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French voters: This election is a 'second revolution'
01:44 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Third of French voters spoiled ballots or abstained

More voters rejected candidates than voted for Le Pen

Highest ever number of blank ballots

CNN  — 

Emmanuel Macron’s triumph over Marine Le Pen in the French presidential election has been hailed as a landslide victory for the centrist candidate and a widespread rejection of his rival’s far-right platform.

But Macron’s mandate may not be as overwhelming as it seems. A record number of French voters were so dismayed by their options that they either skipped the election or cast their ballots for no one at all.

The so-called “ballot blanc,” or white ballot, has a long history as a protest vote in France, going all the way back to the French Revolution. This time around, nearly 9% of voters cast blank or spoiled ballots – the highest ever since the Fifth Republic was founded in 1958.

For now, the votes, which are counted towards the turnout, are largely symbolic. But there is a movement underway for the blank ballots to count as a share of the overall election vote. According to a recent Ifop poll, 40% of French voters said they would cast a blank vote if it were recognized under French law.

A woman in Bordeaux reads campaign posters urging voters not to turn out.

The protest vote

Guillaume Castevert, 46, from Bordeaux in southwest France, said he voted blanc in the final round after his favored candidate, Jean-Luc Melenchon, of the left-wing Le France insoumise movement, was knocked out in the first round.

Like many voters, Castevert was scared of a Le Pen win and wanted his voice to be heard, but refused to vote for Macron, whose policies he disagrees with. “I don’t want to vote against something,” he told CNN. “I want to vote for something.”

He’s also deeply unhappy with the French electoral system. “I’m quite convinced that the election system is not very democratic. In fact, it’s quite the opposite,” he said. “Every five years you make people feel like they are important, like their vote counts, but it doesn’t really matter.”

Castevert said his white ballot represented a vote against both candidates and against the system he believes they represent.

Democracy should be about the people, he said. “Now it’s not the power of the people, it’s the power of a few people.”

READ MORE: Macron, Le Pen, or neither? French voters mull third option

Highest number of abstentions since 1969

For disillusioned voters, the only other option was to abstain – and nearly one quarter of French voters did just that.

This year’s election marked the highest number of abstentions the country has seen since 1969, when the conservative candidate Georges Pompidou crushed centrist Alain Poher.

Much like in 1969, disaffected left-wing voters were apparently behind the high abstention rate.

In all, a third of voters spoiled their ballots or abstained. Taking abstentions and white votes into account, more people rejected the candidates than voted for Le Pen.

Rim-Sarah Alouane, a PhD candidate and researcher in public law at the University of Toulouse, says that this wasn’t a surprise.

In the lead-up to the vote, hashtags such as #SansMoiLe7Mai (without me on May 7), #NiPatrieNiPatron (neither country, nor boss) and #NiMarineNiMacron (neither Marine, nor Macron) emerged on social media platforms.

“These hashtags show how society has changed, how the political landscape has changed, and how people are trying to take back what is theirs … democracy,” Alouane said.

READ MORE: Does Emmanuel Macron’s win signal the end of populism in Europe? Not likely

Not voting: A conscious decision

In the same vein, campaigns urging voters to stay at home, leave their ballot envelope empty or submit a blank piece of paper in protest gained traction ahead of the vote. One such campaign, the Boycott 2017 group, called on French people to reject both candidates.

Jeremy, a campaigner for Boycott 2017 who declined to give his last name, believes that voting legitimizes what he described as France’s anti-democratic election system.

Boycott 2017 badges at a rally in Paris. Boycott 2017 is calling on voters to back neither candidate.

“The current system is not democratic – it’s a bourgeois dictatorship that does not benefit the working class,” Jeremy said.

In France, a country with traditionally high rates of voter participation, deciding not to vote is a very conscious decision.

“This is a signal. There is a voice, a big voice from the people that has gone unheard. These people decided that both candidates who ended up in round two did not address their concerns,” Alouane said.

“At some point, we need to reform our electoral process and take into account abstentions and blank votes. We elected a president, but what is his legitimacy in the end if so many people didn’t go to vote?”

CNN’s Bryony Jones contributed to this report.