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1In France, the 2017 election cycle cast a spotlight on a phenomenon that electoral sociologists had long considered marginal: “blank and null” votes. With more than four million votes (11.3% of voters [1]) in the second round of the presidential election and almost two million votes (9.9% of voters [2]) in the second round of the legislative elections, the blank and null vote count broke all records for these types of election (see Graph 1).

Graph 1

Blank and Null Votes in the Fifth Republic

Graph 1

Blank and Null Votes in the Fifth Republic

2Having undergone an institutional transformation from anti-vote (inconsistent with the legitimate definition of “vote”) to antidote (to abstention, to the rise of “extremism”), socially the “blank vote” has gradually become more than just a matter of voting procedure (blank ballots). It has even progressively extricated itself from the category of “null vote”, to the extent that the distinction between the two was eventually consecrated in law in February 2014. [3] Nevertheless, “blank votes” and “null votes” still receive the same treatment from legislators: they are both classed as “uncast” votes. And yet people continue to cast such votes; indeed the number doing so is increasing, leaving little doubt about the deliberate nature of the gesture being made by these voters. So why do voters, knowing that their blank and null votes will not be counted, still make the effort to cast them?

3The few previous studies of blank and null votes have tended to analyze this gesture as a refusal to choose motivated by an assumed lack of desirable political options. [4] This perspective can be explained primarily by the fact that electoral sociology often seems to be a quantification endeavor founded on a widely held assumption: that political opinion is central to the democratic process, and that, if elections are a census of opinion, then votes, expressed through the medium of ballots, are the manifestation of that opinion. In that sense, the quantification of blank and null votes creates a problematic of choice: are such votes a choice, a non-choice, or indeed a choice of non-choice? In particular, this approach tends to see blank and null votes more as a tool of analysis than a phenomenon to be analyzed. This amounts to treating such votes as a “natural” fact of life, the meaning of which goes without saying. However, it is far from clear that this is the case.

4So how can we grasp the complexity of blank and null votes without giving in to the “arithmetical dryness of numbers?” [5] How can we explain the diversity of usages of blank and null votes? To what extent do they represent different relationships to voting, or indeed to politics? These are the questions we will attempt to answer in this article.

5Our approach is to combine the how with the why (and the “what for?”) and to study voting in action rather than voting as a choice or orientation. This study forms part of our thesis work on the many usages of blank and null votes in France. The thesis is based on the analysis of 53 semi-directed interviews with voters (carried out between 2012 and 2014), the archives of spoiled ballots from the presidential and legislative elections in 2007 and 2012 (almost 16,000), and the responses to an online questionnaire (1,632). [6] Within the necessarily limited scope of this essay, we will use only the data gathered from interviews. Although this narrow focus requires caution with regard to the potential generalizability of our results, we should point out that the goal of this article is not so much to produce an exhaustive sociology of blank and null votes as to examine such votes from a new perspective and to identify trends worthy of study using other methods. Moreover, although the empirical material presented here does not, strictly speaking, relate to the 2017 elections, it nevertheless contributes to the development of robust hypotheses that can serve as the basis for future research. Even though the interviews were carried out before the elections, they may well contain clues that can help illuminate the issues surrounding the elections. We might even wonder whether, in a certain sense, these “pre-election” interviews actually have several advantages. In contrast to “post-election” interviews, we did not need to worry about the possibility of some respondents taking the interview as an opportunity to change their own voting narrative and make their vote mean something it may not previously have meant. These interviews reveal voters’ underlying inclinations and predispositions before their attention has been “monopolized” by a synchronic context often dominated exclusively by questions concerning the candidates.

6More generally, we treat this type of vote not just as a response to the political options on offer in a specific situation, but also as a practice with multiple usages and appropriations. We use the term “usage” in Michel Foucault’s sense, [7] with an emphasis on the following aspects:

  • the fact that a usage can be something constrained, regulated, a circumscribed field that delimits the range of possibilities (the French expression “c’est l’usage” means “the way things are done” or “the way things should be”; an English equivalent might be “according to usage” or “established usage”);
  • and, at the same time, the fact that usage can be the result of diverse practices (“what is [done]”), sometimes deliberate, yet not truly involving “choice”. Over time and with use (in French, “à l’usage”), something can take on forms that deviate to a greater or lesser extent from the most commonly known and/or conventional one.

7In fact, it is this ambiguity that we want to investigate: the gap between prescribed usage and actual usage, between the normative definition of voting and the practice of voting, between what is instituted and what is considered, between the unconscious and the deliberate, between consent and reappropriation. To do so, our work draws on two complementary approaches to voting:

  • an approach drawn from a Bourdieusian sociology of politics that criticizes the analysis of voting in terms of “choice” and instead emphasizes social determinants and the effects of domination; [8]
  • an approach derived primarily from a historical sociology of politics that, in focusing on the practical and symbolic aspects of voting (voting as an electoral gesture or act, respectively), sees voting as—to a certain extent—empowering the voter. [9]

8In other words, the goal is not to try to reconcile the “legitimist” and “populist” [10] approaches, but rather to combine a primary focus on the diversity of meanings—and so of forms of domination—with attention to the “side stories”, the “elsewheres”, [11] the “ordinary” [12] ways of doing politics “without seeming to”, [13] the “tactics” [14] or indeed “arts of resistance”. [15]

9To do so, we identified three ideal types of blank and null vote: loyalty, or a refusal to choose motivated by loyalty to the electoral act and/or a candidate; exit, or not playing the game because of inability(ies); and voice, or making a statement in order to frustrate the goal of the vote and/or the election. Although this triptych alone cannot cover all the many potential usages of blank and null votes, it seems to address the three polarities that inform relationships between voters and this type of vote. By “sociologizing” Albert O. Hirschman’s model, [16] a development that several researchers have been calling for, [17] it is now a question of moving beyond individual cases to illuminate the social conditions that give rise to these usages.

10In fact, we will see that these usages seem to fall along a continuum of voter investment in the act of voting. Voter investment depends above all on how much authority to act voters feel they have (what Daniel Gaxie calls “self-empowerment” or “self-disempowerment” [18]): the more competent a voter feels, the greater the level of investment will be. Because this sense of competence itself tends to vary depending on a voter’s wealth, we can hypothesize that investment is largely responsible for determining how the usages and meanings of blank and null votes are socially and politically differentiated (see Diagram 1).

Diagram 1

Usages of Blank and Null Votes and Continuum of Investment in the Act of Voting

Diagram 1

Usages of Blank and Null Votes and Continuum of Investment in the Act of Voting

Blank and Null Votes as Loyalty(ies): Paradoxical Participation in a Deceptive Political Game

11The first ideal-typical usage of blank and null votes, and the most frequent one among our respondents (25 out of 53), is loyalty: the “poor relation” of Albert O. Hirschman’s original analysis. This type of blank and null vote takes the form of a double, often cumulative refusal: a refusal to not vote (because of loyalty to the electoral act) and/or a refusal to choose (because of party or “ideological” loyalty). These two types of refusal have in common the fact that they are “activated” when the available political options are judged insufficient, and so, more often than not, when those options are limited (during the second round). Above all, both types of refusal tend to be expressed by social agents with high levels of social and cultural capital.

Strong Social Integration and Self-Empowerment: Twofold Political Competence

12The respondents in our sample group who used this type of blank and null vote are educated, if not highly educated (university level), and belong to the highest socioprofessional categories (executives and intellectual professions, intermediate professions, and non-managerial office workers). Their parents (particularly their fathers) also tend to be highly educated and to have held senior positions. The absence of young people and the predominance of men are further indications that this group is mostly made up of people who, without necessarily describing them as “dominant”, certainly belong to privileged social classes.

13Unsurprisingly, therefore, these people feel empowered to express their opinions and, by extension, to “reject” the political options on offer when they feel they are insufficient. Objective competence goes hand in hand (or eventually combines) with subjective competence: a person’s sense that his/her own judgements, etc., are legitimate. Specifically, this “self-empowerment” takes several forms: the adoption of an outsider’s perspective (above the fray); the use of a rhetoric of legitimization (which showcases the person’s technical skills); or the act of self-positioning on a “left-right” spectrum in which most respondents feel fully represented, although others find it “reductive” or even “intellectually incoherent”.

An “Invested” and Situational Vote Motivated by the Nature of the Available Political Options

14In the original model loyalty is synonymous with passivity, but in the case of blank and null votes loyalty actually represents two forms of refusal that are “active” because of the respondents’ significant investment in the act of voting. Although we would not necessarily describe them as a “choice”, these votes are more often than not correlated with a high level of “politicization” [19] and are the end result of a gradual process of “opinion” construction (interest, following the campaign in the media, etc.). As a result, even though this type of vote is not cast in favor of any one candidate, for its users it is similar to a “normal vote” and has all the same significance: it represents a rejection of all the candidates. E.B. (special educator, 46-year-old man, one-year master’s degree) summarizes it as follows:


“If I feel strongly that none of the candidates in the second round will be able to achieve anything, I express my opinion by saying, ‘No, I don’t agree with any of the proposed programs’”.

16These respondents are thus reproducing a common-sense form of the “blank vote” as it is generally understood. Motivated exclusively by a problem with the available political options, their vote is a refusal to choose in a specific situation, or in other words an exercise of the right to abstain. Indeed, they often make the connection between abstention and “blank voting” themselves, but emphasize the fact that they have abstained from choosing, not from voting:


“Since 2002, in the second round [of the presidential election], I’ve abstained”.
You don’t vote anymore?
“I do, but I vote blank”.
(Véronique, teacher, 41-year-old woman, two-year master’s in Political Science)

A “Blank” Vote with No Expectations: Between “Self-Denial” and Disappointment(s)

18These people understand their gesture as a “blank” vote that conforms to the social norm. It would be unthinkable for them to cast such a vote during a first round (or in a single-round election), i.e. when the political options are as varied as they can be. [20] In their view, voting “blank” is first and foremost about voting in favor of voting. “I come, I vote, I leave, I approve of the system of voting but not of the people on the ballot, and so I vote blank”, says B.E. (forest ranger, former manager, 65-year-old man, some higher education), who has only voted “blank” once since he was 18. This type of “blank” vote can be seen as an expression of tacit agreement with representative democracy, the party system, and voting in general. These respondents cannot imagine that “blank votes” could be used as a tool of protest, and they often express a profound rejection of abstention.

19However, it is in the way they distinguish between their “blank votes” and “null votes” more generally that these people express their compliance with the norm most strongly. They all refer to their refusal to choose and/or to not vote as “voting blank”, and they do so because they all, by contrast, reject the idea of “voting null”. This distinction is symbolic and normative, and it is related to the different values ascribed to the different types of vote. For these people, even though “blank votes” are not actually counted as cast votes, they do count, and in that sense, unlike “null votes”, they are a legitimate expression of opinion. This is made clear by the materiality of the gesture: these people choose to physically vote because they do not want their vote to be treated as null. Nevertheless, although the blank/null distinction makes sense, it does not necessarily align with the material prerogatives prescribed in the Electoral Code. The example of P.M. (designer in a research department, 53-year-old man, vocational degree) is revealing:


“Generally, I either stuff my envelope with the two or three leaflets I’ve taken, or with ballot papers. Or sometimes I hand in an empty envelope”.
“Have you never wanted to, for example, write something?”
“A message? No, because I know that would nullify the vote. I want my vote to be counted, not treated as null. For me, a blank vote is a vote.”

21This mismatch between the symbolism of voting and what votes can achieve in practical terms is also clear when we look at what we call “partisan blank and null votes”. These are almost always cast in the second round of an election, and represent a refusal to choose motivated by loyalty to a candidate/party/faction that has already been eliminated, or is not involved. Physically they often take the form of a candidate’s official campaign bulletin or pamphlet, thus reaffirming voters’ allegiances in a non-standard way. This loyalty again demonstrates that these voters are invested in and endorse the legitimate political process. In fact, even for those who claim to be skeptical about the policies being pursued, the problem is primarily a “people problem”, rather than a systemic and/or operational one.

22Nevertheless, for these respondents, it seems that this type of situational refusal to choose is becoming more common. From a structural perspective, we can hypothesize that the increasing legitimization of a definition of “blank voting” is putting more and more voters in a position where they can allow themselves to refuse to choose (while still casting a vote) when the political options are such that doing so is socially “permitted” (during a second round when the candidates are all fairly similar, etc.). And from a situational perspective, the increasing lack of differentiation between the platforms of the main parties may well also lead these people to cast votes that, although “invested”, carry no expectations. They find it ever more difficult to understand the ideological differences within the political sphere. This inability is often seen as being the sole preserve of the working class, but it is becoming more frequent in this group too. [21]

Blank and Null Votes as Exit(s): The Pseudo-Integration of Social Agents Excluded from the Political Process

23The second ideal-typical usage of blank and null voting is exit. The forms this exit takes are linked to three types of inability: to vote “well” (because of a lack of understanding of the voting process or even a lack of self-control); to choose (because of a lack of understanding of politics); or to abstain (because of social pressure). It tends to be used by voters who are socially and culturally disadvantaged and/or politically ill-equipped.

Disenfranchisement and “Self-Disempowerment”: The Corollaries of Belonging to the “Working Class”?

24In our sample, the respondents who cast this type of blank and null vote were those with the least social, cultural, and political capital. Several characteristics identify them as belonging to the “working class”. They have little or no higher education and are nonmanagerial office workers, laborers, unemployed, or students. In other words, they occupy professional and/or social positions that, although not always synonymous with poverty and instability, nevertheless tend to be associated with conditions of economic and social oppression—conditions that these respondents have “inherited” from their parents.

25The people in this group share a twofold political incompetence. “Objective” or technical incompetence is joined by “statutory” incompetence, [22] so called because it is socially constructed and encouraged: these people do not feel competent to talk about politics or, more generally, entitled to take a position, to judge or assess.

26As a consequence, their relationships to politics and voting are distant. In interviews they do not attempt to hide their lack of interest, or even indifference. “Someone must have told me to vote like that”, suggests S.F. (retired, 60-year-old woman, no higher education), when asked why she voted the way she did. Moreover, there is a glaring lack of political discussion in their social lives. The political sphere is seen as another world from which they are excluded and in which politicians live sheltered from the struggles of “real life”. R.U. (student, 24-year-old man, vocational degree), who spent his whole childhood in a working-class neighborhood in La Courneuve, Paris, says:


“[Politicians] don’t really live in the real world: they have a driver, an apartment, someone else prepares their suit every day, they get their breakfast made by great cooks[…]”

28Their distance from politics is, therefore, primarily a social distance. Their lack of political identification is created by a prior lack of social identification: these respondents are often isolated and struggle to establish a connection to a primary group, let alone to a “common class of existence”. [23] Besides changes in the socioprofessional landscape (the economic shift towards the service sector, the redefinition of work, etc.) and in the redistribution of wealth, [24] another important factor in such isolation is the decline in public services in some areas. Indeed, such services are sometimes the only thing that can create the social connections that these people lack. Moreover, this lack of social and political identification is also connected to the structurally elitist nature of representative institutions [25] and the “depopularization” of certain partisan organizations. [26]

An “Indifferent” Vote: A “Disguised Non-Response” Close to Sociological Abstention

29Under the influence of these multiple forms of “self-disempowerment”, then, these people cast blank and null votes that are equivalent to an exit. Contrary to the “scholarly common sense” that has been developing since the 1990s, a “blank” vote can, therefore, be an “indifferent” vote [27]: in other words, a vote “for nothing”, without justification or purpose. [28]

30These votes, which are not susceptible to a politically structured explanation, are not understood as a political gesture in the strict sense: the reasoning behind them seems to be, “we have to vote, so let’s vote blank and null”. On the subject of the second round of the 2007 presidential elections, for example, C.H. tells us, “I couldn’t stand either of them. I’m against abstention, against voting blank, but in that case I had no choice”.

31Their lack of investment in the act of voting also reveals the unconscious weight of dominant norms. For these social agents, this type of vote “for nothing” is simply part of “the way things are”. It represents the assimilation of what Émile Durkheim calls “logical conformity”, which emphasizes “the unthought categories of thought which limit the thinkable and predetermine what is actually thought”. [29] Their votes, like some of their responses in interviews, are “disguised non-responses” that mask their exit from the electoral process. Rather than a “civic” [30] or “hidden” [31] abstention, this type of blank and null vote serves rather as a “fake normal vote”. For that reason, it is just as likely to be cast indiscriminately in either of the two rounds of voting, regardless of the nature of the political options.

32Ultimately, these social agents are in a state of constant oscillation between indifferent participation and abstention. Most of them are influenced in some way by the campaign. The more exposed people are to the topic of the election and the (often informal) social micropressures that go with it, [32] the more likely they are to vote. As a result, when insufficient social and political integration means people are deprived of an environment that can “actualize” the desire to vote, they tend more and more towards structural abstention.

A Nonchalant Vote: Focus on the Art of Dodging

33By casting this type of blank and null vote, these respondents endorse, albeit indirectly, the political order: they unknowingly accept their oppression. And yet, they are not completely devoid of the capacity for indignation or reaction. This capacity is simply “socially” limited, and their votes, even when they take the form of, for example, an annotated bulletin, are far from anything approaching the “arts of resistance” [33]; they are closer to a form of “dodge”.

34First, they deploy an “unstructured” hostility to politics. Drawing on a set of well-known stereotypes, these respondents do not express “opinions” so much as a rejection that serves as a set response in potentially embarrassing situations and reveals the inadequacy of the cognitive resources at their disposal. [34] It can even result in verbal violence that hides an “inability to use rhetoric that is appropriate” [35] (and therefore legitimate). For example, in response to the question “why did you decide to vote blank in 2012?” S.F. (retired, 60-year-old woman, no higher education) begins as follows:


“Just because white [blanc means both blank and white in French] is better than black. They’re like the mafia, people in cliques. I felt that enough was enough. And in the end we always get scammed anyway.”

36Moreover, these respondents’ sense of humor carries echoes of the “ironic cynicism” that Richard Hoggart identifies as a part of “working-class culture”. [36] Their detachment is a posture, and for them the aim seems to be simply to do something instead of doing nothing. For example, B.R. (computer scientist, 28-year-old man, professional qualification), who once submitted a null ballot in a group vote in favor of Breton independence, does not see his act as representing commitment to any particular position.


“Actually it was just for fun. And to get Brittany’s point across, sure. But anyway, I didn’t care at all”.

38These votes may also remind us of the “nonchalant consumption” Hoggart describes, which, although not a form of resistance, might be an indication of a certain degree of autonomy among members of the working class tempted to forget their oppression for a while by using their “capacity for indifference”: a capacity that only becomes more effective when “hidden beneath an apparent willingness” [37] (in this case, to vote).

Blank and Null Votes as a Voice of Protest: A Concrete Reappropriation of the Act of Voting

39The final ideal-typical usage of blank and null votes is that of voice. It is expressed in two ways:

  • a “right to choose not to choose” that resonates with certain people’s desire to not (or no longer) respond favorably to the obligation of choice;
  • a use of the ballot as a way to express a demand or demands.

40These respondents (19 out of 53) use blank and null votes to reclaim the act of voting by submitting “megaphone ballots”. The ballot is thus transformed into a space of expression for social agents who feel able to speak up and entitled to do so however they see fit.

Self-Rehabilitation and Ambivalent Socializations: The Sociological Factors Driving a Redefined Relationship to Politics

41In contrast to exit and loyalty, this usage of blank and null votes cannot be ascribed clearly to a single category of people. Nevertheless, there are certain key social characteristics that correlate with the use of reappropriation.

42First, among our respondents the capacity for reappropriation seems to be correlated with a high level of education and with average or high social status. On its own, however, this observation regarding resources is not enough to explain reappropriation. To leave the matter there would be to run the risk of, for example, assuming that reappropriation is only practiced by the most culturally or socially privileged, or even of thinking that cultural capital is a sufficient condition in itself (as if the phenomenon was no more than a question of “hypercompetence”). In reality, reappropriation must be seen in the context of the effects of socializing environments. In contrast to those in the loyalty group, these people combine their sense of being entitled and competent to speak up with a critical stance that motivates them to speak (or to perceive politics/the political) in a different way than “before”. This is why we talk of a process of “self-rehabilitation”.

43More precisely, this process often conflicts with prior socialization. These respondents are marked by the effects of certain structural differences, in particular those caused by the advent of universal education. Most of their parents do not have higher education qualifications. For these respondents, therefore, education constituted a different fundamental socializing environment to that of their parents. This generational gap is reflected in people’s personal circumstances, which may create ambivalent socialization situations. This is especially true given that there is a lack of real difference between the social status of the respondents and their parents, despite the latter being less educated. [38]

44Moreover, although these people display hostility to politics in a similar way to those in the exit group, in this case it is the attitude of informed social agents. They tend to seek information “outside” the traditional media; many of them do not or no longer own a television, or say that they hardly ever watch it. This trend reveals the “selective” interest that these people have in politics or the political. Although they are interested in politics in the abstract, they have developed an opposition to politics understood as political activity, and particularly the power struggles that it involves.

Making One’s Voice Heard Instead of Voting for a Candidate: A “Reinvested” Vote That Breaks with Legitimate Forms of Electoral Exchange

45“Self-rehabilitation” also leads to a change in the way people understand voting itself. Voting is transformed into a means (of expressing one’s opinion) rather than simply serving a goal (of electing a candidate): ultimately, the message conveyed is more important than the vote cast. All these respondents describe feeling more and more as if they are being forced to vote “against their will” (or rather against their beliefs). As a reaction against what they previously experienced as “disenfranchisement”, they develop an ethos of rejecting constraint. Situational at first, this ethos is then generalized to a wider variety of situations, to the extent that it is no longer closely related to the nature of the available political options. For many of these respondents, this feeling seems to have developed since the second round of the 2002 presidential election, when a number of them felt compelled to vote for Jacques Chirac in order to block out the Front National candidate. Since then, it is as if successive frustrations have led them to self-immunize against any further appeals to vote. For example, they outright rejected the idea of participating in a potential “Republican Front” in the 2017 presidential election.


“In 2002, I didn’t ask questions […] I had no qualms and I went […] But now, I wouldn’t do it again! If it comes to Sarkozy vs. Le Pen in 2017, I won’t be able to do it. Physically, it wouldn’t be possible. […] I wouldn’t be able to move!”
(S.J., nurse, 53-year-old woman, bachelor’s degree)

47The feeling of disenfranchisement is also exacerbated by the fact that blank and null votes are not counted as cast votes. In response to this perceived injustice, these people vehemently reaffirm their desire to not be forced to choose. And in order to avoid being forced to choose, they see no reason not to vote blank and null in whatever way they see fit.


“I don’t vote blank anymore because blank votes are seen as ‘opinionless’, but I do have an opinion […] I actually submitted a piece of toilet paper, it wasn’t just some crazy idea, it reflected what I thought! These days our votes are good for using as Kleenex at best, toilet paper at worst”.
(J.T, disabled worker, artist, 36-year-old man, two-year master’s degree)

49Many of these people are attempting, in a way, to reverse the stigma so as to be better able to appropriate it. The “nullity” of their ballot becomes a mark of distinction. Displaying a “reflexive relationship to [their] practice”, [39] they reappropriate their vote by giving it a personal meaning and using it like a billboard proclaiming their own will.


“These days, I don’t even vote blank, I vote null. Because I have things to say. I don’t write a long letter, I try and come up with something quite concise, but I always end withdo not give you my authority”.
(C.E., teacher, 56-year-old woman, vocational degree)

51This hijacking of the voting process constitutes a genuine, and not unreflective, “counterusage”. [40] Nevertheless, these “counter-usages” are “tactics” rather than “strategies”, because they are based on a temporality fixated on the event. [41]


“I’ve often written things […] It depends on what mood I’m in on the day, actually. Last time I wrote stop moonlighters’, things like that. It’s to do with the local situation, we’re fed up of local apparatchiks”.
(I.P., hotel employee, 44-year-old woman, vocational degree)

53The “calculation” often goes no further than that, and the “benefits” of the action are ephemeral, if indeed any benefits are expected at all. These “counter-usages”, then, serve as “practices of freedom” rather than “practices of liberation”. [42] In other words, for these people the goal is to negotiate a space of freedom, to temporarily invert or even alter power relationships, but not to abolish the relationship between the government and the governed altogether.

A Deceptive New Relationship to Representative Democracy?

54Ultimately, this “counter-usage” may be the counterpart of a deceptive relationship to representative democracy that, although not new, [43] seems to have spread to a wider public in recent times. If so, we are witnessing the “end of democracy as a self-evident good”: a process that goes hand in hand with a set of misgivings regarding “the impoverishment of the concept of representation”. [44] Presumably, this phenomenon affects neither the most privileged social agents (the loyalty group) nor those with the least opportunity to harbor expectations and aspirations (the exit group).

55More precisely, this seems to crystallize around several elements. First, the respondents criticize the socially marked recruitment of political players, their political unrepresentativeness or loss of influence. Challenges to the ethics of politicians on the basis of “privileges” and other adverse effects of what has been called an “oligarchization of representative democracy” [45] also spur them to exercise their right to scrutinize representatives carefully. Blank and null votes are no longer simply a form of expression; they are now also an instrument of control. The relationship between representatives and the represented becomes even more reflexive. And yet, it would be a mistake to ascribe this critical reappropriation of the act of voting to disenchantment alone: it is also related to the “enchantment of disillusionment”. [46] These respondents aspire above all to “democratize democracy”.

56Finally, we call this type of blank and null vote “reinvested” rather than “overinvested” so as not to imply that these voters attach great important to the act of voting. Although some of them are committed to it and cannot imagine not voting, there are others who find themselves abstaining more and more often. In fact, some of them value the idea of voting (as they think it should be) so highly that they disparage voting as it is. Such people voluntarily abstain most of the time and cast a protest vote only when a “good opportunity” presents itself.

57* * *

58In the course of this article, we have shown that although “blank and null” votes are technically two different things, that duality does not seem to correspond to two separate ways of voting—as shown by the fact that they are commonly referred to as a pair (“blank” AND “null”). Neither does it correspond to the socially constructed (particularly by state power) Manicheism of “neutrality” versus “mistakes”. In reality, the various usages of this type of vote reveal several very different relationships to politics.

59On the one hand, some of these votes are the result of a more or less active reproduction of the norm: blank and null voting as it is generally understood allows voters to assert a sort of right of abstention when they are not satisfied with any of the available political options or in specific electoral circumstances (loyalty). Blank and null votes can also reflect passive or indirect consent to the norm. Such votes are a gesture made by the least socially and politically integrated social agents in contexts where their twofold political incompetence is most acute. Blank and null votes can, therefore, be something like a temporary or shifting “buffer zone” that “welcomes” people moving almost inexorably away from an indifferent “normal vote” and towards abstention (see Diagram 2). They are a “disguised non-response” that creates an illusion of involvement among social agents who are, in reality, excluded from the political process (exit). As a result, some blank and null votes are, like abstentionism, “perhaps not so much a hiccup in the system as one of the conditions of its functioning as a misrecognized—and therefore recognized—restriction on political participation”. [47]

Diagram 2

The Configuration of Exit, Loyalty, and Voice: Motivations, Proximity, and the Most Common Trajectories

Diagram 2

The Configuration of Exit, Loyalty, and Voice: Motivations, Proximity, and the Most Common Trajectories

60On the other hand, however, for numerous voters blank and null votes are the “only way [they can] reappropriate the act of voting” [48] (voice). Consequently, these votes, based as they are on the exercise of a right to scrutinize, can also shed light on the current limits of the political system. [49]


  • [1]
    Figures obtained by adding together the “blank votes” (8.52% of voters) and “null votes” (3% of voters).
  • [2]
    Figures obtained by adding together the “blank votes” (6.99% of voters) and “null votes” (2.87% of voters).
  • [3]
    Organic law no. 2016-506 of 25 April 2016 extended the provisions of the law on “blank votes” and “null votes” of 24 February 2014 to the presidential election.
  • [4]
    Without mentioning the prolific English-language literature, see for example: Fréderic Bon and Jean-Paul Cheylan, La France qui vote, Paris, Hachette, 1988, 306-18; Annick Percheron, Françoise Subileau, and Marie-France Toinet, “Non-inscription, abstention et vote blanc et nul en France”, Espace, populations, société, 3, 1987, 511-21; Adélaïde Zulfikarpasic, “Le vote blanc: abstention civique ou expression politique?”, Revue française de science politique, 51(1), February 2001, 247-68.
  • [5]
    Michel Hastings, review of Bernard Dolez and Annie Laurent (eds), Le vote des villes. Les élections municipales des 11 et 18 mars 2001, Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, 2002, in Revue française de science politique, 52(2), April 2002, 333-42.
  • [6]
    ““ la recherche des ‘voix perdues’. Contribution à une sociologie des usages pluriels du vote blanc et nul”, ongoing work for a thesis in sociology under the supervision of Jean-Pierre Durand and Jean-Gabriel Contamin, University of Évry, CPN, CERAPS.
  • [7]
    Mathieu Potte-Bonneville, “Usages” in Philippe Artières and Mathieu Potte-Bonneville, D’après Foucault. Gestes, luttes, programmes, Paris, Les Prairies ordinaires, 2005, pp. 343-75.
  • [8]
    For example: Daniel Gaxie, Le cens caché. Inégalités culturelles et ségrégation politique, Paris, Seuil, 1978; Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, trans. Richard Nice, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1984, 397-465; Franck Franceries, “Des votes aveugles: l’exemple des électeurs FN en milieu populaire”, Politix, 6(22), 1993, 119-37.
  • [9]
    Yves Déloye and Olivier Ihl, L’acte de vote, Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, 2008.
  • [10]
    Jean-Claude Passeron and Claude Grignon, Le Savant et le Populaire. Misérabilisme et populisme en sociologie et en littérature, Paris, Seuil, 1989.
  • [11]
    CURAPP, La politique ailleurs, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1998.
  • [12]
    François Buton, Patrick Lehingue, Nicholas Mariot, and Sabine Rozier, L’ordinaire du politique. Enquêtes sur les rapports profanes au politique, Villeneuve-d’Ascq, Presses Universitaires du Septentrion, 2016.
  • [13]
    Laurent Le Gall, Michel Offerlé, and François Ploux (eds), La politique sans en avoir l’air. Aspects de la politique informelle, XIXe-XXIe siècle, Rennes, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2012.
  • [14]
    Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1984.
  • [15]
    James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1990.
  • [16]
    Albert O. Hirschman, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1970.
  • [17]
    Patrick Lehingue, “L’éclipse de la loyalty dans la trilogie conceptuelle d’A. O. Hirschman” in Josepha Laroche (ed.), La loyauté dans les relations internationales, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2001, pp. 59-80, particularly p. 59 ff.; Nicolas Mariot, “Pourquoi il n’existe pas d’ethnographie de la citoyenneté?”, Politix, 4(92), 2010, 165-94.
  • [18]
    Daniel Gaxie, “Cognitions, auto-habilitation et pouvoirs des ‘citoyens’”, Revue française de science politique, 57(6), December 2007, 737-57.
  • [19]
    In other words, “the interest in and attention paid to the activities and output of the political field [and so] the intensity with which social agents follow the political campaign and the work of political actors” (Gaxie, Le cens caché).
  • [20]
    “Slight clarification: blank votes in the first round mean nothing. In my opinion there is a plethora of candidacies and candidates with varied programs” (Y.V., 58-year-old man, retired civil servant, some higher education).
  • [21]
    The work of Guy Michelat and Michel Simon shows how an almost universal distrust of politics has developed since the 1980s. For example: Guy Michelat and Michel Simon, “Le peuple, la crise, et la politique”, La pensée, special edition, 368, March 2012.
  • [22]
    Pierre Bourdieu, “Questions de politique”, Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, 16, 1977, 55-89.
  • [23]
    Gérard Mauger, “Les transformations des classes populaires en France depuis trente ans” in Jean Lojkine, Pierre Cours-Salies, and Michel Vakaloulis (eds), Nouvelles luttes de classes, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 2006, 29-42.
  • [24]
    For example, very high salaries have been increasing exponentially while the average income of the poorest has declined steeply, especially since the 2008 financial crisis. See Household Income and Wealth, Paris, Insee Références, 2011.
  • [25]
    For example: Bernard Manin, The Principles of Representative Government, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1997.
  • [26]
    On the Socialist Party: Rémi Lefebvre and Frédéric Sawicki, La société des socialistes. Le PS aujourd’hui, Bellecombe-en-Bauges, Éditions du Croquant, 2006; and on the Communist Party: Julian Mischi, Le communisme désarmé. Le PCF et les classes populaires depuis les années 1970, Marseille, Agone, 2014.
  • [27]
    Daniel Gaxie, “Le vote désinvesti: quelques éléments d’analyse des rapports au vote”, Politix, 6(22), 1993, 138-64.
  • [28]
    This runs counter to an interpretive trend that is also evident in studies outside France. For a recent example, see Chiara Superti, “Vanguard of the discontents: blank and null voting as sophisticated protest”, Manuscript, Harvard University, 2015.
  • [29]
    Pierre Bourdieu, “Lecture on the lecture” in In Other Words: Essays Towards a Reflexive Sociology, trans. Matthew Adamson, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1990, pp. 177-98, here p. 178.
  • [30]
    See particularly: Alain Lancelot, L’abstentionnisme électoral en France, Paris, Armand Colin, 1968, 50; Jean Ranger, “L’électorat communiste dans l’élection présidentielle de 1969”, Revue française de science politique, 20(2), April 1970, 282-311, especially 300-4.
  • [31]
    Zulfikarpasic, “Le vote blanc”.
  • [32]
    On the importance of micro-pressures during electoral campaigns, see Céline Braconnier and Jean-Yves Dormagen, La démocratie de l’abstention, Paris, Gallimard, 2007.
  • [33]
    Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance.
  • [34]
    Bourdieu, Distinction, 384.
  • [35]
    The phrase is taken from Ivan Bruneau’s “Un mode d’engagement singulier au Front national: la trajectoire scolaire effective d’un fils de mineur”, Politix, 15, 2002, 183-211.
  • [36]
    Richard Hoggart, La culture du pauvre, trans. from the English Jean-Claude Passeron, Paris, Minuit, 1970, 333 [back-translated from the French].
  • [37]
    Jean-Claude Passeron, “Présentation” in Hoggart, La culture du pauvre, p. 22.
  • [38]
    Authors like Eric Darras have put forward the hypothesis that the development of these kinds of critical stance is partly linked to the mismatch between “an increasingly cultured population and the persistence of the economic crisis, leading to the emergence of an attitude of “disillusionment” (Eric Darras, “Les limites de la distance: rémarques sur les modes d’appropriation des produits culturels” in Olivier Donnat, Regards croisés sur les pratiques culturelles, Paris, La Documentation française, 2003, pp. 231-53, here p. 252).
  • [39]
    Lionel Arnaud and Christine Guionnet, “Introduction” in Les frontières du politique. Enquêtes sur les processus de politisation et de dépolitisation, Rennes, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2005.
  • [40]
    The term “counter-usage” is borrowed from Mathieu Potte-Bonneville’s development of the Foucauldian notion of “counter-conducts” (Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the College de France (1977-1978), trans. Graham Burchell, Basingstoke, Palgrave, 2007). More precisely, if state power strives to define and circumscribe which usages are promoted and permitted (and so normalized), then all usages that distort the meaning or frustrate the goals of those official usages can be called “counter-usages” (Potte-Bonneville, “Usages”).
  • [41]
    De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 46.
  • [42]
    Michel Foucault, “The ethics of the concern for the self as a practice of freedom” in Paul Rabinow (ed.), Ethics, Subjectivity, and Truth (Essential Works of Foucault, 1954-1984), trans. Robert Hurley and others, New York, The New Press, 1997, 281-301.
  • [43]
    For example, Yves Déloye and Olivier Ihl used spoiled ballots from the legislative elections in 1881 to show how certain voters were “already” engaging in a form of “rebellious citizenship” by denouncing much more than just the “mutilating character of universal suffrage” (Yves Déloye and Olivier Ihl, “Des voix pas comme les autres”, Revue française de science politique, 41(2), April 1991, 141-70, and “Légitimité et déviance l’annulation des votes dans les campagnes de la Troisième République”, Politix, 15, 1991 13-24.
  • [44]
    Loïc Blondiaux, “Sommes-nous représentés?”, La vie des idées, 6 January 2012 (online).
  • [45]
    Philippe Corcuff, “Le pari démocratique à l’épreuve de l’individualisme contemporain”, Revue du MAUSS, 25, 2005, 65-78.
  • [46]
    Annie Collovald, “L’enchantement dans la désillusion politique”, Mouvements, 3 (15-16), 2001, 16-21.
  • [47]
    Bourdieu, Distinction, 398.
  • [48]
    Jean-Gabriel Contamin, “Le vote réapproprié” in Frédérique Matonti (ed.), La démobilisation politique, Paris, La Dispute, 2005, pp. 145-76.
  • [49]
    I would like to thank my thesis supervisors, Jean-Gabriel Contamin and Jean-Pierre Durand, for the support and advice that enabled me to complete this article.
Jérémie Moualek
Member of the Centre Pierre Naville and associate at CERAPS, Jérémie Moualek is currently completing a sociology thesis at the University of Évry entitled: “À la recherche des voix perdues. Contribution à une sociologie des usages pluriels du vote blanc et nul”. Conducted under the supervision of Jean-Gabriel Contamin and Jean-Pierre Durand, his thesis work has also involved the production of a documentary film of his research (“Voix perdues”, 2017). His publications include: “Votes blancs et nuls aux élections européennes de 1994. Des votes e’uroconstructifs?’” in Sylvain Schirmann (ed.), Abstentionnisme, euroscepticisme et anti-européisme dans les élections européennes de 1979 à nos jours, Stuttgart, Franz Steiner Verlag, 2016, pp. 79-90; “Tous pourris!’ Formes et significations des gros mots de l’électeur au prisme des bulletins nuls”, ARGOTICA, 1(2), 2013 (online) (Centre Pierre Naville, Université d’Évry-Val d’Essonne, 2 rue du Facteur Cheval, 91000 Évry
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