Emmanuel Macron supporters watch the presidential debate 

We, the youth of France, are disenchanted.

Last week’s election results have yielded many stunned faces across France, for those who were out of touch.

Around the world, and indeed in France, we kind of all knew what may happen: Marine Le Pen would be popular. But what we didn’t necessarily expect was a Le Pen semi-victorious, nor would it seem an Emmanuel Macron equally semi-victorious.

As an eager first-time voter I joined my compatriots in the two-and-a-half hour queues. I wanted to vote in this election. It’s not compulsory in France, but the stakes are higher this time than last — particularly for people who look like me.

Even though overseas participation was higher than expected, the mainland showed a similar turnout to 2012 when France voted for a now unpopular socialist government. Indeed there have only been two times since 1965 that the turnout was below this year’s (thus far): 1969 and 2002.

Yet for the first time in France’s modern history not a single candidate from a mainstream party made it through to the deciding round.

Young people in France are disgusted — and not just with Le Pen.

As 19-year-old Jonathan from the eastern region of Alsace told me, “c’est du grand n’importe quoi”. The sentiment pretty much translates to, “it’s a big pile of crap”.

Deep in the heart of Front National (FN) territory, Jonathan and his peers are finding it hard to accept the fact that in this election the parties have been out of touch with them.

“I think the strong abstention among young people is due to a growing lack of interest in the candidates’ programs,” says 18-year-old Aanderson. “In particular the ‘tous pourris’ [all rotten-to-the-core] sentiments towards the candidates are very present in the feelings of young people.”

It’s not as if the candidates didn’t try to make themselves more appealing; they used youth-saturated social media; they Snapchatted!

Conversely and perhaps more to the extreme, there were those candidates who spoke to the so-called disengaged, proving that it was not a lack of interest in politics that was leading to a protest by abstention.

“The FN has succeeded in democratising itself by proposing populist ideas (which I support in Melenchon’s far-left party ‘France Insoumise’) such as the referendums that give the floor to the people,” continued Aanderson. “However, it can be seen briefly in the debates that the remarks of Marine Le Pen still refer to the immigration which she poses as an essential problem of France.”

France is the latest country to be intoxicated by a wave of populism sweeping the world. It’s not just in Anglo or European countries; look at India.

The presidential candidates have been inhaling the fumes of populism, drunk off people’s fears about the growing disparity between the rich and the poor.

France’s unemployment rate is currently at 10%, above the OECD average of 6.2% and EU average of 8.6%. For the young, it’s much worse. Almost one in four (24%) people between 18 and 25 are jobless.

Right next door, Germany’s youth unemployment rate is at 7.7%, a third of that of France. And while many Alsatians work across the border, not everyone speaks German or English.

Moreover, France’s current inequalities in the labour market mean that those with a foreign-sounding name find it even harder to find employment.

Le Pen is blaming France’s problems on the elite and immigrants.

“If Marine Le Pen was able to arrive until the second round it is partly because of distrust in the political class but especially by creating a climate of social tension and hatred by pointing to foreigners living in France as the source of insecurity problems,” explained Luc*. “The FN plays on the fact that the insecurity in France is due to the youth ‘du quartier’ [of the suburbs] without even realising these youth are indeed part of the French ‘natives’, as she often says.”

Le Pen is charismatic and convincing. While the elites of Europe talked about integration and civilisations, people were losing their jobs. Not white-collar workers, but the ignored working classes, whose jobs were being outsourced or replaced by robots.

In the same vein, Jean-Luc Melenchon spoke to the disengaged, “over” the political elite who couldn’t fulfill their promises of a greater world. About 30% of youth were in favour of the far-left candidate, whom some likened to Bernie Sanders, ahead of Le Pen (21%) and Macron (18%), according to polling results.

So here we are, caught between abstention and the extremities.

Perhaps less obviously, Macron too has capitalised on this new form of politics, masquerading his status quo tendencies to the more nationalistic, appealing to the unhappy electorate.

His newly minted party is not one in the traditional sense, but more a “movement”. His slogan is En Marche, “On the Move”.

Far less popular, but necessary to beat the ultra-nationalist is a vote for the technocrat.

“I would absolutely vote for Emmanuel Macron, even if it is still a vote against a political ideology rather than for one, it’s better than suicide (under Le Pen),” said Luc.

Though he left Francois Hollande’s now hated mainstream socialist party to form his own, Macron is still seen as part of the out-of-touch European Union elite, a sentiment Le Pen has picked up on.

And for Aanderson, Macron is business as usual. “He was the main minister of economy under Hollande and managed to pass to the second round because he did not bear the label of the Socialist Party.”

If the recent protests and Monday’s May Day clashes are anything to go by, the road ahead will be rocky either way even if Macron defeats Le Pen, as he’s expected to do.

And for us, the next generation, divided by our political intentions at least we’re united in looming  uncertainty.

“‘Madness is to repeat a mistake by hoping that a good result comes out’.” Quoting Albert Einstein, Luc says those that need to learn a lesson are the politicians: “The left and the right continuously repeat the same errors … Even when a good candidate arrives on the scene no one trusts them, indeed proving the loss of confidence in politics.”

*Name changed at the wish of interviewee

* French-Australian Scheherazade Bloul is voting for the first time in these presidential elections. She is a PhD candidate at the University of Canberra’s News and Media Research Centre.

Peter Fray

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