Young French voters urged to embrace Emmanuel Macron as 'lesser of two evils'

Young voters at the great higher education institutions of Paris tell The Independent they don’t want to back a centrist candidate, but would rather abstain than elect Marine Le Pen

Chloe Farand
Paris
Friday 05 May 2017 15:26 BST
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French students at the anti-racism rally hold up yellow hand-shaped cards reading 'Don't harm my friend'
French students at the anti-racism rally hold up yellow hand-shaped cards reading 'Don't harm my friend' (Chloe Farand)

If France votes as expected for Emmanuel Macron on Sunday, it will have elected the youngest President in its history. The En Marche! candidate’s youthful appeal might be working for the some 62 per cent of the electorate – but it has not been enough to convince France’s traditionally left-wing students.

As campaigning drew to a close on Friday before Saturday’s complete shutdown on election activity, final polls suggest Marine Le Pen has failed to make a dent in the commanding 20-point poll lead enjoyed by Mr Macron since the first round vote.

Despite the pollsters’ confidence, groups that were expected to rally together against the perceived threat of the far-right Front National remain divided and disillusioned by the two candidates remaining in the head-to-head.

Nowhere is this sentiment more evident than with young voters in Paris. On Thursday night, anti-Le Pen activists braved the rain to organise a political pop concert in the Place de la République. Their message to the youth of France was not “Vote Macron”, but rather just get out and vote – against Ms Le Pen.

Among the hundreds who attended, a group of far-left supporters said they backed the organising charity SOS Racisme’s anti-Front National message, but would not bring themselves to vote for Mr Macron.

Anti-racist NGOs held a concert in protest against Front National (AFP/Getty)
Anti-racist NGOs held a concert in protest against Front National (AFP/Getty) (AFP/Getty Images)

Dominique Sopo, the charity’s president, said it was voters’ “responsibility” to actively oppose Ms Le Pen. “We have to crush the Front National,” he said. “The far-right in our country is the only party to be founded on hatred of the other and hatred of democracy. This 40 per cent of support [for them] is bringing back verbal and physical violence in France.

“Everyone needs to go and vote on 7 May to ensure that Ms Le Pen makes the smallest possible score.”

Before the first round vote, the surge in the polls for populist far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon was a cause for optimism at Paris’s Sorbonne University. His popularity was part of a growing trend of polarisation in French politics, with a survey published by the Bertelsmann Foundation on Friday showing one in five French voters self-identify as politically “extreme”, one of the highest rates in Europe.

Dominique Sopo said it falls on the voters to actively oppose Marine Le Pen
Dominique Sopo said it falls on the voters to actively oppose Marine Le Pen (Chloe Farand)

After a slow start, more than half of Mr Mélenchon’s former backers say they will back Mr Macron on Sunday – but their key motive remains blocking the far-right from the presidency.

In front of the social sciences annexe of the Sorbonne, in Paris’ 13th arrondissement, anti-Front National posters cover the brick walls. This branch of the university is especially known for its left-leaning tendencies and here neither Ms Le Pen nor Mr Macron were the preferred candidate in the first round.

One of the posters outside the 1960s building shows Ms Le Pen daubed with a Hitler moustache. On another, a picture of Mr Macron accompanies the quote: “Let’s strip the poor of their money”. Alongside him, Ms Le Pen appears to reply: “… and let’s blame foreigners for it”.

It is their stances on Europe that will be decisive on Sunday, though, more than any other policy. Mr Macron is strongly pro-EU, while Ms Le Pen has vowed to hold a referendum on “Frexit”, France’s departure from the bloc.

Second year art history student Clara told The Independent: “He [Mr Macron] is not crazy and he doesn’t want to get us out of Europe, so that’s good enough for me.”

Eva Mandengue, who studies history and political science, agrees: “Europe is the first, most important thing for me. I did not vote to support Mr Macron in the first round but we have to bar Ms Le Pen from winning.”

The EU – albeit reformed – was a “very important” factor for history student Gregoire Mathieu, making a Le Pen victory “intolerable”. “If I was sure that she was not going to win I would spoil my ballot, but because I’m not that certain I will probably vote for Mr Macron,” he said. “We wanted to see change. Mr Macron is supposed to personify that change, but I’m not convinced.”

The biggest campaign set piece between the two rounds remains the head-to-head debate that took place on Wednesday night. With the dust settled from what French commentators described as a chaotic spectacle, it now seems clear that it gave the centrist candidate a boost – one which could prove decisive.

A survey published in L’Express on Friday shows Mr Macron won three points over his rival, bringing him to 62 per cent of voting intentions against 38 per cent for Ms Le Pen. Only 30 per cent of respondents felt Ms Le Pen had the necessary qualities to be France’s next president, versus 61 per cent for Mr Macron.

Marine Le Pen campaign posters have been vandalised with Nazi graffiti
Marine Le Pen campaign posters have been vandalised with Nazi graffiti (Chloe Farand)

While many at the Sorbonne supported far-left Mr Mélenchon, a vocal faction of the university also backed more extreme left-leaning groups, such as the candidate for the New Anti-Capitalist Party, Philippe Poutou.

A trade-unionist and a worker in a car factory, Mr Poutou received 1.09 per cent of the votes in the first round of the election nationwide and refused to back either candidate in the second round.

On campus, it isn’t hard to find an affiliate to an anti-capitalist or anarchist group. “I’m not going to vote,” a geography student who preferred not to be named told The Independent. “I identify as an anarchist and I am opposed to representative democracy.”

The Paris school district reported on Friday that 10 high schools were completely or partially blocked by student protesters, who said they were opposing both presidential candidates.

Students at the Lycée Buffon wrote an open letter to French voters asking them to choose “democracy” on Sunday and fight against the Front National. Yet the letter did not explicitly mention supporting Mr Macron.

It said: “Dear reader, you should know that Marine Le Pen’s France is not the France we love. Our France is beautiful, tolerant and cosmopolitan. So go and vote on Sunday, for this France, this democracy.”

And in the right-leaning law university of Pantheon Assas in the sixth arrondissement, a number of students rejected the idea of voting for Mr Macron by default.

Sarah, an activist for conservative François Fillon’s party Les Républicains, decided to go against the instructions of her own defeated candidate and spoil her ballot on Sunday.

“I don’t want to support a politic that will be the continuity of what we just had with the current government for five years. I also don’t think it would be strategic to rally to Mr Macron ahead of the local election,” she said.

Greenpeace hang protest banner from the Eiffel Tower two days before French election

Her friend Alexandre disagreed, and offered some rare positive words about the centrist. “I am one of those who will vote for French values,” he said. Describing himself as “a convinced European federalist”, he said Mr Macron’s policies on the EU were what made him sign up to his movement. “Mr Macron’s appeal is the renewal of French politics and the end partisan parties, which have been shown to be outdated.”

Where there are supporters of the far-right among Paris’s students, they keep to the shadows. The law university has a reputation as a bastion for even more extreme right-wing groups, such as the Union of Patriotic Students (UEP). And one student, who did not want to be named, said the toilets were covered with graffiti and stickers from the GUD, an extreme right-wing group famous for its violent action in the 1970s. Former GUD member Frédéric Chatillon is today a major Front National donor.

In the end, a majority of young voters in France may well rally around Mr Macron when it comes to the crunch in polling stations on Sunday. But if he does become France’s youngest candidate to enter the Élysée Palace, winning over the country’s youth will remain among the many pressing matters on his presidential to-do list.

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