Protests in France show young people have lost faith in politics
Three days after the first round of French presidential elections in April, students occupied the Sorbonne University building in Paris. Their banners and posters displayed a recurring slogan: “Ni Macron ni Le Pen”, referring to center-right President Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who advanced to the second round during a match rematch of their 2017 contest.
As police evacuated the building after 30 hours of occupation, both presidential candidates strongly criticized the protest. But the protests quickly spread, with students across France expressing their annoyance at having to choose between centre-right and far-right candidates again, while they and other voters under 34 years had massively opted for Jean-Luc. Melenchon, the candidate of the left-wing France Insoumis partyin the first ballot.
For their part, many critics of the occupation of the Sorbonne considered the position of the students as hypocritical, pointing the finger at the abstention rate in the first round among young voters – 46% among 25-34 year olds and 42% among 18-24 year olds – as a sign of their political apathy. How can young people complain about the election results, according to this argument, when they did not even vote?
However, the protests and growing abstention among young voters are two sides of the same coin, and neither is a sign of political apathy. Instead, they reflect young French people’s loss of confidence in political change through electoral politics – a loss of confidence that Macron contributed to in his first term. Indeed, new forms of youth activism have contributed to the expansion of French political space, reinforcing the idea that participation in the electoral process, while important, is only one aspect of life. Politics.
When Macron was first elected president in 2017, many expected him to be the president of young people. After all, at 39, he became the youngest president in French history, the youngest head of state since Napoleon, and the first French president born after the establishment of the Fifth Republic in 1958. Macron embodied no only hope, but a new historical and political turning point. do: The leaders of Western democracies are getting younger.
Nevertheless, as in this year’s elections, Macron failed to win the youth vote in the first round of the 2017 elections, since 30% of voters between the ages of 18 and 24 voted for Melenchon. Although Macron won the majority of youth votes in the run-off against Le Pen that year, this did not reflect young people’s preference for him, but rather their rejection of Le Pen’s political agenda, in particular his opposition to multiculturalism and its anti-immigration stance.
For young people, Macron was the only democratic option in 2017, although it was still unclear what he had to offer them. Once he became president, however, he proved unable to respond to the demands of new social movements, of which young people were and are a substantial part and on which much of the younger French electorate has now pinned their political hopes. for a better future.
In 2018, during his first year in power, Macron was criticized by many young activists for ordering a police operation to evacuate the so-called ZAD of Notre-Dame-des-Landes, a movement of almost a decade. to block a new airport in the north of France by occupying the site proposed for it. Going against his campaign promises, Macron abandoned the airport project, but allowed the police to clear the occupied area, a gesture considered illegal by many jurists.
This is a generation for which the duty of a good citizen is no longer to vote in elections, but to use extra-institutional forms of political action to bring about real political change.
During the same period, Macron sought to implement new policies in higher education, including changes to the admissions process at public universities that, among other things, ended the use of lotteries for schools with high demand and introduced a greater degree of merit in public universities. application process. But the reforms promised to exacerbate the effects of a population growth that has changed the landscape of secondary and higher education in Francewith more and more students seeking a fixed number of places in the country’s public universities.
As a result, student movements across France interpreted the changes as an attack on the right to public higher education, considered sacrosanct in France. Between March and April 2018, echoing the historic events of May 1968 50 years ago, they occupied one of the main buildings of the Sorbonne in Paris for more than a month. Despite student opposition, however, the changes were eventually implemented, leaving 7.8% of applicants without access to higher education in September 2018, the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic that students wishing to enroll in a public university could not do so.
In November 2018, young people also rallied to the Yellow Vests movement, which began with protests against a proposed environmental gas tax but quickly broadened to encompass calls for a minimum wage hike and a restoration of the wealth tax that Macron had abolished early. in his mandate. During the first week of December 2018, an investigation showed that 68% of 18-24 year olds supported the movementcompared to 50% of the general population.
Among the central demands of the yellow vest movement was the introduction of the so-called Citizens’ initiative referendum, whereby citizens can call for a national referendum on certain political issues by collecting a set number of signatures, thereby bypassing parliament and the president to enact change. Although Macron refused to adopt such a measure, he created a Citizen’s Climate Convention, hailed by environmental movements as the beginning of an unprecedented democratic experiment in participatory policy-making. The model continues to be popular among young activists. To date, however, 90% of the popular assembly’s proposals and demands have yet to be adopted by the Macron administration.
Since 2019, Macron and his government have also been increasingly critical of movements that have broad appeal to young people in France, such as #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo. On more than one occasion, members of his administration have denounced the ways in which where critical race theory and postcolonial studies are said to undermine republican valuesusing language that sounds drawn from the lexicon of the American and French extreme right.
For failing to take their main demands seriously during the five years of his first term, Macron gradually lost the trust and support of the young electorate. But the absence of young people at the polls in the presidential election in April should not be confused with political apathy.
On April 16, between the two rounds of the presidential election, activists from the French branch of the environmental movement Extinction Rebellion occupied boulevards and squares in Paris under a motto that reflected young people’s disillusionment with the possibility of change. politics through the ballot:When voting is not enough, rebellion is inevitable.” This is a generation for which the duty of a good citizen is no longer to vote and run for office, but to be an activist, using extra-institutional forms of political action to bring about real political change. .
It could become more of a challenge for Macron now. In legislative elections in early June, he lost his parliamentary majority, although his coalition continues to be the largest bloc in the National Assembly. Partly thanks to the support of young voters, the left-wing alliance led by Melenchon – the New People’s Ecological and Social Union, or NUPES – became the second largest parliamentary force. And in perhaps the biggest surprise of the election, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party won 89 seats, five times more than in the previous legislature, making it the largest opposition party in parliament. The result is an assembly which is certainly the most politically diverse and representative of the Fifth Republic, but also which, for lack of a government majority, will remain either fractured and paralyzed or unstable.
This means that French youth, for whom Macron’s first term was one of broken promises and lost illusions, will likely face another five years of frustration and disappointment. And the history of the social movements that have marked the last decade in France – from the ZAD of Notre-Dame-des-Landes to the 2016 Nuit Debout protests against the liberalization of the labor market to the recent occupations of the Sorbonne – shows that when young people are not heard in the halls of power, they are heard in the streets.
Eraldo Souza dos Santos is a lecturer in world history at the University of Potsdam. Follow him on Twitter at @esdsantos.