How Marine Le Pen managed to gain traction with young voters — and why her success isn’t being replicated by the American right

Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen may have missed out on the French presidency, losing 17 percentage points to incumbent Emmanuel Macron in the runoff on April 24, 2022. But to call her campaign a total loss would be to miss a point essential: with nearly 41.2% of the vote, a far-right candidate has come closer than ever to the accession to the French presidency.

She surpassed the previous two times her party qualified for the final round. In 2017, Le Pen obtained only 33.9% of the votes. His father and predecessor as head of the Front National – now renamed Rassemblement National or Rassemblement National – won just 17.8% of the vote in the 2002 run-off.

Marine Le Pen is experiencing an undeniable upward trend.

Driving out the youth vote

The growth of support for the French far right is not happening in a vacuum. A wave of populist sentiment has swept across much of Europe and North America in recent years. Moreover, the French and American extreme right demonstrated mutual admiration and an exchange of strategies. The fight of the French right against “wokism” echoes the American conservative discourse around critical race theory. Similarly, the American right has drawn inspiration from French writer Renaud Camus’ white nationalist idea of ​​a “great replacement”, whereby white populations and culture are replaced by non-white, non-Christian people.

But the recent election results show something beyond a general growth in support for the far right – something happening on both sides of the Atlantic. The French right is succeeding in a key demographic that the American right has apparently failed to capture: young voters.

Analysis of the second round of the presidential election shows that 49% of 25-34 year olds who voted opted for Le Pen – against just over 41% of the general population, and 29% of voters over 70.

This was not always the case. As in the United States, young voters in France have always supported progressive and left-wing platforms. The National Front – which was created as an explicitly neo-fascist and anti-immigrant party, and whose founder Jean-Marie Le Pen has been repeatedly convicted by French courts of incitement to racial hatred – was particularly distant from youth policy.

Indeed, until recently, the French far-right’s relationship with the under-30 crowd could be summed up in the words of punk rock band Bérurier Noir, who sang at a 1989 concert that “the youth fucks the Front National” – “young people piss from the Front National.

The lyric became a rallying cry in the 2002 election, as young voters turned out in overwhelming numbers – both at the polls and on the streets in protest – when the far right qualified for the second round for the first time in the history of the National Front.

Rename right

The tide began to turn when Marine Le Pen took control of her father’s Front National in 2011. Over the past decade, she has embarked on a conscious process of “de-demonizing” the party in a bid to distance herself of his anti-Semitic past. . Instead, Le Pen wants to present herself as a dominant candidate.

While, as many point out, many of the National Rally’s policies are not substantially different from their far-right roots, the party has tried to appeal to young voters by reframing its positions on issues like the environment and the feminism. Le Pen has withdrawn from her earlier climate skepticism and embraced a so-called nationalist ecology agenda, which advocates energy independence and products made in France. She has also positioned herself as a pro-animal welfare candidate by calling for stricter regulation of the meatpacking industry, and claimed to be “standing up for women” by campaigning against street harassment.

Critics note that his animal welfare proposals amounted to a ban on halal and kosher meat and that his rhetoric about street harassment blamed immigrant men who, according to his campaign videos, did not know or did not respect “French cultural codes”. ”

Call to youth

Beyond reframing, however, the National Rally has also proposed a number of concrete tax policies that target young voters. In his 2022 presidential platform, Le Pen promised to scrap taxes for under-30s, offer financial aid to working students and increase housing for students.

Le Pen and the Rassemblement National did not convince everyone. It remains a predominantly anti-immigrant and anti-European nationalist party that often faces accusations of Islamophobia, racism and homophobia.

When Le Pen qualified for the second round after the first round of voting on April 10 – barely ahead of far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon – large numbers of students demonstrated across France, saying that they would vote “neither Macron nor Le Pen. Many young voters in 2022 abstained from voting altogether – around 30% of those under 35 in the first round, reaching a historic rate of 40% in the second round.

Drop in GOP support

In France as in the United States, the younger generations express feelings of disinterest and neglect towards the dominant political institutions.

Yet young people in the United States continue to show relatively low levels of support for right-wing authoritarianism. In 2016 and 2020, voters aged 18 to 29 were 10 points lower in their support for Donald Trump than the general population.

So why don’t we see the French trend in the United States?

It is important to note that the American Republican Party and the French National Rally are not completely analogous, at least in part due to the fact that the United States is a two-party system. The Republican Party is the only viable option available to right-wing voters. In France, the National Rally is one of many far-right movements and is completely separate from the traditional conservative party Les Républicains.

Yet the GOP and the Rassemblement National are increasingly occupying the same political space. According to the V-Dem Institute at the University of Gothenburg, the Republican Party shifted dramatically towards illiberal rhetoric between 2002 and 2018, placing it in close proximity to European far-right parties. Similarly, the GOP and National Rally received similar scores in Harvard University’s 2019 Global Party Survey in terms of opposition to ethnic minority rights and adherence to principles, norms and practices. liberal democrats.

The GOP and RN have also shown a growing and mutual recognition and exchange of ideas in recent years.

Indeed, in recent weeks, far-right groups in France have even begun to echo American “Stop the Steal” rhetoric in response to Emmanuel Macron’s vote shares.

Yet it seems unlikely that far-right segments of the Republican Party can replicate the metamorphosis that has allowed the National Rally to appeal to young voters.

Party structures in the United States are much more decentralized than in France. While Le Pen may have led the charge in “softening” his image, it’s unclear who would play that role in an American context for Republicans. Trump remains a polarizing figure within the party and apparently shows no desire to engage in such “de-demonization.”

An age-old problem for the GOP?
Aimee Dilger/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

And the GOP also doesn’t seem to have the political will to “soften” its image on the issues that matter most to young voters.

A 2021 survey by the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics found that young Americans cite climate change, health care, education, social justice and income inequality as their top priorities — several of which are difficult to reconcile with the “culture war” that separates them from the GOP have been an integral part of their mandates.

Overall, top Republican officials remain publicly skeptical that climate change exists and are voting down Democratic-led climate proposals as too costly or unnecessary.

The National Rally’s youth-focused tax policies — which often involve direct financial aid to students, a break from the party’s “Reaganomics” under Jean-Marie Le Pen in the 1980s — run counter to a GOP who opposes solutions to the student debt crisis.

The GOP seems to be acutely aware of its declining support among young voters. Still, Republican efforts seem more focused on tactics like diluting district voting with college campuses, especially historically black colleges and universities, and voter ID laws that would make it harder for young people to vote. . By contrast, Le Pen openly courted young voters and devoted much of his final rally before the April 24 runoff to calling on young people to get out and vote.

Part of the GOP’s approach can likely be attributed to the fact that young voters are increasingly racially diverse, and young adults of color are an especially strong base for Democratic candidates. But GOP support is also waning among young whites.

It took years for Le Pen’s “de-demonization” among young voters to begin to pay off — and even then, it wasn’t enough to propel her to electoral victory. The United States will, in a few months, have its own election with the midterm elections of 2022. It is far from certain that young people in the United States will continue to give their support to the Democratic candidates. But who they voted for and whether they went to the polls will show how big the gap is between the National Rally and the GOP in attracting a younger electorate.

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