Next Gen voting behaviour II: Why French Millennials are backing the far right like never before

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In the second article of our series on Next Gen voting behaviour, we look at the unprecedented level of support for the far right amongst French Millennials, and why that is.

This article follows on from the first in our series, which explored how Next Gens are voting across the West, and the ways in which this has strayed from the historical trend in young generation voting behaviour.

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France’s presidential election is now looming and the heat of the contest shows no sign of abating. Marine Le Pen, Emmanuel Macron and, more recently, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, have positioned themselves as three political outsiders in serious contention, but only a brave man would rule out the former clear-favourite, François Fillon.

Amidst the sound and fury of barbed televised debates, swinging opinion polls and grandstanding political commentary, an extraordinary event is approaching, according to the latest predictions: the young people of France may come out in majority for Front National. This would be hugely unexpected for two reasons: it would go against the grain of millennial behaviour in recent votes across Europe and North America; and also it would be a seismic shift from their track record in past French elections.

That is what the daily polls from Ifop-Fiducial[1] are suggesting, with as many as one in three under-30s set to tick Marine Le Pen’s ballot box on 23rd April. This would seem very much a plausible outcome given the 2015 regional elections, in which more young voters turned out for Front National than any other party.

In absence of any particularly ground-breaking economic policy, it appears that Le Pen’s tough stance on immigration, the EU, terrorism and cultural identity is attracting a level of support from Millennials never before seen by her party. To find out why this narrative is proving so tractable with this demographic, we must understand the circumstances and outlook of the youth of France.

Since booting the Socialist Party (SP) out in 1995, France thrice elected a right wing president, each time veering closer and closer back to the SP before ultimately voting in Hollande in 2012. Young people were integral to this, as they were in Chirac’s decimation of Jean-Marie Le Pen in the 2002 second round. We can clearly see, then, that young French people voted in line with our expectations for this age group in the past 20 years.

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 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]. In short, the 2012 vote for change has not brought any profound improvements to the financial livelihoods of young French people.

Just as across the rest of Europe, young people are facing the brunt of these ramifications: bleak job prospects, high income tax, and stagnant wages. Front National might not have any inspiring economic silver bullets but, as far as the young are concerned, neither do the established right or left. They have tried them both, and neither have been good enough. And although the current candidates are new people with new policies, the case of Labour in the UK shows just how difficult it is to shake off an image of economic ineptitude.

Le Pen’s economic policies, then, are probably not winning the attention of Millennials, but neither are they losing it. Lacking any considerable competition on this front from the other runners, her approach to the EU, terrorism and national identity are proving significant in her party’s newfound youth support base.

As a colonial power, France has a long history with issues of identity and the consequences of becoming a globalised nation. As with the British Empire, the full ramifications were only fully felt once imperial breakdown had begun. The 1954-62 Algerian War of Independence was especially consequential, as violence in Africa caused an exodus of one million European settlers back to France. According to sociologist Éric Fassin, their sense of embitterment would form the bedrock of the far right for years to come[4].

But a colonial past can only explain why France might be generally vulnerable to nativist tendencies pervading politics. It cannot explain why this is maturing into widespread support for Marine Le Pen in 2017.

The most obvious factor which differentiates this election from previous ones is the recent increase in terrorist attacks, as well as the likely threat of more. These stoke nativist concerns, and, to put it cynically, collaborate with Le Pen’s hard-line anti-immigration views. She has a history of shaping the raging debate over Islam in France: earlier in the campaign, she caused a storm by claiming that French schoolchildren were being fed halal meat covertly. 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. This of course all played into Le Pen’s hands, who seemed the only person truly protecting French interests, regardless of whether her claims were even true. Crucial to her growing popularity, each subsequent Islamist terrorist attack adds credibility to her fears. And fear is contagious.

But there is a flaw in seeing anti-immigration/terrorism as the fulcrum upon which all her success turns. Such scaremongering about the threat posed by Islam to the essence and safety of Europe did not win over Millennials in the Austrian elections, or the Dutch ones, or the Brexit referendum (as a Leave campaign poster attempted to conflate migration from the Middle East with the EU’s open border policy). Undoubtedly, terrorism will push some in the direction of the figure pledging to tackle it most earnestly, especially as France has suffered more attacks in the last few years than any other country in Europe. Nonetheless, fear grips all Europeans in present times, whether your nation has faced one, multiple, or no attacks. Yet it does not appear that this was significant enough to make young voters break from their typically liberal values elsewhere, so it is unlikely that this is the sole reason behind their new allegiance to the far right in France.

More broadly, Front National has taken ownership of national identity and, by championing it, champions her own claim to be its true defender. The fragility of this concept in French minds has been witnessed many times before Marine Le Pen’s emergence: the 2005 Clichy-sous-Bois riots; Sarkozy’s presidential quest to find and define the ‘French identity’; even the opening line of Charles de Gaulle’s memoirs – “All my life I’ve had a certain idea France” – all placed ‘L’identité francaise’ at the forefront of the French psyche.

The fact that the concept of ‘Français de souche’ (literally “French of root” – French people whose ancestry derives from European roots) has grown in prominence over this campaign is a testament to the influence which the far right has had. In an interview on secularism, Marine Le Pen has claimed that “France is still unquestionably a country of Christian roots”, implying that Muslim culture is simply incompatible with French/European civilisation. Such sentiments, combining paranoia and national solidarity in a society so fissiparous, are clearly proving potent amongst all people, including the young.

The Front National has crucially strengthened 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. Furthermore, 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.

Le Pen’s unprecedented and devastatingly successful campaign with the under-30s appears a concoction of fortuitous and concerted factors. Her ability to structure the debate as a choice between pursuing quixotic values and intangible humanitarian duties, and tackling the very real threats to the security and identity of France, is fundamental. Whilst young people do tend to have a stronger sense of social justice, they are also stereotypically more impressionable and susceptive to convincing leadership. Purifying the party brand (as much as a far right, nativist party realistically can) has enabled Le Pen to reach out to social moderates whom her father could only alienate.

All of this adds to the uninspiring campaigns of the traditional parties, and the inescapable reality that France’s economy is failing its people, especially its youth, who are now faced with a life of bleak prospects. Millennials might just see 2017 as a chance to roll the dice and demand a radical change in direction at the polling station.

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

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

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

[4] Radio 4 Podcast “France and Race: A Question of Identite”, 10/04/2012

Marcus Solarz Hendriks