PARIS – As France elects a president, Paris-based artist Vincent Aïtzegagh is going to ground, escaping to a bucolic village to avoid what for him — and millions of other left-wing French voters — is a painful, even impossible, electoral choice. For the first time in his life, the 65-year-old has decided to not vote at all in the decisive ballot this Sunday.
“I am fleeing," he says. "Because it stinks.”
Disgruntled voters like Aïtzegagh whose favored candidates were knocked out in the election’s first round on April 10 are the wild cards in the winner-takes-all runoff. How they vote — or don't vote — on Sunday will in large part determine whether incumbent Emmanuel Macron gets a second five-year term or cedes the presidential Elysee Palace to far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen, a seemingly unlikely but not impossible outcome that would be seismic for France and Europe as they deal with the fallout of Russia's war in Ukraine.
With the stakes high, never has the decision been so difficult for leftist voters who view both Macron and Le Pen as anathema — a choice that some describe as “between the plague and cholera."
“It's horrible, enough to make one cry. I have spent sleepless nights in tears not knowing what to do," says Clek Desentredeux, a disabled and queer artist and live-streamer who voted for hard-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon in round one.
With 7.7 million votes, Melenchon finished just 420,000 votes shy of the runoff, in third place behind Le Pen. Le Pen and Macron have since expended much time and energy trawling for support in Melenchon's now orphaned and disappointed reservoir of voters. It is an uphill battle for them both.
Generally speaking, many leftist voters resent Macron for having dynamited France's political landscape with his get-things-done middle-way method of governance, siphoning ideas, supporters, government ministers and political oxygen away from mainstream parties on both the left and right.
His pragmatism is too vanilla and opportunistic for many leftist voters hungry for a sharper and more ideological political divide. More specifically, many describe the 44-year-old former banker as friend to the rich and oppressor of the poor. Some also blame him for Le Pen's rise, saying that in trying to undercut support in France for the extreme right, Macron swerved too far right-ward himself.
Macron's saving grace, however, is also Le Pen. After years of drum-banging about immigration and Islam's influence in the country with the largest Muslim population in Western Europe, the 53-year-old is reviled by many on the left as a racist xenophobe, too dangerous for France's stated principles of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” to ever vote for. In conceding defeat in round one, Melenchon said his backers “must not give a single vote to Madame Le Pen" — repeating the exhortation four times.
But he stopped short of asking his electors to shift their votes to Macron, instead leaving them to wrestle alone with what Melenchon described as a choice between “two evils.”
Some will deliberately spoil their ballots, even putting toilet paper in the voting envelope instead of a candidate's name to show how dimly they view the options. Some won't vote. Some will cast ballots with no name.
They include 22-year-old Emma Faroy in Paris.
“I’m going to vote because some women died for my right to do so,” she said. "But I’m going to cast a blank ballot because I don’t want to choose between either of them.”
Others will, almost literally, hold their noses and vote for Macron to keep out Le Pen. Some will back Le Pen, in a poke at the president. Multiple polls indicate that Macron, who won round one, is now building a significant runoff lead, larger than the polling margin of error. Melenchon voters from round one appear to be shifting in greater numbers behind him than Le Pen. But the outcome remains uncertain because many have yet to choose.
“I’ll decide at the last moment,” said retired power worker Pierre Gineste. Having voted Melenchon in round one, round two for him is the dilemma of a ballot for Macron, a blank ballot or not voting. He said he won't vote Le Pen.
The choice is so difficult and divisive that friendships and families are being tested. Aïtzegagh voted for the green party candidate in round one; his daughter chose Melenchon. She then told her dad that she might vote Le Pen in the runoff because she cannot stomach Macron. Aïtzegagh said he responded by warning: “If you vote Le Pen, I will repudiate you.”
In 2002, when Le Pen's father, Jean-Marie, stunned France by advancing to the runoff, Aïtzegagh was among the 82% of voters who came together behind conservative Jacques Chirac, in a powerful rejection of the extreme right.
In 2017, Aïtzegagh voted for Macron in the run-off — once again solely to be a barrage against a Le Pen, this time Marine. Macron won handily — 66% to 34% — but in the knowledge that many of his votes were simply ballots against her. The same will be true on Sunday.
In a first for him and with “sadness and disgust,” Aïtzegagh will abstain, because Macron's first term has been “five years of cholera, five years of crap, five years of destruction” and Le Pen isn't an option for him.
“I don’t want to be a barrage any more,” he said. "I have had enough.”
Desentredeux, who uses the gender-neutral pronoun they, agonized long and hard over their choice — and then decided that Le Pen's presence again in the runoff left them with no choice at all.
This is the first presidential election that Desentredeux has been old enough to vote in and it will end with a reluctant vote for Macron.
“Macron winning would be a catastrophe, but Le Pen getting through would be criminal,” Desentredeux said. “I don't want to do it but I feel obliged.”
Associated Press journalist Alex Turnbull contributed.
Follow AP’s coverage of the French election at https://apnews.com/hub/french-election-2022