Young vot­ers boost Le Pen’s poll chances

The Star Late Edition - - WORLD -

WITH the back­ing of young vot­ers, the leader of France’s far-right Na­tional Front, Marine Le Pen may be­come the next pres­i­dent of France. As the coun­try hur­tles to­ward the elec­tion this spring that could al­ter the course of Euro­pean his­tory – the first round is on Sun­day – Le Pen’s once-long­shot and now un­de­ni­ably vi­able bid to lead France rests heav­ily on the coun­try’s mil­lenials.

Pop­ulist tri­umphs in Bri­tain and the US came last year de­spite young vot­ers, not be­cause of them. Mil­len­ni­als – gen­er­ally at ease with im­mi­gra­tion, trade and mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism – lined up against both Brexit and Don­ald Trump. It was older vot­ers who sought to over­turn the ex­ist­ing or­der with na­tion­al­ist an­swers to the prob­lems of a glob­alised world.

But France is a land of youth­ful re­volts, from the 18th cen­tury bar­ri­cades to the fevered univer­sity cam­puses of May 1968. And with youth un­em­ploy­ment stuck at 25%, Le Pen’s re­ac­tionary call to re­turn the coun­try to an era of lost glory by clos­ing borders, ex­it­ing the EU and restor­ing the na­tional cur­rency has fired the pas­sions of young vot­ers crav­ing rad­i­cal change.

“We’ve been told our whole lives that ev­ery­thing is set. Free trade. For­get­ting our borders. One cur­rency for all of Europe. Noth­ing can change,” said Gaë­tan Dus­sausaye, the mild-man­nered 23-yearold leader of the Na­tional Front’s youth wing. “But young peo­ple don’t like this sys­tem. This sys­tem is a fail­ure.”

The Na­tional Front’s strength among mil­len­ni­als sug­gests the pop­ulist wave that has unset­tled the West may be more durable than many may as­sume. Far from the last gasp of closed-so­ci­ety older vot­ers who are de­mo­graph­i­cally des­tined to be outnumbered by a ris­ing tide of cos­mopoli­tan youth, the pop­ulist in­sur­gency could con­tinue to build over years and decades if enough dis­en­chanted young vot­ers can be lured by the prom­ise of some­thing new.

And across Europe, that’s ex­actly what far-right move­ments are at­tempt­ing. In Ger­many – a coun­try where the two main par­ties are led by po­lit­i­cal vet­er­ans in their 60s – the anti-Mus­lim Al­ter­na­tive for Ger­many party is run by a fresh-faced 41-year-old.

Scan­di­na­vian par­lia­ments, mean- while, are stocked with politi­cians in their 20s hail­ing from par­ties that just a decade ago were con­signed to the ex­trem­ist fringe.

The Na­tional Front was, un­til rel­a­tively re­cently, a fringe move­ment it­self, seen by crit­ics as a neo-fas­cist front filled with racists, anti-Semites and xeno­phobes and led by the con­victed Holo­caust de­nier Jean-Marie Le Pen.

To many older or mid­dle-aged vot­ers, the party’s es­sen­tial DNA re­mains un­al­tered, even as it has fu­ri­ously tried to re­fash­ion its image. “The Na­tional Front is trying to make us think they’ve changed,” said Marie-Thérèse Forten­bach, a 50-year-old who said her half-Con­golese her­itage has made her a vic­tim of the sort of dis­crim­i­na­tory prac­tices the party long preached. “I don’t be­lieve it.”

PIC­TURE: MICHAEL ROBIN­SON CHAVEZ / WASH­ING­TON POST

Sup­port­ers of French far-right can­di­date, Marine Le Pen, gather for a rally in La Trinité-Porhoët, France. Le Pen is ap­peal­ing to a di­verse group of de­mo­graph­ics and polls are show­ing sub­stan­tial en­thu­si­asm for the can­di­date.

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