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France's youth still on the fence ahead of vote

Just a few days before the first round of France’s presidential election, many young French people remain undecided as to who they will vote for. That may be because the candidates have done little to court this volatile segment of the electorate.


Who to vote for on Sunday April 22 in the first round of France’s hotly awaited presidential election? Many of the country’s young people do not seem to have made up their minds. According to a study carried out in March by polling agency IFOP for the education magazine L’Etudiant, 59% of voters aged 18 to 22 were still unsure of their choice, compared to 32% of the French population at large.

One of those young voters, 19-year-old Sheela, is a student at a two-year technical college. “I’m still figuring out who I want to vote for, and a lot of my friends are in the same situation,” she told FRANCE 24. “Not only is this presidential campaign not very exciting, but it’s also hard for us to relate to the proposals put forth by these candidates who don’t seem to be thinking about young people.”

That sentiment is echoed by Arnaud, a 23-year-old engineering student. “I have a vague idea of the candidate I want to see advance to the second-round vote, but I’m still giving myself time to come to a final decision,” he said.

François Kraus, the head of IFOP’s Opinions and Strategies department, hardly finds young French voters’ indecision surprising. “They’re a less motivated and consistent segment of the electorate, and less sure of their choices,” he noted. A study by French public policy think tank CEVIPOF (The Centre for Political Research at Sciences Po Paris) found that in the 2007 presidential election, as many as 31% of young voters made their choice on election day.

High abstention rate

Many political analysts think that the uncertainty plaguing young French voters will translate into a high abstention rate this time around. In 2007, 84% of these voters went to the polls for the first-round vote, compared to 70% for the second round (and only 52% for legislative elections). The recent IFOP study found that 39% of young voters polled were planning to stay home for this year’s presidential election.

To avoid that level of abstention, several French associations have sprung into action with initiatives to register young voters and encourage them to make the trip to their local polling station. One of those is AFEV (Student Association for Solidarity and Education), which aims to fight inequalities in working-class neighbourhoods by building ties between local youth and students. One of the group’s volunteers, 21-year-old Riva Ranaivo has noticed the lack of interest among young voters in certain Parisian suburbs, for example. “People don’t want to talk about politics in the poorer neighbourhoods,” the arts student told FRANCE 24. “Many of them have sworn off voting because they think it’s useless.”

Ranaivo partly blames the candidates, who have failed to capture the French youth’s attention or fully address the issues that affect them, like employment, housing, and education, to name a few. “They’re trying to sell us pipe dreams, like [far-left candidate] Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s idea of a 1,700-euro minimum monthly salary or Nicolas Sarkozy’s proposal to allow high school students to obtain driving licenses,” Ranaivo said. “I find them unrealistic."

The candidates’ lack of appeal to young voters could potentially pose a big problem on election day, as French people aged 18 to 24 (who number roughly 6 million) make up 13% to 15% of the overall electorate.

Right-left division

According to the IFOP study, Hollande is the presidential hopeful that young French voters would most likely vote for in the first round (30%, topping Sarkozy’s 28%). “There’s a real right-left split, because the right does well among graduates of the most selective business, management, and public policy schools. Sarkozy also does well among medical and engineering students,” Kraus assessed. “Hollande does better among technical students and those studying humanities.”

As for other candidates, the study found that far-left Mélenchon would get 15% of all student votes, whereas far-right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen would get 11%. A different poll, carried out by leading market research firm CSA for daily newspaper Le Monde, surprisingly had Le Pen leading the pack of candidates among young voters with 26% of the vote.

Sylvain Crépon, a specialist of the National Front and a researcher at Nanterre University near Paris, offered his perspective on the progression of far-right and far-left candidates among young French people. “The economic crisis produces anxiety and pessimism that pushes young voters to vote for the extreme parties,” he said. “But the two extreme parties draw different types of young voters: the far-left candidate attracts educated and politically engaged youth, while the National Front appeals to young voters without a higher education.”

The fervor surrounding Le Pen’s candidacy can also be explained by the candidate’s personality. “She has succeeded in updating the party’s discourse and making it palatable for more people. She’s enjoying considerable popularity among young voters, even those who have no intention of voting for her,” Crépon explained. “That’s the paradox: some young people who actually will vote for her do not approve of her party’s stances on national security or immigration.”


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