France's youth flirts with National Front, but is it a match?

The far-right party won the largest share of votes in the 18-30 age range in the first round of regional elections. But that could change in the second round on Sunday.

Jean-Paul Pelissier/Reuters
Marion Marechal-Le Pen, French National Front political party candidate for the second round of the regional elections in the Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur region delivers a speech during a political rally in Marseille, France, on Wednesday.

Marion Marechal-Le Pen, a rising star of the far-right National Front (FN), strides onto the stage, sweeping her long blond hair over one shoulder. Dressed youthfully in black boots and fitted black pants and a blazer, it’s the day before her 26th birthday.

But the hundreds of supporters who fill the auditorium in this port town for the last campaign event before Sunday’s regional elections in France aren’t dissuaded by her age. In fact, supporter Julien Chevet says it’s what draws him to her.

“Her youth motivates us, she represents us,” says the banner-wielding student with pierced ears. “The rest of the political class has forgotten us.”

The FN stunned France, and Europe, by becoming France’s No. 1 party after the first round of elections last Sunday. And round two this Sunday could see the party, once considered a dangerous fringe group, capture regional governance for the first time. One of their best results was here in the Provence-Alpes-Cote-d'Azur region – in no small part with support from younger voters like Mr. Chevet.

But analysts don’t view this through a lens of optimism or empowerment that buoys many youth and student movements, like those in France of May 1968, but see it more as a sign of resignation. The appeal of the FN among youths mirrors its attraction at the national level: disillusionment with mainstream politics, a stagnant economy, and a sense that the country is moving in the wrong direction. Many of these woes, like chronic unemployment, hit youths hardest.

“Youths don’t see any alternative,” says French political analyst Philippe Moreau Chevrolet, “so they are willing to try it.”

'The Marion phenomenon'

According to a Harris Interactive poll, among those who chose to go to the polls in the first round, the FN got the most votes among those ages 18 to 30. Thirty-four percent cast ballots for the FN (compared to 22 percent for the center-left Socialists and their allies, and 19 percent for the center-right), saying that employment, security, and migration were their top concerns and that the straight-talk of the FN was a major draw.

The FN has made a point to go after youths, and no one is poised to do it better than Ms. Marechal-Le Pen, which the party has dubbed the “Marion phenomenon.”

The granddaughter of FN founder Jean-Marie Le Pen and the niece of the FN’s leader Marine Le Pen, Marechal-Le Pen was the youngest ever lawmaker when she was elected to the parliament at age 22 in 2012. And now she could head one of France’s most prosperous regions along the French Riviera in a party that has sought to rebrand itself as younger and more modern than when it was founded in 1972.

Articulate and clear, she addresses her supporters in Marseille, casting off the “false elites” in Paris. “The real Republican front is the Front National,” she tells the audience, which cheers wildly, raising flags and booing at each reference to the current ruling class.

“She is not part of the old-boys network,” says Mattieu Melilli, a young engineer who lives in Marseille, “or of the bobos in Paris,” or the bourgeois-bohemian that many outside Paris see as part of an impenetrable elite.

Although the National Front is to the far right on immigration, which has given it a bounce in the wake of the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks, many of its economic policies are to the left. The party, which says France is better outside the euro, advocates for more protectionism – a draw for young people who face 25 percent unemployment.

“We don’t have enough housing, police, schools, or jobs,” says Florent Erard, a nurse from the region. “You can be a child in elementary school and know that the [European Union] isn’t working.”

In some ways Marechal-Le Pen is more conservative than her aunt who also topped polls in an administrative region in the north after round one. The younger Le Pen raised a storm in the diverse town of Toulon, an hour drive from Marseille, when she said recently: "We are not a land of Islam... In our country, we don't wear djellaba clothing, we don't wear a veil, and we don't impose cathedral-sized mosques," the mother of one told the crowd.

She was a visible face in the “Manif pour Tous,” the huge protests led by Catholics against gay marriage in France in 2013, while her aunt opted to stay on the sidelines. She has supported cutting subsidies for family-planning centers.

A youth backlash against FN?

While her politics is galvanizing a new generation of voters, it is also provoking those who’ve been apolitical – a significant majority of young French voters – to challenge the FN.

Sixty-four percent of those aged 18 to 30 abstained in the first round of elections, 14 points above the national average. That could change. Outside the doors of the Aix-Marseille University, Cynthia Ali, who didn’t vote in round one, now plans to cast a vote on Sunday against the FN, expressly because of uncertainties about funding for abortion.

Fellow classmate Ilan Guedj also abstained in the first round, but won’t now. “We have to vote so that the FN doesn’t win. They are extremist and dangerous, and they aren’t going to change anything for the better,” says the 18-year-old. “Young people are voting for them as a form of revolt.”

At a headquarters of the Socialist Party, Eva Talha, a 25-year-old who ran for regional counselor for the party, says she doesn’t see this as an active revolution. “There is a disillusionment of French youth. It is not May ‘68,” she says. “Students are resigned and falling into the trap of the far-right.”

Back at the FN rally, engineering student Luc de Balanda disagrees. He joins the crowd in a hearty rendition of the Marseillaise and then says that Marechal-Le Pen is exactly the revolution that France needs.

“I think she will offer a new perspective to the region, and to the country,” he says. “And because she is young, she’ll offer a unique point-of-view.”

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