Apr 18, 2022 - World

Macron's struggles with young voters leave an opening for Le Pen

Grafitit that translates as "Neither Macron nor Le Pen" seen as protesters demonstrate
Grafitit reads "Neither Macron nor Le Pen" as protesters demonstrate on April 16 in Paris. Photo: Sam Tarling/Getty Images

France's April 24 presidential run-off between President Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen could be decided by young voters, many of whom oppose both candidates.

Driving the news: In the first round, Le Pen and far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon outpaced Macron among voters under 35, according to data from Harris Interactive.

Breaking it down: Mélenchon, who finished third overall, won among under 25s, while Le Pen won among voters 25 to 34 (with Macron a distant third in that category). Meanwhile, Macron doubled Le Pen's tally among voters over 65.

  • Between the lines: Older voters were the driving force behind Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump, but in France — at least in the first round — support for the far-right was highest among 25-to-34-year-olds.

The big picture: Le Pen’s focus on cost-of-living issues and her softer campaign style this time around — visiting low-income communities to talk about rising prices — has boosted her appeal among young people, Susi Dennison, director of the European power program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Axios.

  • In 2017, Le Pen was "quite visibly a far-right candidate," Dennison said. "She was campaigning on immigration and identity issues. That's all still there — if you read her program, if you compare it — but it's not what she's been talking about."
  • Meanwhile, Macron's political movement represented hope for change in 2017, but many younger voters are disillusioned and feel his "social justice agenda hasn't amounted to anything," according to Dennison.

Yes, but: Getting young people to turn out will be a hurdle. While the overall abstention rate in the first round was about 26%, it was over 40% among under-35s, per Politico.

State of play: “I think in general, what we're seeing is sort of strong disengagement around these elections from young people," Dennison said.

  • In the first round, many young people engaged in "protest voting," she notes. Now, the race is down to two candidates many younger voters feel don't represent them on key issues, like the environment.
  • Last week, large student demonstrations erupted at several universities in Paris, with students making clear their dislike for both Macron and Le Pen, AP reported.
  • Protesters also gathered in 30 cities across France over the weekend to demonstrate against the rise of the far-right, racism, and both candidates' environmental programs, Reuters reported.

What to watch: While Macron has managed to widen the gap with Le Pen since the first round — Politico's Poll of Polls has him leading 54% to Le Pen’s 46% — the two remain in a tight race.

  • Macron and Le Pen will face off in a television debate on April 20, a critical opportunity for Macron to highlight her euroskeptic and anti-immigrant views, Dennison said.
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