Mélenchon and Le Pen win over youth in French vote

Alain Jocard, AFP | French far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon greets a young man at Place de la République in Paris on February 18, 2017.

Young voters in France have traditionally thrown their support behind left-wing candidates. Results from Sunday’s first round presidential poll show that remains true, but that young voters are also increasingly flocking to political extremes.


Firebrand leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon came very close to claiming third place in France’s nail-biting ballot. Buoyed by massive support from first-time voters, he finished the night with 19.6 percent of the total count, only slightly behind mainstream conservative François Fillon.

Almost one-third (27 to 30 percent) of all French constituents 24 years of age and younger cast a ballot for Mélenchon, according to exit polls. Furthermore, around 27 percent of French voters aged between 18 and 34 years backed the Communist-allied presidential candidate.

“Jean-Luc Mélenchon really succeeded in capturing that youngest segment of the voting population,” Christelle Craplet, director of opinion polls for the French firm BVA, confirmed.

It was not the case in the previous presidential election in 2012, when young voters rallied massively behind François Hollande, the candidate of the mainstream left who eventually won the race. That year, the far-left Mélenchon earned just 8 percent of ballots from voters aged 18 to 24, and an only slightly better 13 percent from voters aged 25 to 34.

Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, who finished Sunday’s first-round ballot in second place and thus moved into France’s May 7 presidential runoff against centrist Emmanuel Macron, also proved popular among young voters this year.

The anti-immigrant, anti-EU candidate garnered 21 percent support from voters aged 18 to 24, and an even more impressive 24 percent among voters aged 25 to 34. Together, Mélenchon and Le Pen, conquered half of all votes cast by young people on Sunday.

By comparison, the candidates of France’s established left- and right-wing parties – Fillon and Socialist Benoit Hamon – took less than 18 percent of the youth vote combined.

Going to extremes

According to BVA’s Craplet, young French voters are traditionally drawn to left-wing parties and candidates, and in that respect Mélenchon’s overwhelming success among 18- to 24-year-olds is a “classic” scenario.

What is unusual is the strong, and growing, support for the Le Pen’s far-right party among youths. “The National Front is seducing more and more young people. It wasn’t the case even a decade ago,” Craplet said.

Marine Le Pen has worked hard at rounding the National Front’s rough edges since she took over the party from her father Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2011. She went as far as kicking him out of the party last year, after he once again referred to the Holocaust as a “mere detail” of World War Two.

Critics nevertheless point out strong ties remain between father and daughter, with Marine Le Pen turning to the patriarch for a multi-million euro loan to finance her current presidential bid.

Hundreds of people, most of them young anti-fascists, gathered on Sunday evening in Place de la Bastille in eastern Paris to protest Le Pen’s advancement into the second-round ballot.

“What we are observing is the emergence of ‘two youth groups’,” Craplet said, adding they can be set apart by many of the characteristics that distinguish older voters. While Mélenchon’s young supporters tend to be young people on higher education tracks, Le Pen sympathisers have often entered the workforce at a younger age. Her youth base also tends to hail from poorer families and the countryside.

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