Marine Le Pen and the Thatcher Paradox
While Britain's youth are more Left-wing, why are France's found more on the Right?
I spent some of the Easter holidays in my favourite country, on this occasion Brittany. It’s my goal, if I ever make a lot out of writing, to sink all my children’s inheritance into a money-trap deep in the Dordogne or Languedoc. What a dream — all those taxes, the bureaucracy, the inability to find a workman, hostile neighbours, the jumped-up local official who appears wearing a tricolour sash like he’s Napoleon, demanding some payment no one warned me about. But to be part of the English bourgeois dream — enjoying a glass of Bordeaux ‘on the terrace’ with R.S. Archer and the rest of the lads.
France is the most visited country on earth and there is good reason for that. I love everything about the place: the history, the diversity, the cities, the landscape, the language, the food. And the fact that it is so different to home, in so many ways — none more so than in its politics.
The final round of the French election takes place tomorrow and, while Emmanuel Macron will almost certainly win, Marine Le Pen may do considerably better than in 2017. That over 40% of French voters are willing to back a candidate so outside the political cordon sanitaire (that’s ‘sanitary cordon’ to those of you who don’t speak the language) is striking enough, but stranger still that this movement is most popular among the young.
It’s a common lament here in the Anglophone world that the next generation are far more Left-wing than their elders. It’s basically my main shtick — we’re doomed, the kids are all communists, buy my book etc.
It’s certainly true in both Britain and the US. In the former, the political divide largely runs along age lines, with 82% of 18-24-year-olds backing liberal or Left-wing parties, and just 17% supporting the Right. In contrast, 62% of pensioners vote for the Tories. It’s not really that surprising, when the Conservative government seems to make little effort to attract younger voters, the latest wheeze being an increase in student loan interest rates. In the US there is a similar generational gap, a common cliché of younger relatives arguing with elders about race and gender at Thanksgiving and Christmas; the divide is also educational and runs along gender lines, as it does in almost all rich countries, South Korea being the most extreme example.
Yet in France young voters are considerably more Right-wing than their elders. Across the Channel that coping mechanism popular among British commentators, that the next generation will rebel against the prevailing beliefs and become conservative, does seem to be true.
Among 25-34-year-old voters in the first round of the presidential election, Le Pen was comfortably ahead on 31%, ten points above Mélenchon and Macron. If you add the Éric Zemmour vote, some 39% of young French people opt for candidates considered to be on the extreme Right.
Among the 18-24 age group, Le Pen has a significant advantage in the second round and if, as expected, Macron wins, it will largely be because of older people, the same demographic who in Britain prevented Jeremy Corbyn from coming to power.
This figure is even more startling when one considers demography. France does not keep data on race, but among the younger cohort a considerable minority will be of non-European origin, so the likelihood is that a majority of young white French voters supported Le Pen or Zemmour.
These seem to include quite normal young people, too. At the last election the Independent ran a feature on the young Frenchmen and women who had turned to Le Pen. They described a crowd of teens and twenty-somethings waving French flags and holdings placards with the Front National (now Rassemblement National) slogan ‘choose France’. Unlike the young people who become involved in nationalist politics in England, they didn’t seem weird.
One was quoted as saying: ‘There are many young people like me, who are holding public offices. Young people are very attracted by the Front National because it is mainly young people, who feel concerned about mass immigration. They are living it every day.’
It’s safe to say that the demographic equivalent in England would be unlikely to turn up for Ukip events. They wouldn’t say they want to save Britain, because it would be cringeworthy and low status. They wouldn’t claim to be concerned about mass immigration, and if they had private reservations, they would suppress them. Supporters of populist Right movements here tend to be older, less educated and more downmarket. In Britain there is a core of very intelligent young men on social media (it appears overwhelmingly male) who are deeply disaffected by multiculturalism, but they are relatively small in number and have no physical organisation, nor have their ideas broken through to the mainstream. In France things are very different.
And France is not alone. Young Italians are also more Right-wing than their elders. Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party is the most popular among the young, followed by Matteo Salvini’s Liga, between them attracting 45% of young voters. And another 6% support the Forza Italia party of half-man, half-Viagra cyborg Silvio Berlusconi. In Spain, too, Vox has its greatest strength among the 25-44 age group, although it is least popular among the very young.
What explains this huge difference between the Anglophone and Latin world? Well, there is one — slightly eccentric — possible explanation.