3 May 2017

What do French millennials see in Le Pen?

By Marcus S. Hendriks

Sunday’s French Presidential run off will be the first time since the beginning of the Fifth Republic that neither of France’s two most established parties, the Socialists and the Republicans, have made the cut.

Rather than a traditional choice between Left and Right, Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen represent the new dividing line in French society, which runs between an outward-looking, market-friendly worldview, and one of protectionism, introspection and nativism. In the first round, 51 per cent of voters opted for candidates representing the former; 49 per cent voted for the latter. (That split does not translate into a tight race between Macron and Le Pen, with the centrist holding a comfortable lead going into tonight’s TV debate.)

For many of France’s millennials, the final round is something of a catch 22: a choice between compromising on liberal social values by voting for Le Pen and perpetuating an economic status quo which is viewed as having done so little for so many by voting for Macron.

Based on the candidates’ social agenda alone, Macron would likely win an overwhelming majority of millennial votes. His centrist, socially liberal agenda chimes with younger voter’s views on a wide range of subjects.

By contrast, 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. Her unabashed anti-immigration, anti-Islam stance would seem to run against the grain of the beliefs and values of most millennial voters.

It would be wrong, however, to believe that these dogmatic views have put young voters off Le Pen. Bucking far-Right trends across Europe, she has a considerable following among younger voters.

That is partly thanks to Le Pen’s tough line on security. With every terrorist attack her long-publicised claim that the French authorities are too lax becomes more persuasive – including to young voters.

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, has been thrown out. Who could doubt the commitment of a leader prepared to kick their own father out of the party to help the cause?

After the first round of voting, Marine Le Pen went a step further by resigning as the leader of her party.

Her hope is that voters, and particularly young voters, will not feel they are compromising their social values by voting for her. The message is: she is not the Front National and the current Front National is not the Front National of 2002.

Le Pen has, therefore, shaped the narrative into a stark choice for Millennials. They can either stay true to the idealistic worldview that young voters are prone to subscribe to, or they can take steps to guarantee their security.

Above all, however, it is economics that is pushing young French voters towards Le Pen. France’s unemployment rate is currently just under 10 per cent, irrefutable evidence of Hollande’s economic failure given that it was 9.4 per cent when he took office. Youth unemployment is a crippling 26 per cent.

Given that the status quo isn’t working for so many young French people, it is unsurprising that pre-election polls showed so many turning to Le Pen’s radical change of course. In the run-up to the first round, Ifop-Fiducial polling suggested that as many as one in three under-30s were set to vote for Le Pen. (Demographic breakdown of the first-round votes has not yet been released, so we cannot know for certain how many young French voters opted for Le Pen. But the polls have proven remarkably accurate in their forecasts more generally.)

One area of Le Pen’s appeal to young people is therefore clear: her pledge to put France first economically. She proclaims herself to be the “candidate of the people” – her supporters the “true patriots” – protecting them from the “savage globalisation” that “puts our civilisation in danger”.

Le Pen’s answer to these problems would be to raise tariffs, force employers to favour French candidates for jobs, and pull France out of the eurozone. There is nothing novel about these populist pledges. And experience shows that the higher tariffs and tougher regulation she proposes will only make French workers of all ages poorer.  But, when a quarter of young French voters don’t have a job and those in work face stagnant wages, her quick fixes are electorally potent.

Whatever the question marks about her economic policies, Le Pen is helped by her opponent’s questionable economic credibility. Macron may be running as a fresh, self-styled independent, but few will forget his role as Minister of Economy and Finance for a year in Hollande’s economically disastrous government.

Macron may well claim to be released from the shackles of a socialist agenda, free to pursue policies such as loosening business regulations and cutting 120,000 public sector jobs. But damaged economic reputations are famously hard to repair.

With neither candidate carrying the advantage of a defensible economic track record, the choice becomes entirely ideological. Those young people who feel neglected, perhaps even victimised by the current 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 last Sunday.

What will France’s young voters do on Sunday?

Many will be disillusioned with the choice between a xenophobe who wants France to retreat from the world and a millionaire banker perpetuating the system which works well for people like him. Large numbers might therefore abstain.

But millennials must resist that temptation and have their say in France’s future. Disengagement would be unhealthy and exacerbate existing inter-generational tensions.

Shifting allegiances generally decide the second round. All former candidates bar the far-Left Jean-Luc Mélenchon have endorsed Macron, and it is estimated that two-thirds of Fillon supporters and 60 per cent of Mélenchon’s will vote for Macron. Benoit 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.

The interesting upshot of this, of course, is that Macron’s support will not be a strong vote of confidence in his plan for the country, whereas votes for Le Pen indicate significant ideological sympathy. 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. Among Millennials, this radical shift would be an unlikely outcome.

Macron and Le Pen have overridden the traditional battle between Left and Right. Instead the choice is between an inward-looking, suspicious France which looks after Number One and a far-sighted, confident nation extending its reach across the globe.

Sunday’s vote will be a generation-defining moment for French millennials, and, whoever wins, the result will reverberate far into France’s future.

Marcus S. Hendriks is the content manger of Horizons