls.
Traditionally, televised advertising campaigns are aired the year before a major election to get as many people to sign up as possible.
But the effort has been muted this year, with low-key campaigns in individual town halls and some Internet advertising, but no public message on television calling on voters to make sure they are on the voting lists.
Opposition politicians have said that voter apathy, especially in poorer districts and among the young who have a greater tendency to vote for left-wing parties, can only play into the hands of Sarkozy’s centre-right UMP.
‘The government was found wanting’
On Tuesday François Bayrou of the centrist MoDem said that “it is the first time in my memory, and on the eve of such an important year in French politics, that the government has failed to call on potential voters to register.”
“It’s all the more shocking when you see that in some districts where an effort has been made to encourage registration there have been good results,” said the MoDem’s candidate for the presidency.
“The government has been found wanting. They have tens of millions of euros available for such a campaign and they have failed to remind citizens to participate in this important decision-making process,” he said.
Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, a spokeswoman for Socialist Party (PS) candidate François Hollande, estimated that 9% of the country’s eligible voters had not registered, including 29% of 18 year-olds and 13% of 18-22 year-olds.
“These are going to be decisive elections. Has the government totally lost interest in young people?” she asked. “Or is it afraid that the youth will punish them at the ballot box? These are legitimate questions.”
In the past, decisive election results have had the effect of boosting the number of new registrations.
After former far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen caused a shock by reaching the second round of the 2002 presidential election, the number of new voters registering for the 2007 poll jumped 40%, to 1.4 million.
Not so this year. And for Manual Valls, François Hollande’s head of communications, the fact that there has not been a big rush to register before the end of the year is “a scandal” attributable to the government’s “failure” to publicise civic duty and voter participation.
Official encouragement to register has been limited to posters put up in town halls and cultural centres run by the Citizenship and Democracy Association (CIDEM), an organisation affiliated to the Interior Ministry for the past decade.
Interior Minister Claude Guéant’s office said in a statement that the government had provided the CIDEM with €181,000 to spend on this year’s campaign, six times more than for the previous election.
But funds did not extend to a television campaign, and according to Les Echos newspaper on Wednesday, Guéant’s office said that they “did not want to fund a campaign simply to get people to register, but to get people to vote.”