Participation is commonly viewed as the cornerstone of liberal democracy. In Europe, however, the decades since the 1980s have been marked by falling participation and increased disillusionment with institutional politics. These trends are most striking among young people – those within the rough boundaries of 15 to 25 years old – an electoral demographic increasingly alienated by mainstream politics.
Meanwhile, this distrust and disillusionment in older voters has precipitated the resurgence of populist anti-immigration parties across Europe. By positioning themselves beyond the left/right divide, against the establishment, some of these parties have mobilised a growing part of the discontented. In this context, the young vote appears as a natural target for the protest parties on the right, but is it likely to follow their call?
Polls in Europe regularly show the dismal level of trust and engagement in politics, with 80% of the respondents in 2013 across the EU expressing distrust for political parties. Accordingly, party membership has plummeted. On average across Europe, political parties have lost half of their total membership over the past three decades.
At the same time, other ways to be political have proliferated. This is perhaps most true of the young, whose characteristically diverse repertoires for political behaviour, have spanned from consumer politics to the wave of young protest across Europe since 2008. Although it has become common for political elites to denounce young people as apathetic, the weight of evidence suggests that young people are turning away from the ballot box, choosing instead more direct forms of participation such as petitions and demonstrations.
Of course, young people are not monolithic across Europe. According to the European Social Survey of 15 EU countries, France has the second highest rate of youth participation relative to citizens in total. The UK has witnessed the growth of an inter-generational divide between older citizens who continue to participate in politics and younger citizens who increasingly don’t. The reaction of populist anti-immigration parties makes this contrast starker as the young vote could prove key in deciding the future of Europe.
Le Pen’s electoral phoenix
In France, Front National (FN) leader Marine Le Pen recently launched the Collectif Marianne, named after one of the most famous symbols of the French Republic and aimed at recruiting students. To accelerate the process of legitimisation of her still extreme party, Le Pen has placed her faith in an electoral phoenix. But can the young vote many thought was increasingly lost to abstention be brought back to life by the brimstone of extreme right rhetoric?
According to its website, this new “think tank” for the extreme right will be run for students and by students whose “sovereignist and patriotic tendency” have pushed them to act.
The extreme right’s unmasked attempt to hijack the youth vote has taken place amidst a new series of scandals involving both sides of moderate politics in France. As opposed to the left and even the far left, parties like the FN have been able to claim their “innocence” in the current situation, as they have mostly been kept out of power. Record high unemployment, social insecurity and fear for the future have proven a blessing for anti-immigrant parties in most European countries.
The FN’s confidence in targeting students, a group traditionally opposed to its ideas, demonstrates the degree of normalisation achieved by the party. In the past 20 years, the FN has successfully increased its share of the vote within the lower classes of society and more recently bridged the gender gap in its electorate.
This was mostly through its appeal to the “losers” of globalisation – something which has made the young vote a natural target. With youth unemployment in the EU at almost 25%, it is no surprise that the FN is keen to tap into this pool of voters.
A recent survey showed that only 2% of 18 to 25-year olds in France believed that almost no politicians were corrupt. Unsurprisingly, 84% declared having little or no trust at all in politics. Most felt that there was no difference between the left and the right, a discourse playing into the hands of the FN and its so-called third-way politics.
Apathy among the cynics
The anti-establishment baton has been taken up in British party politics by the UK Independence Party (UKIP). Founded in 1993, UKIP has only risen to prominence since the election of the present coalition government in 2010. UKIP has polled well in local and European elections in this period, at the same time as the fall of the UK’s far right British National Party and the growth of distrust and cynicism following the parliamentary expenses scandal.
The UKIP rhetorical agenda is populist, profoundly anti-immigrant and anti-Europe, and situated on the right wing of the British political spectrum. UKIP focuses on older voters who fear for the future, and has increasingly moved its headline issue away from Europe and on to immigration.
According to YouGov, UKIP draws its support mostly from what are known as “middle England voters”: from white English men, and “disproportionately from older people with fewer qualifications”. A majority – 71% – of UKIP voters are over 50, compared to 46% of all voters. Just 15% are under 40.
Claiming older votes could be a sound strategy if we consider the conclusions of an ICM Research study that found young people in the UK are firmly in favour of EU membership, relaxed about free movement and “keen to keep prejudice out of any debate about immigration”.
It also reflects the reality of young and student politics in the UK. Young people simply don’t vote as much as older generations do and unlike in France, their disengagement from elections is mirrored in other forms of institutional engagement. While young French voters join boycotts, participate in demonstrations, and so on, young people in the UK tend to abstain from institutional politics entirely. So far, unlike the French FN, UKIP has not attempted to engage with young cynicism towards the establishment.
Le Monde has suggested that the current state of youth politics is reminiscent of the lead-up to the student demonstrations of May 1968.
Even though the last mass movement in western Europe found its strength outside traditional political structures, and the polls suggest young people are now well-educated and more progressive, the current political mood seems far less prone to optimism and progress than that of the 1960s.
In the UK, young people’s mass movements over the last decade such as the student protests against university fees in 2010 and riots across the UK in 2011, have been rejected by institutional politics.
The criminalisation of protest in the UK has brought an “aura of criminality” on student politics. This rejection is as common to anti-establishment parties like UKIP as it is to more mainstream parties.
Extreme right organisations such as the English Defence League, the Northeast Infidels and the English Volunteer Force have been able to mobilise support from young people to some extent. But these groups have so far proved too vulnerable to internal struggles, paranoia and poor organisation to be able to radicalise young people with any effect at the ballot box.
In France, on the other hand, while in 2008, only 4% of 18 to 29-year-olds positioned themselves on the far right, recent polls suggest that 18% of 18 to 24-year-olds and 20% of 25 to 34-year-olds turned to Marine Le Pen in the 2012 presidential election. Abstention was 27% and 26% respectively.
With the far-right discourse increasingly mainstream in both the French political arena and media, there is little doubt that a growing part of the young population will turn to this alternative. While it will most certainly remain a small minority, it will nonetheless help to further the process of legitimisation of ideas which were not so long ago considered taboo for students, while vilifying the cry of the youth as nothing more than an irrational protest.