Why French far-right candidate Marine Le Pen is attracting youth

Marine Le Pen polls third across the entire electorate, but second among 18- to 22-year-olds, largely because they see her tough stance on immigration as the answer to their employment struggles. 

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    French far-right National Front party leader Marine Le Pen gestures during a meeting with foreign correspondents ahead of the upcoming presidential elections, in Nanterre, near Paris on April 10.
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Although he has studied the French far-right party National Front for nearly two decades, even sociologist Sylvain Crépon didn’t expect party leader Marine Le Pen's popularity among young voters to reach the heights it has.

But distrust in mainstream politicians and the ongoing struggle to find jobs has made Ms. Le Pen increasingly popular with young voters – to the extent that she could get as many or even more votes from this age group than President Nicolas Sarkozy in the April 22 election.

A March poll of 18 to 22-year-olds by the French Institute of Public Opinion (IFOP) found that Le Pen scored 23 percent, putting her in second place among voters from that age group. Socialist Party candidate and frontrunner François Hollande earned 31 percent and Mr. Sarkozy scored 21 percent.

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Because only the two candidates who get the most votes in the first round of the presidential election on April 22 qualify for the runoff, the survey is also seen as a symbolic defeat for Sarkozy among young voters.

Mr. Crépon, a research fellow at West Paris Nanterre La Défense University, says such a proportion of young voters planning to vote for a far-right presidential candidate is unheard of in France.

“I was surprised because it was a level that had never been reached before,” he says. “Granted, this is a poll; it’s not the election’s result. But it is true that it’s the first time that you see voting intentions that high among young people and particularly among those who are going to vote for the first time,” Crépon says.

A late March study from the CSA institute based on three surveys suggests Le Pen could even beat both Mr. Hollande and Mr. Sarkozy among young voters. According to the study, she ranked first among 18- to 24-year-olds with 26 percent of the vote, the newspaper Le Monde reported yesterday. Hollande and Sarkozy had 25 and 17 percent, respectively. 

A modern woman

Le Pen was preceded as leader of the National Front by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who led the party until early 2011. He founded the party in 1972 and is known in France for his xenophobic and authoritarian positions. Always considered a fringe candidate, he never achieved the more mainstream appeal his daughter seems to have garnered in this election. Although Marine Le Pen has been accused of targeting France’s Muslim community in her speeches, most French see her as a less radical figure. 

Frédéric Dabi, the associate director general of IFOP, says Marine Le Pen has better ratings from young voters than from the electorate as a whole because her image as a modern candidate appeals to them. For them, her father represented an older, more traditional far right, according to Mr. Dabi.

“Marine Le Pen has very good ratings among young people. Why? Because she is different from her father,” Dabi says. “For this generation, there is a bigger proximity factor. She is a woman, she herself is young, she was born in 1968, she has children and she has a job. So there is an identification process that is stronger among young people.”

Saving French jobs

But Le Pen's strongest appeal is likely her opposition to current levels of immigration. Younger voters, particularly those who do not have a college education and are therefore more exposed to unemployment, often voice the concern that immigrants are taking the few jobs available to them in France's crisis-stricken economy. They see Le Pen's tough stance on immigration as a way to get jobs back. 

The National Front’s political platform states that in a Le Pen administration, legal immigration would be reduced from its current level of 200,000 legal entries a year to 10,000.

Perceval Noet, a 23-year-old law student supporting Le Pen, says he agrees with her proposal to reduce immigration because of France’s high unemployment rate. 

“We have over 5 percent of unemployment and eight million poor people, so I don’t know if we need another 200,000 people [coming] a year,” says Mr. Noet, one of the leaders of The Young With Marine, a youth support committee of Le Pen’s campaign.

The latest figures released last month by the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies show France had a 9.8 percent unemployment rate during the last three months of 2011. Provisional figures showed the unemployment rate among 15- to 24-year-olds was 22.4 percent.

He says immigration is the consequence of “globalism,” a broad idea that Le Pen has cited frequently when blaming France’s economic difficulties on a wide range of international organizations, such as the European Union, the European Central Bank, and the World Trade Organization.

Jean-Yves Camus, a far-right expert, says frustrations about unemployment can lead young voters with lower levels of education to resent immigration and vote for Le Pen. 

“They are more likely to feel that they are in a competition on the job market with not only immigrants but also those born of immigrants,” says Mr. Camus, a research associate at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations.

Blue-collar appeal

Dabi and other experts say young supporters of the National Front tend to have lower educational levels and to struggle more to find and keep jobs. In November 2011, an IFOP poll of 18- to 22-year-olds found Le Pen ranked third, behind Hollande and Sarkozy, but she was popular with young voters from blue-collar families. She scored 30 percent in that category, known to pollsters as “blue-collars’ children.”

“Let’s not forget that this generation, say the 18- to 30-year-olds, is a generation with difficulties to enter the job market in a context of [economic] crisis, which can maybe explain the success of the Marine Le Pen vote,” Dabi says.

Julien Rochedy, president of The Young With Marine, says young voters who support her are most worried about unemployment and immigration, both legal and illegal.

“It’s the same problem: it’s the fact of having people coming here when we have no jobs, no housing, no nothing to give them,” he says. 

Yet not all young voters agree that Le Pen’s focus on immigration is correct or fair. At Paris’ prestigious Louis-le-Grand high school and college, two literature students say Le Pen merely stigmatizes immigrants and is no different from her father, even though she appears less radical than him on the surface.

Guillaume Bohic, 18, says Le Pen is blaming immigrants to gain support from voters and calls her position xenophobic and racist. “To Vote for Marine Le Pen means to vote for the National Front, which is a party that tries to build its success on voters’ fears,” Mr. Bohic says. 

Samuel Lhuillery, 19, says Le Pen’s ideas run contrary to what France stands for. “France’s ideals are liberty, equality, fraternity,” Mr. Lhuillery says. “By promoting extreme politics, you pervert the political regime of France.”

Both Bohic and Lhuillery say they will vote for far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon and say that most of their classmates plan to vote for Hollande of the Socialist Party.

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