Neither Le Pen nor Macron: Many French voters refuse to accept their options for president
Two remaining candidates fight for same political terrain as May 7 vote approaches
"Il est un gigolo."
With that, the waitress dismissed France's front-runner for president, Emmanuel Macron, as swiftly as she carried away the empty dishes.
Two weeks later, after the results of the first round of voting on April 23 pit centrist Macron head-to-head with far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, the waitress, who gave her name as Lucie, was forced to reconsider.
"It's not much of a choice," she said standing among the empty tables of the central Paris restaurant where she works. She wavered repeatedly between putting Macron ahead of Le Pen and not choosing at all.
The historic first round of voting redrew France's political map and lines are necessarily shifting again. French citizens who may be following the old advice of voting with their hearts in the first round, then with their heads in the second, are now in the fraught process of a quick rethink before the May 7 vote that will determine their country's next leader.
Macron and Le Pen are keen to seize on the shifting political landscape and have appealed directly to voters who, just a week ago, wouldn't have considered voting for them.
And while millions will ultimately mark a ballot in favour of one of the two remaining candidates, others find both so unpalatable they have decided to opt for neither.
Their choice is "ni, ni" — neither, nor — one of several popular new slogans and hashtags meant to dismiss the Macron-Le Pen contest as unacceptable and encourage people not to vote.
It's a growing sentiment that seemed to spread quickly among supporters of candidates who didn't make it to the second round. But it was high school students who first took it to the streets last week.
Many who participated in a protest in Paris on Thursday are too young to vote, but they resent the choice that will be made for them.
On their march from Place de la République, they carried posters and painted graffiti on bank storefronts and billboards with the words "Ni banquier, ni faschos," "Ni fascisme, ni libéralisme" and "Ni patrie, ni patron." All are expressions of their distaste for two wildly contrasting yet equally unacceptable options: Le Pen's nationalism and patriotism, and Macron's links to the financial world and the establishment.
With the help of older, masked protesters, the demonstrations quickly descended into clashes with police and tear gas.
But the wider call for abstentions — many under the hashtag #SansMoiLe7Mai (without me on May 7) — could play a significant role in reshaping a contest that, at the moment, appears to still be going Macron's way.
The two leaders offer starkly different outlooks. Le Pen is an anti-European Union, pro-Russia nationalist who wants to restrict immigration. Macron's centrist En Marche! movement was created just over a year ago and borrows from both the left and the right. He's pro-EU, wary of Russia and strikes a more inclusive tone when discussing France's minority communities.
And yet, as the only candidates still standing, they are now fighting for some of the same political terrain.
Witness their appearances on Wednesday in Amiens, Macron's hometown and the home of a Whirlpool factory that's about to shut down and move to Poland, killing 286 jobs.
Macron's visit was partly overshadowed by an earlier surprise drop-in by Le Pen — a whirlwind affair of selfies and smiles that lasted only minutes. Macron then spent much longer debating with the company's striking employees — all broadcast live on Facebook.
The duel of images was a good example of the hand-to-hand combat the two candidates must fight in order to persuade skeptics.
The real political battleground might be in far-left territory, where the preferred candidate was Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who came in fourth in the first round of voting.
His is also the movement where support for abstaining appears to be most popular, doubling in the past week, according to some polls.
- Macron, Le Pen qualify for 2nd round of France's presidential election
- ANALYSIS| French voters choose change – but what type?
Mélenchon even appears to encourage it. Unlike other leaders, he's given ambiguous voting instructions to the seven million people who cast a ballot for him.
He has urged them to refrain from voting for Le Pen. But rather than clearly endorse Macron, Mélenchon has criticized him.
"We can't really call this a choice," he said, echoing his ni, ni followers. But unlike the abstainers, he said he intends to vote, and seemed to hint that vote would go to Macron.
"You don't need me to tell you who to vote for. I'm not a guru, not a guide."
Impact of abstentions
Le Pen, who stepped away from her post as National Front leader last Monday night to try to appeal to more voters, spoke directly to Mélenchon supporters in a video message Friday, calling their leader "respectable."
"It's not possible to leave the leadership of France to Emmanuel Macron. The danger is too great," she said.
Because her program is so far-right, Le Pen is unlikely to win many of them over. The question is whether abstentions among Mélenchon supporters could hurt front-runner Macron.
"I do not think so," said Jean-Yves Camus, author of Far Right Politics in Europe. He says French voters will ultimately buy Macron's line that working to change what they dislike about the European Union and globalization, for example, will be more appealing than everything that comes with a Le Pen presidency.
"I think and I hope that most of my fellow countrymen will be realistic as well," he said.
'To be silent is to vote Le Pen'
Not everyone is so optimistic.
Many here warn that abstentions could provide Le Pen a path to the presidency.
In a letter to the protesting students published in current affairs magazine L'Obs, French actor Philippe Torreton warned of the perils of staying home.
"To be silent is to vote Le Pen," he said. "Calling for abstention is a vote for Le Pen.
"There is only one way to block the far-right, nationalism, xenophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, revisionism, populism: that's to call for a vote for Emmanuel Macron in the second round."
It will likely take much more than letters to persuade them.