Leaning against an old car in the north of France, a young man who considers two other names before settling on “Jacques” cracks a joke: “Here we say we’ll vote for Macron and then after a bottle of whisky, we vote Le Pen.”
His father, however, was more serious when he said that his 25-year-old son desperately needed a job. Waving his arm to take in the small town of Villers-Cotterêts in the Hauts-de-France region, he said, “there’s no work here”.
It is people like “Jacques” who are caught in a tug of war between Marine Le Pen and President Emmanuel Macron, with the next presidential election a year away.
Le Pen, the 52-year-old leader of the rightwing Rassemblement National, has made big strides in attracting younger voters. According to recent polls, including by Ipsos, some 30 per cent of voters aged between 25 and 34 are ready to vote for her. That is up from 23 per cent in 2017.
For Macron, 43, the picture is murkier. When he defeated Le Pen in 2017 he picked up 29 per cent of this chunk of the electorate. Today only 20 per cent of those voters said they would back the president.
Young people who are struggling to find work “had really believed that Macron would succeed in recreating more mobility within society . . . And finally, they found themselves faced with a society that is still very blocked off”, said Brice Teinturier, an analyst with Ipsos.
Nevertheless, Macron has made gains among the very youngest voters — those under 25. While Le Pen has kept a broadly stable level of support, he is up from 18 per cent support within this group in 2017 to 29 per cent today. However, abstention rates are high among the under-25s. Only a third of those aged between 18 and 24 bothered to vote in the first round of the last presidential election.
Emmanuel Macron has made gains among the very youngest voters © AP
In her hunt for votes, Le Pen is capitalising on a sense of frustration among the economically vulnerable that has been exacerbated by the pandemic. That is one of the reasons why the deindustrialised and rural north remains a power base for the RN. It has one of the highest levels of unemployment in France and for those under 25 the situation is particularly hard, with a quarter unable to find work.
Finding new support for the RN is easier among young voters who have no memory of what Le Pen’s party was like before she took it over from her father, Jean-Marie, a decade ago.
She has since waged a campaign to detoxify its image, changing its name from the Front National in 2018 and moving away from policies such as leaving the EU.
“The generations before, they knew Jean-Marie Le Pen. They knew all about his comments on Jews, on the holocaust, on the Arabs etc . . . which Marine Le Pen absolutely does not do,” said Teinturier.
For many French voters the party remains beyond the pale. But walking with a frozen drink in hand on the streets of Soissons, a town in the Haut de France, Noémie, a 16-year-old student, said she would vote for Le Pen if she could. “I’ve watched some of her interviews. I don’t think she’s racist . . . She just wants France to be France.”
Marine Le Pen is capitalising on a sense of frustration among the economically vulnerable © Magali Delporte/FT
Her friend Steve, aged 19 and who is planning to vote for the first time, agreed: “I’ll vote Le Pen and we both have a lot of friends who would too.”
Younger party members like Le Pen’s 25-year-old number two, Jordan Bardella, are helping the cause, while the party’s old guard are also candid about the changes that have been made. Nicolas Bertin, a farmer and the 62-year-old RN mayor of Ambrief, another northern town, said that “we could have stayed with the ideas of Jean-Marie Le Pen . . . and we would have stayed on our bench alone, never advancing our ideas”.
Back in Soissons, Simon Mahé, a 29-year-old French teacher, said he understood why some of his friends voted RN: “It’s because of a sort of misery . . . And outside of the big cities there is fear of the unknown, of security and immigration.”
But even Bertin says his daughters, one of whom is the same age as Bardella, “prefer to vote for Macron than for Le Pen”. And Mahé said that he could never vote RN as the changes to the party remain skin-deep.
Christèle Lagier, an expert on the far right at the university of Avignon, said it was premature to talk about a generational shift — the election is still too far away and there are too many variables. “Marine Le Pen is, paradoxically, the most stable public figure right now.”
Relying on the youth vote, Teinturier said, would not be enough for Le Pen. If she wants to win she has to find more support on the right, where Macron is also hunting for votes. “What she’s trying to do is add to this young and active electorate an older and more traditional rightwing vote. And to do that, she’s trying to reassure them too.”
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