Much of the news coverage of the French presidential election has noted the high turnout: 85%.
I thought it would be worth putting this in historical perspective, and also seeing whether turnout tends over time to be higher in the first or second round. We are currently between rounds of the ninth presidential election since the adoption of the Fifth Republic Constitution (1958, amended to have direct presidential elections in 1962).
Percent of electorate that voted in the first and second rounds:
1965, 84.8, 84.3
1969, 77.6, 65.5
1974, 84.2, 86.2
1981, 81.1, 85.9
1988, 81.4, 84.1
1995, 78.4, 79.7
2002, 71.6, 79.7
2007, 84.6, ??.?
So, first-round turnout in 2007 was indeed higher than for any first round since the very first presidential election in 1965. And it was a lot higher than in 2002, when complacency on the left both depressed turnout and helped Le Pen make it into the runoff. Note the spike in turnout in 2002 in the runoff (+8.1), when revulsion against Le Pen spurred many to vote, even though the result of the runoff was foregone as soon as Le Pen qualified for it. (Chirac won over 82% of the vote in the runoff.)
The mean change in turnout (runoff minus first round) is +0.9. Not much difference, although the mean masks the fact that in five of the seven runoffs to date, turnout indeed increased (average 2.1). The one case of a very large dropoff in the runoff, 1969, was one in which there was little doubt that Pompidou would win; aside from 2002, the 1969 election was the one with the least suspense over the outcome. On the other hand, there had been a close contest for second place in the first round that year.* (De Gaulle in 1965 faced a closer race in both rounds, although there was little doubt about that race’s outcome.)
While the high turnout in last Sunday’s first round was indeed a good story, the real story is more that of a rebound from the depressed turnout of 2002 than it was one of “historic participation.”
What will happen to turnout in the second round? There is genuine uncertainty about the result, so it should stay quite high, but I would not be surprised to see it drop a little bit, given that some of the boost Sunday was due to a desire to ensure Le Pen’s defeat. For some voters, there may be a sense of “mission accomplished.”
The runoff is 6 May.
* In fact, the 1969 contest bears some resemblance to 2002, in that the left was not represented in the runoff. However, it also differs in a very big way: The candidate who beat out the leading leftist was not an extremist. 1969 was the only election in which Francois Mitterrand was not a candidate from 1965 until the 1995 election, when he was completing his second seven-year term. The more popular of two candidates bearing the Socialist label in 1969, Jacques Duclos, won only 21.3% in the first round. The other had 5% (and there were other left candidates as well). This division meant that Alain Poher, running on the ticket of the Democratic Center and Radicals, qualified for the runoff with his 23.3% (just over half Pompidou’s total).
Data from the Mackie and Rose handbook for 1865-1988 and from Adam Carr thereafter.