Macron’s Youth Is No Lure for First-Time Voters in French Poll

  • About 51 percent of the 18-24 year-olds chose populists
  • The centrist candidate is still seen as part of ‘the system’

French Election Candidates Face-Off Heats Up

Emmanuel Macron’s youth hasn’t made him the candidate of the young in France.

If the polls are right, Macron, 39, may become the youngest president in French history. But it’s unlikely to be because of voters in the 18-to-24 age group. More than half such voters picked either the far-right National Front’s Marine Le Pen or the Communist-backed Jean-Luc Melenchon for the first round, higher than the overall proportion of the national vote. Macron ranked third -- garnering 18 percent, according to an Ipsos survey before the April 23 vote.

For all his claims of not being part of the establishment, in the eyes of France’s disaffected youth, Macron isn’t an agent of change. The centrist candidate, who was a Rothschild banker and a minister in President Francois Hollande’s government, advocates deepening France’s role in the European Union. He isn’t seen doing much that will change the lot of young voters, who are turned off by the slightest whiff of continuity.

“This generation of voters grew up in the financial-crisis era and all they know is austerity, elites who’ve ruined their future,” said Jean-Philippe Dubrulle, an analyst at pollster Ifop. “So you have a generation that wants to tear down the system. Macron is seen a one of the elite, part of the system.”

Not Critical

With nine days before the decisive round of voting, polls show Macron winning between 59 percent and 62 percent of the votes. Although young voters -- who make up 12 percent of the adult population -- are not critical for Macron, it does dent the image he has tried to portray as the face of a modern, forward-looking France.

Many of these voters will abstain in the May 7 second round, polls show. The ones who voted for Le Pen in the first round are likely to stick with her in the second, like Quentin Ferrera, 19, a physics student in Nice, which was the site of a terrorist attack last year that left 86 people dead.

“Identity, the nation, these are important to me, and she’s the one who wants borders, wants security for the country, whether it’s economic or from more traditional threats,” he said. “I’d be very afraid for the country if Macron wins. He wants to destroy French identity, French borders.”

‘Empty Shell’

If Macron does manage to get some of the non-Le Pen-supporting youth voters in the runoff, it would be because they like her even less.

Take 19-year-old Louise Delforge, a student of tourism in Amiens, Macron’s hometown in northern France. Delforge, who voted for Melenchon in the first round, pooh-poohs the idea Macron’s youth may be a factor in her decision.

“It’s not because he’s young and I’m young that he’ll have my vote,” she said, sitting on a bench near the town’s train station in jeans with flower patches and having a sandwich with friends. “What will I do on May 7? I guess I may go for Macron to avoid Le Pen, but God I don’t like him! Macron is an empty shell. But Le Pen is just the worst thing that could happen to France.”

For Macron’s campaign, the inability to draw voters in this age group has been something of a failure of his Obama-style message of change. The political newcomer created his party “On the Move!” a year ago with the promise to “change the system.”

Lost Generation

While the anti-system mood in France succeeded in throwing out the established parties -- the Socialists and the Republicans -- in a spectacular manner in the first round, Macron’s campaign accepts that it wasn’t able to show young voters he was part of that change.

“They are the lost generation, these very young first-time voters,” said Benjamin Griveaux, a spokesman for Macron. “They are desperate and think they have nothing to lose with how they vote. We’re not sure we can win them over.”

Macron’s openness to the world makes him appealing to young entrepreneurs, but not first-time voters, who are mostly students. Unlike Hollande, Macron hasn’t made a special promise to make youth his priority. Macron has said he’d modernize the education system, build more students housing and ensure impoverished neighborhood schools get more teachers.

He is making an effort to reach out to them, playing football with some in Sarcelles, a Paris suburb, on Thursday, for instance. Later that evening, after a two-hour television interview on TF1, he stopped by a sister channel’s live program that’s very popular with young viewers, joked around with the host and finished off by saying, “No matter what, go vote.”

Whether these attempts will work is questionable. On Thursday, a few high schools in Paris were blocked by pupils -- some of whom might be eligible to vote -- who said they wanted neither Macron nor Le Pen. The “Neither-Nor” group also drew a few hundred people who marched in Nantes and Toulouse.

An Ifop poll on Thursday showed that 71 percent of young Melenchon voters who intend to cast a ballot on May 7 will back Macron. Still, the pollster noted that the number doesn’t capture those who will abstain -- which may be a large proportion.

Seeking Renewal

Even those who do vote for Macron will be doing it reluctantly, like Yann Gamot, 24, who lives in the northern French city of Henin-Beaumont, Le Pen’s political hub. The Amazon.com Inc. employee is taking a chance on Macron’s “political renewal” pledge.

"I want to break free from all these faces we’ve seen for decades, all these parties that have monopolized French politics,” he said. “Le Pen? Oh no. She’s no friend of mine. I’m rather lucid about how much Macron could do, but I want renewal.”

— With assistance by Fabio Benedetti Valentini

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