French youth leave protest, politics to rest of Europe

In West Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, they riot against the housing shortage, nuclear development, and the sterility of a postwar consumer society.

In France, however, the ideals of 1968 belong to another generation. Faced by high unemployment, insecurity, and little hope for change, much of today's youth in France has chosen to react with cynical indifference.

In conversations with young people during a recent tour of France for the coming presidential elections, this correspondent was struck by the extent to which this country's new generation feels left out of society."We feel totally frustrated and discouraged with what is happening," said 18-year-old Frederic Jouan from Aix-en Provence in the south. "French politics are nothing but rubbish.There is nothing new. No new faces. No new ideas."

As far as the new generation is concerned, there is little point in trying to engineer another May 1968-type revolt against authority. "What has revolution achieved?" queried 23-year-old Jean-Pierre Vallat, an unemployed former student in Lille. "France is a blocked country. If you have any ideas or initiative, you might as well emigrate. The whole system here is too turgid to allow any real progress."

The way France's electoral candidates see it, however, an inspiring future awaits the country's 6 million 18- to 25-year-olds. President Valery Giscard d'Estaing and Socialist leader Francois Mitterrand have bestirred themselves with equal determination to attract what some analysts regard as "the decisive youth vote."

Giscard d'Estaing, who rarely fails to tell young audiences that he was the one to have reduced the voting age from 20 to 18 during his first years in office, haas installed a direct "youth line" in his campaign office so that callers can listen to his special recorded message elaborating plans for a politically stable and thriving France over the next seven years if he is reelected. At the end of the recording, the caller is asked to leave his own observations on tape for the President.

Mitterrand, who is expected to appeal to a greater proportion of young voters than his opponent, has tended to rely more on the ideas expressed in his electoral program to attract support. In particular, the Socialist candidate harps on what he knows to be the main concerns of young people: the need for a "new" society and more jobs for all.

But France's youth will need a lot of persuasion. It also remains questionable to what degree the youth vote will actually prove decisive.

Although local municipalities throughout France have reported high voter registration among the young over the past few years, observers wonder whether they will prove as conscientious about going to the polls on election day.

"I think registering for the vote among 18-year-olds is more of a symbolic act to prove that one has become a grown-up that one of civic duty," noted Roland Noury, the independent mayor of Jossigny, a farming village in the Seine-et-marne department. "Judging by their cold indifference to politics, however, I don't expect to see many of them casting their vote on May 10."

One Western diplomat in Paris adds: "The fact that the Socialists will more than likely receive a large slice of the youth vote is more the result of a traditional tendency among the young to vote left than anything else. It won't tip the balance."

A substantial number of young voters supported marginal candidates, who drew 12 percent during the April 26 first round. The ecologists, for example, received more than 1.1 million votes.

According to the French Institute for Political Science, the average age of the "Greens" is less than 30, that is, 15 years younger than the voting cross section of France. If any "decisive" youth vote is to emerge from the country's electoral panorama, it is probably among the ecologists. Both Giscard and Mitterrand are seeking to woo these vital voters by talking ecology as much as they can in their speeches. But Mitterrand, it appears, has so far been able to offer more to the ecologists in his electoral program than Giscard d'Estaing has.

But even the ecology youth vote cannot be counted on in the final dash for the Elysee Palace. Ecologist leader Brice Lalonde issued no preference for the second round, only suggesting that voters support the candidate who responds most positively to the "Green" demands.

Furthermore, it is by no means a foregone conclusion that those who cast their ballots during the first round would do so again in the second. One young architecture student who voted ecologist said his conscience would not permit him to support either candidate on May 10. A common complaint among the young is that there is little point in voting, as neither Giscard d'Estaing nor Mitterrand will be able to bring about change.

"Giscard represents the same bunch of people who have been in power for the past 22 years," said Manuel Grancher, a business student in Paris. "Mitterrrand is washed out and offers no inspiration, so why bother?"

But why this sense of political disinterest? More so than before, French youth feel they face a gloomy future. Chronic unemployment seems to be one of the main reasons. Higher education diplomas do little to alleviate the problem. School-leavers can no longer hope to find a job straight off. If they do, the wages are likely to be minimal. The prospects appear limited, particularly if one comes from a lower-middle-class or working-class background.

France's educational system also seems culpable. "There is no inspiration in what one does at School," remembers Sophie Georges, a young fashion designer."It is all very rigid and designed to fit you into the system once you leave. But then you are faced with the option of joining the rat race with all its barriers or dropping out and living a marginal life."

Thus much of French youth seeks its inspiration elsewhere. In music, fashion , drugs, or travel. "We are different from the 68' generation," said Frederic Jouan. "I think we are more individualistic. Music and fashion are much more important for us today. They at least give us a chance to express our ideas."

Looking around Paris and the French provincial towns, this appears true. Youths in '50s-style jeans, bobby socks, and short haircuts crowd the cafes. America, or, at least dreams about America, are back in fashion. "For us, the United States means freedom. You can do anything you want there," added Jouan.

For Manuel Grancher and his friends, freedom to do what one wants means getting away. Traveling. Together with four or five companions, he has fitted out an old van with a stereo to tour around during their vacation periods. "Traveling for us is our way of getting involved. The politicians can't offer us this," he said.

More so than in other European countries, travel agencies have sprung up not only in Paris but in the regions. "The French are disillusioned," one travel agent told me in Aix-en-Provence. "They see little hope in their own country, so they travel. To India, to Peru, or to Thailand. That's how they can dream and be inspired. It's their outlet from frustration."

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