Macron or Le Pen: the generation-defining vote for French Millennials

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This article is the full version of this, which was published on CapX.co on 3rd May 2017.

On 23rd April, 75% of the French population had its say in the future direction of France at the polling station. Unlike the times before, this choice transpired to be not one dependent on a class-based choice between the traditional left and right. Both the Socialist Party and the Republicans suffered humiliating first round knockouts, the first time that neither of the main parties has progressed since the beginning of the Fifth Republic. This time, the line of division across French society runs between a globalist, outward-looking, free market worldview, and one of protectionism, introspection and nativism.

In that regard, the contest could not be closer. 51% voted for the former, 49% voted for the latter. In the immediate aftermath of the results, masses of young people – members of anarchist and anti-fascist groups alike – protested on the Place de la Bastille in Paris against the announcement that the far right had progressed into the next round of voting. Clearly, this election symbolises a rancorous tension between two conflicting visions for France. These visions are now embodied in the two remaining candidates: Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen.

For French Millennials, this choice comes as one of great anxiety. An age demographic historically known for its liberal social values and left-of-centre economics, it is also one suffering badly in France’s economic slump. Deciding whom to vote for will, in many cases around the country, resemble a catch 22: a choice between compromising on values or perpetuating an economic status quo which is viewed as having done so little for so many.

Based on social agenda alone, the majority would likely vote overwhelmingly for Macron. Whilst something of a centrist overall, many of his social policies are leftwing, expanding the reach of unemployment benefits being an example of that. Hamon, the Socialist Party leader, immediately endorsed Macron after the results had been announced, a clear sign that he is the second round candidate most aligned with left-of-centre social values. Meanwhile, 60% of the far left Mélenchon’s supporters are expected to back Macron in a fortnight, according to French interior ministry data[1].

On the contrary, Marine Le Pen is notoriously divisive. She has caused a storm in the past by insinuating that Islam is incompatible with French secularism (“secularist France is still unquestionably a country of Christian roots”) and by claiming that French schoolchildren were being fed halal meat covertly. She has remain unabashed in maintain this anti-immigration, Islamosceptic stance, which runs against the grain of majority millennial beliefs and universal values.

It would be wrong, however, to believe that these dogmatic principles of Le Pen are solely alienating and detrimental. France’s relationship with immigration and Islam is sensitively complicated by its colonial past and the recent terrorist attacks. When Le Pen created havoc around the halal meat allegations, politicians of all parties spent the ensuing two days debating the issue, straddling the precarious line between desisting from Islamophobia and appearing unsympathetic to genuine worries regarding religion. Every terrorist attack supports her long-publicised belief that existing French authorities are remaining cavalier about the safety of its citizens. She has accused her rival of being “weak on terrorism”.

The Front National has also gone to great lengths to strengthen its credibility through its dédiabolisation process – literally ‘de-devilment’. Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father and the notoriously xenophobic founder of the party, was evicted in an ingenious public relations feat. Nobody can doubt the commitment of a leader prepared to kick their own father out of the party to help the cause. In addition, Marine has placed much emphasis on the feminist side of her character, a nod to those who might feel uneasy about her social virtues. The recent decision to disassociate herself further from the party’s negative connotations by resigning as leader is a further symbolic move to this goal.

The upshot of all this, she hopes, is that voters (and particularly the young) will not feel it a compromise on their social values to vote for her. She is not the Front National, the current Front National is not the Front National of 2002, and she is not her father.

Le Pen has, therefore, shaped the narrative into a stark choice for Millennials. They can either stay true to their generational beliefs steeped in idealism and an optimistic Weltaanschauung, or they can take steps to guarantee their security. Whilst her tough stance will have alienated voters, and contributed to an extent to the endorsements which Macron has received from three of the four other main candidates, it has also proven integral to her popularity and reputation amongst many as the only true defender of French interests.

Also vital in the decision for French Millennials will be economic outlook, to be made against a backdrop of prolonged suffering in the country’s lagging economy.

The unemployment rate in France is currently just under 10%, a beacon of Hollande’s economic failures throughout his tenure, as it was 9.4% at the beginning of 2012. The youth unemployment rate, however, is a crippling 26[2]%. That puts it 7th highest in the EU, behind the likes of Greece, Spain, Portugal and Cyprus. Monthly wage growth has fallen from 0.8% to 0.2% in the same period[3].

As globalisation, borne by the neoliberalism of the 1980s and propagated into the 21st Century, has failed to lay the groundwork for a secure, healthy, flourishing lifestyle for so many young French people, it is unsurprising that pre-election polls showed many turning to Le Pen’s rejection of this system. In the run-up to the 23rd April, Ifop-Fiducial[4] polling suggested that as many as one in three under-30s were set to vote for Le Pen.

Demographic breakdown of the vote has not yet been released, so we cannot know for certain that French Millennials did eventually vote in majority for the far right populist. But there are signs which do indicate such a result: the polls have proven remarkably accurate in their forecasts, such accuracy rendering unlikely a drastic shift from expected to actualised voting behaviour in a large age demographic; and Le Pen carried the North East rustbelt overwhelmingly, again suggesting formidable support across all ages in these areas.

One area of Le Pen’s appeal for young people is therefore clear: her pledge to put France first. According to her narrative, globalisation, and the accompanying mass immigration and import influx of putting strain on the country’s home-grown businesses, runs counter to a vision for France which prioritises the wellbeing of its own citizens. Little wonder then that she proclaims herself to be the “candidate of the people” – her supporters the “true patriots” – protecting them from the “savage globalisation [which] puts our civilisation in danger”[5].

In response, Le Pen would raise tariffs, install regulation forcing employers to favour French candidates for jobs, and pull France out of the Eurozone. There is nothing new to this politics of populism, as Brexit and Trump show. But for the young people of France, of which 1 in 4 do not have a job, and the other 3 are struggling on stagnant wages against rising living costs, her programme amounts to a potential silver bullet for such problems.

Many might doubt the efficacy of protectionism, but the far right candidate is helped out by her opponent’s own questionable economic credibility. Whilst running as a fresh, self-styled independent, few in the French electorate will forget that Macron was Minister of Economy and Finance for a year in the most recent government to fail miserably in improving conditions in France. Macron may well claim to be released from the shackles of a socialist agenda, free to pursue centre-right policy such as loosening business regulations and cutting 120,000 jobs in the public sector, but tarnished economic reputations have a stubborn resilience to such rationale.

With neither candidate carrying the advantage of a weighty, tangible economic reputation, the choice between the globalist candidate and the nationalist one becomes one based on ideology. Those young people who feel neglected, perhaps even victimised by the incumbent system feel they have nothing to lose in taking a gamble on Le Pen’s vision. That was abundantly clear in the first round, as she won in 9 of the 10 départements with the highest unemployment rates in France.

On the other hand, those described by Philippe Le Corre of the Brookings Institution as “in their 20s and 30s, well-educated, energetic young professionals and students”, who have been more successful in an open France, will vote largely to defend it. In this regard, proof lies in Macron’s domination of the cosmopolitan, thriving capital in the first round.

We are left, then, with a strange irony, fittingly peculiar for an election which has turned the political landscape of France on its head. The battleground has clearly shifted away from one between the traditional left versus right, based on social class and prosperity. Yet the new scenario is still one between the haves and have-nots in French society: those who have flourished by way of globalisation and those who have been left behind to pine for a France which protects its own.

Looking towards to May 7th, Millennials who voted for neither candidate in the first round will be faced with a simple decision grounded in these beliefs: vote or abstain.

Young people, disillusioned with the choice between a xenophobe aiming to withdraw France from the world around, and a millionaire banker perpetuating the system by which he did so well, might choose to abstain. In this case, it is predicted that Le Pen will benefit due to her support base’s superior zeal.

This would, however, be an unwise choice. Refusing to vote does not nullify the election, or make it go away. Instead, it would resemble Millennials, the young and upcoming generation, choosing not to partake in deciding France’s future. Such passivity would be unhealthy and exacerbate existing intergenerational tensions.

Shifting allegiances will therefore be a key determinant of the second round. As mentioned, all former candidates bar Mélenchon have officially endorsed Macron, and data estimates 2/3s of Fillon supporters and 60% of Mélenchon’s will vote for En Marche!’s leader. Hamon strongly endorsed the centrist as the candidate with closest affiliation on most issues, so his supporters will be sure to come out strongly in Macron’s favour.

Tactical voting, then, will be significant. This will be particularly pertinent for young people from these parties who, objecting strongly to Marine Le Pen on principle, try to block her by voting for the alternative. It seems likely that Macron will receive more votes from Millennials than Le Pen in the second round because of this, even though Le Pen has consistently remained the most popular leader amongst this demographic since the Front National ran away with the under-30 vote in the 2015 regional elections[6].

The interesting upshot of this of course is that Macron’s support will not all necessarily be earnest advocacy of his agenda, whereas a vote for Le Pen will undoubtedly be one of fervent loyalty. The only possible vote transfer which could be to her advantage would be from Mélenchon supporters who prioritise anti-EU sentiment and protectionism above social values. Amongst Millennials, this radical shift would be an unlikely outcome.

Macron and Le Pen have overrode the traditional class battleground between leftwing and rightwing politics, but the framework of a struggle between prosperity and hardship still very much continues. An inward-looking, suspicious France which looks after Number One, or a far-sighted, confident nation extending its reach across the globe?

For young people, any choice between the two will then have to be cross-checked with pre-existing principles and values, and at times they will be at odds. It will be tense and at times acerbic. Both personal beliefs and fellow young citizens shall be pitted against one another, cleaved apart by laden buzzwords like ‘patriotism’, ‘nationalism’, ‘racism’ and ‘privilege’.

Whatever the result of 7th May, it will be a generation-defining moment for French Millennials, and its reverberations will tremor far into the future of their nation.

Marcus Solarz Hendriks

[1] https://www.ft.com/content/3bf6af6a-c567-3b3d-9266-20d6b23af930

[2] https://www.statista.com/statistics/266228/youth-unemployment-rate-in-eu-countries/

[3] http://www.tradingeconomics.com/france/wage-growth

[4] http://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-france-election-fn-youths-idUKKBN16L139

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/apr/24/marine-le-pen-rails-against-rampant-globalisation-after-election-success

[6] http://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-france-election-fn-youths-idUKKBN16L139