As Sunday’s final round of presidential voting approaches in France, only one thing seems certain: turnout will be high. With incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy polling in a dead heat with his socialist challenger, François Hollande, it may even surpass the first round of voting two weeks ago, when more than 80 per cent of registered voters cast ballots. Few Western elections see anywhere near this degree of enthusiasm: in Canada, barely 60 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots in last year’s federal election, while the U.K. saw a slightly better turnout of 65 per cent in 2010.
The fact that it’s a tight race certainly helps, says Lawrence LeDuc, a University of Toronto expert on voter behaviour, but that’s just part of the story. “Presidential elections are a big deal in France,” he says, because citizens vote directly for a president, whereas Brits and Canadians don’t cast ballots for a prime minister. LeDuc also credits proportional representation, which, during parliamentary elections, gives voters the sense every vote counts. And the French, LeDuc adds, simply have a strong culture of political participation—a revolutionary holdover. There, it seems, the principle of citizenship still manages to excite.