The packed crowd in front of Le Lieu-Dit bar began to thin by about 8:30 PM on April 23. Located in Paris's northeastern Belleville neighborhood, a historically working-class area with a growing population of artists, the bar had attracted a largely young and left-leaning audience. Twenty minutes earlier, a television screen had broadcasted the results of the first round of the French presidential election, in which eleven candidates had vied for the top two spots. As the crowd thinned and I stepped away from the pack, two 20-something guys approached, asking about the results. "Macron et Le Pen," I replied, watching their faces fall. One muttered a helpless, "Non," his voice dragging out the vowel.
On May 7, Emmanuel Macron, a 39-year-old former investment banker who's never held elected office and favors socially progressive but pro-business policies, went on to decisively defeat Marine Le Pen, the head of the country's far-right National Front (NF) party—heralding a vital victory over xenophobic populism, or a capitulation to the forces of globalization, depending on whom you ask. But many young, French voters who were opposed to Le Pen are hardly feeling celebratory: If only 18- to 34-year-olds had voted, the final candidates would have been Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a far-left candidate whose popularity skyrocketed in the campaign's final month.
Reports indicate an increasingly politically fractured France, especially among young people; indeed, the candidates from the center-right Republicans Party and the center-left Socialist Party both failed to make the run-off election, signaling a clear rejection of the country's traditional parties. (For decades, the two have taken turns at governing.) Now, a majority of voters seem to be looking elsewhere. In search of change in the face of chronic unemployment and a string of terrorist attacks, France's young people, in particular, are being drawn farther from center in two dramatically different directions: Youth membership to the National Front has increased significantly, while radical left organizations and movements are also attracting more and more young people, many of whom coalesced around Mélenchon.
For 18-year-old Arthur Miège, a history student in his first year at the Sorbonne, the answer lay in Le Pen and the National Front, a party once known for Holocaust denial but now preferring to traffic in anti-immigrant and anti-European Union rhetoric. "I think that this is a party that truly has the desire to change things," he says. "In terms of unemployment, immigration, security, even the economy, we see clearly that France is in decline."
To young National Front supporters, the recent ascent of the party was both inevitable and long-awaited. The only other time the NF appeared in a final election was 2002, when Le Pen's father, party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, was crushed after the left and right came together to form a "republican front" against the man, who holds numerous convictions for inciting racial hatred (Marine Le Pen was tried for the same crime in 2015, though she was eventually acquitted).
It's the people who are most engaged, the most militant, who won't vote.
This time around, under his daughter's control, the National Front has worked its way into the mainstream through a conscious "de-demonization" effort that focuses on nationalism, security, and anti-elitist populism, often by playing on the rising tide of Islamophobia in the country—"playing down the FN's (unpopular) anti-Semitism while playing up its (more popular) Islamophobia," as Mehdi Hasan put it in an op-ed on the Intercept. But whether the party has actually changed at all is a different matter. In the lead-up to the final election, Le Pen temporarily stepped down as the NF leader to focus on the campaign; the interim leader lasted less than a week before being forced out over comments praising a Holocaust denier and expressing doubts about Nazi use of poison gas against Jews.
"I think that there was an evolution of the National Front's image made between when Jean-Marie Le Pen was at the head of the party and the moment when Marine took over," says Euryanthe Mercier, a 22-year-old member of National Front of the Youth, the party's youth wing. She's standing on the outskirts of a street market in central Paris a few days before the final election, a stack of flyers reading "Eradicate Islamist terrorism" in her hand. She believes that the younger Le Pen "professionalized" the party, and that her peers are attracted to talk of national strength and security in the face of precarious labor and worries about terrorism.
During an interview at the party's suburban headquarters, Gaëtan Dussausaye, the NF youth wing's 23-year-old national director, dismissed the common portrayal of the party as racist, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic. Growing up, he'd always heard that the NF was "the devil," but he'd reached a different conclusion upon finally stopping to listen to Le Pen, he insisted. (In the speech in which she announced her candidacy, Le Pen decried "Islamist globalization" and promised "the places of Islamic preaching will be closed.") Around Dussausaye, the walls were plastered with posters bearing slogans such as "Schengen, that's enough! Stop massive immigration!"
In the past few years, Dussausaye told me, the NF's youth wing has doubled in size: Counting about 12,000 members in 2014, it now has about 25,000 members throughout the country. Playing against the stereotype of NF voters as uneducated, he added, some young NF members in Paris attend the prestigious "grandes écoles" universities, studying subjects like history and political science.
Nicolas, a 23-year-old member who attends Sciences Po and didn't want his last name published, falls into that category. He says that France's 2002 move from a national currency to the Euro was "a profound shock" that "traumatized" him at nine years old. Now, he's attracted to Le Pen's desire to leave the EU and return to a French currency. As he explained to me one afternoon at the street market, referencing the founding year of the EU, "I'm part of a generation that didn't have a chance because when I was born, sadly, in '93, we no longer had sovereignty."
While Le Pen had more than inspired her loyal young party members leading up to the election, Macron, it appears, inspired very few. With the elimination of Mélenchon, young leftists were looking at abstaining, casting a "blank vote" for neither candidate, or voting for Macron. This last choice, however practical, was proving too large an obstacle for some to overcome, with a widespread belief that Macron's presidency would only increase inequality through embracing neoliberal policies, loosening labor laws, and making France more competitive.
"We don't have the luxury to not vote," insisted Arthur Moreau, a 24-year-old Sciences Po student active in his student union and a coalition of progressive groups called Our Rights Against Their Privileges. It was a few days after the first round and he was coming to terms with his decision to vote for Macron ten days later, after originally supporting Mélenchon. "I think that we can keep our principles and be strategic and pragmatic. There is a reign of fascism at our door, and it's necessary to be against it."
But that doesn't mean he supported Macron's centrist policies. Macron, in fact, championed one of the few shared enemies of both ends of the political spectrum during a stint as economy minister: a grossly unpopular reform that made labor laws more flexible by making it easier for companies to fire people. Left-wing activists began vociferously protesting the measure in the spring of 2016, launching a social movement called Nuit Debout (loosely translated as "rising up at night") that spread to cities around the country and came to encompass a wide-range of social and economic concerns.
Sitting in a café on the day after the first round of the presidential election, 22-year-old Raphaël Georgy, a journalism student and Nuit Debout activist, told me that he'd received a text the night before from a fellow Nuit Debout participant, who was crestfallen to see the man responsible for the unpopular labor law move one step closer to the presidency. "One year from Nuit Debout to finish with it," Georgy read off his phone screen. "Voilà. So there's a big disappointment."
The next evening, I met Marie (who asked that her last name not be shared because she's currently looking for a new job) at a bar near Place de la République, the birthplace of Nuit Debout. Marie, now 28, was active in the movement and continues to meet with political economy and feminist groups that came out of it. She told me she'd become disillusioned with party politics, and that she hadn't voted in the first round of the election and had no intention of doing so in the second. "It's the people who are most engaged, the most militant, who won't vote," she explained. And yet, she remained aware of the risk: "We're leaving a chance for the extreme right to succeed."
For those on the left who swallowed their distaste for Macron's policies and decided to vote for him, it was often by process of elimination. "It's a question of responsibility," said Moreau, who also participated in Nuit Debout. "It's one or the other. If I don't want it to be Le Pen, it's necessary to want it to be Macron."
But, he continued, "That's not to say that we'll leave Macron alone. We're going to fight before. We'll fight after. But during one second, I'm going to put that down. And after that second there, I'll fight against him."