All across the big cities of Europe, the victory of Emmanuel Macron was greeted with a deep sigh of relief and some jubilation. The press has by and large been content to stick to a narrative about values: Macron’s “openness” and “liberalism” had defeated Marine Le Pen’s hidebound “nationalism”. And while most acknowledged that there were daunting challenges facing Macron, and indeed the European project writ large, today was a day for celebration.
But there is also reason for caution. The more readily pleasing narrative about the triumph of liberal values, so confidently trumpeted by the press, could be on shaky ground. Young people, it turns out, are increasingly not among the idealists.
Macron was projected to win more than 60 percent of the youth vote (ages 18-24) in the lead up to the second round of voting on Sunday. But that high level of support in the second round obscures that young people in France, as well as elsewhere in Europe, are increasingly favoring non-mainstream political parties.
In France, the communist candidate, Jean-Luc Melenchon, was the favorite among young voters ages 18-24, capturing 30 percent of that age group in the first round of elections on April 23. 24 percent of those aged 25-34 cast their vote for him as well. Melenchon surge in the final weeks leading up to the first round of voting buttressed by high support among first time voters. Thanks to the youth vote and first time voters, Melenchon came achingly close to beating the center-right establishment candidate Francois Fillon. When Melenchon ran in the last presidential elections in 2012, he only managed to garner 8 percent support among 18-24 year olds and 13 percent of those 25-34. His gains this year came straight out of the Socialists’ ranks.
As the old saying goes, if you’re not a socialist before 30, you have no heart; if you’re still a socialist after 30, you have no brain. Many of France’s young people, who went to the National Front this year in unprecedented numbers, beg to differ. In the first round, Le Pen was the second most popular candidate among 18-24 year olds (21 percent) and was tied with Melenchon for second place (after Macron) in the 25-34 age group. In the final second round, Le Pen appears to have outperformed the polls, drawing as much as 44 percent of 18-24 year old vote. It’s quite an achievement. When Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine Le Pen’s father, ran for the presidency in 2002 (and also successfully entered the second round), he only managed to receive 13 percent of 18-24 and 17 percent of 25-34.
Part of Marine Le Pen’s growing appeal with the youth has to do with the establishment’s inability to address France’s endemic youth unemployment problem. In the first round, Le Pen won in areas with higher than average unemployment (10 percent)—parts of Northern, Southern, and Western France. In 2008, on the cusp of the economic crisis, about 17 percent of France’s young people (15-24) were unemployed. That number shot up to 26 percent by 2013 and has hovered around 25 percent since. An urban-rural divide is also contributing to Le Pen’s popularity with young people: while Macron won handsomely in Paris and other urban centers, Le Pen draws her support from smaller towns and villages, where unemployment also tends to be higher than in larger cities.
The future could be bright for the Le Pen brand. Marine Le Pen’s niece, the 27-year-old Marion Maréchal-Le Pen (whose views, incidentally, resemble more her grandfather’s than her aunt’s), is a rising star. A series of stumbles by Macron, or even an inability to break out of the miserable status quo, could drive more young people into their arms in the next elections.
And it’s not only the French youth that are growing disenchanted with centrists. The cross-country statistics are difficult to compare accurately, but there are signs that young people across the European continent are increasingly tempted by illiberalism. The Austrian presidential elections last year looked a lot like the French ones, with two non-establishment candidates competing in a tight race. The Green Party’s Alexander van der Bellen beat out the euroskeptic nationalist Norbert Hofer with 54 percent of the vote, but it was Hofer who won amongst young men: almost 60 percent of men under 29 voted for him.
In the Dutch parliamentary election in March, the center right party of Prime Minister Mark Rutte beat out the challenge from the far-right Geert Wilders. Yet some exit polls found that the same proportion of young people voted for Wilders’s PVV as Rutte’s VVD—approximately 21 percent for each.
Further east in Hungary, university students—the better educated among the youth—are flocking to the extremist Jobbik party. (Jobbik’s anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic rhetoric would even make Jean-Marie Le Pen blush.) One study found 41 percent support for Jobbik among students aged 18-21.
Nationalists in Central and Eastern Europe tend to do well with first-time voters (who often happen to be young), and unrepentant neo-fascists don’t do too shabbily either. In Slovakia in 2016, a quarter of first-time voters chose the extremist People’s Party-Our Slovakia. The head of the party, Marian Kotleba, has proudly sported a WW2-era uniform worn by Slovakia’s fascists, and has referred to Roma as “Gypsy parasites.”
Populist far-right nationalism has been a fixture of Europe’s politics for decades, but these parties’ now-proven ability to capture a growing number of young voters will have profound consequences for the future of the European project. Europe’s youth are furiously demanding change—any change—especially in countries most affected by the economic crisis and saddled with persistent youth unemployment. In Greece, for example, youth unemployment skyrocketed to 60 percent in 2013 and has remained above 45 percent since. This means that a college graduate in 2008, when the economic crisis hit, has likely been unemployed for almost a decade. It is no wonder that young Greeks are increasingly euroskeptic and the majority, 60 percent according to a recent poll, want the EU to return powers to the national governments.
The EU is at risk of creating a new lost generation—adrift without purpose, apathetic, without vision, and ripe for firebrand politicians to mobilize them. For too long, the establishment has taken the youth vote for granted, convinced that open borders and Erasmus programs would transform the next generation into Europeans first and foremost, letting them leave behind the demons that tore the continent apart in their grandparents’ times. The last few European elections—the French one not least among them—have demonstrated that young people’s support for liberal values, democracy, and the EU is no longer a given.
France’s new president is the youngest elected French leader since Napoleon. By virtue of his age, he has a unique opportunity to convince young voters that the European project can work for them. Of course, he also has to deliver on his promises—something that is anything but assured. The hill ahead is formidably steep. It won’t be an easy climb.
But if he fails, the future could belong to Le Pen.