Occupy Europe: How a generation went from indifferent to indignant
Occupy Europe? From Madrid to Athens, young people facing a bleak future are casting doubt on European identity.
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Thierry Rassfestin, 21, joined the youth wing of the center-right French ruling party but was turned off, and moved further right. "There was nothing ... only gatherings to eat pizza and watch videos of [French President Nicolas] Sarkozy from time to time." He then joined the far-right National Front, now led by Marine Le Pen, daughter of party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen. "Our leaders represent a huge incoherence," he says. "They don't know the definitions of the words they use. They don't understand the meaning of 'republic' or 'country' or 'nation-state.' "Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Generation Disillusioned
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Mr. Rassfestin, as an openly gay male, represents a change in the composition of the French far right. "We should concentrate locally, with town halls," he says. "We mustn't continue to blindly believe what we are told by politicians.... We must hand back the power to the people; give them the sovereignty."
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Europe's dreams may have lost their shine. And the coming generation is the first in 60 years to harbor lower expectations than their parents' generation. But in recent months, with its young in mind, some of Europe's eldest statesmen are coming out of retirement, riding in on white horses to offer hope and vision.
These are no strangers to European complexities. Helmut Kohl, president of the German republic during reunification, recently chided his country for losing its ardor for Europe, for losing its "dependability" in the face of a debt crisis that could unhinge what he and others achieved. There's a "frightening lack of courage," he said in an oblique reference to current Chancellor Angela Merkel. "The great transformations in the world of today are no excuse for the lack of vision ... and the direction we want to take."
Then there is Jacques Delors, a main architect of the modern European Union. Since July, he has been giving interviews stating that Europe's founding values are being "destroyed ... day by day." Mr. Delors in the 1980s reconciled the left in France with a free market economy to integrate Europe, and was president of the European commission. He says the spirit of Europe is of a family, a community reliant on "mutual support," not an impersonal, cold "union," a term he dislikes.
Finally comes Stéphane Hessel. The 93-year-old French resistance hero is also the last living author of the UN Declaration on Human Rights. Mr. Hessel was living quietly in Paris, reading the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, and tending his garden. But the climate of antipathy and corruption he felt in France – and the abandonment of ideals he believed were prevalent in the 1990s through UN summits on women, climate, and social development – outraged him. He penned a booklet called "Get Indignant" – from which the youth in Puerta del Sol took their name – that became a No. 1 bestseller. His main message for Europe's youth is not to accept that idealism is dead.
"I tell youngsters," he says, "search.... The worst of attitudes is indifference or to think, 'I can do nothing about it; I manage.' By behaving in this way, you lose one of the essential components that makes you human."