'Imagination will take you everywhere'
At a recent En Marche! rally in Reims’ Centre des Congrés, young and old cheered and waved the tricolour as Emmanuel Macron, the 39-year-old independent centrist, bounced onto the stage. Flore Chevalier was one of those cheering; wearing an En Marche! T-shirt, the 19-year-old from Versailles was one of the youth organisers of the event which was attended by almost 1,300 people.
As the battle for the Elysée Palace enters the final countdown, a generation of young people are preparing to cast their vote for the first time. Those at the prestigious Sciences Po Campus de Reims, are eagerly awaiting the chance to have their say after an election campaign plagued by scandals. These are the students who will go on to shape the social and political landscape of France, so what do they think of the 2017 frontrunners?
Having joined the En Marche! campaign as soon as it started, Chevalier’s vote is firmly with Macron. “I really like his position as a candidate that fits neither in the PS (Parti Socialiste) or Les Républicains but who seeks to gather people around a project that can really put France back on its feet. I like the idea of combining liberal economic reforms with social protection. And I also deeply believe in Europe’s future, which I think is at the center of his project.”
Macron has never held any elected mandate, which is a worry for some of his supporters, but not for Chevalier. “I’d rather have someone with little political experience instead of someone who has never known anything else than politics.” She found the results of the primaries very interesting as they were so unexpected. “I think they reveal a profound desire for radical change on the part of the French population.”
For undecided voter, Stella Chene, 19 from Paris, she agrees with Macron’s “guiding principles”, however she finds it “kind of scary” to vote for someone with such an undetailed program – as she has no idea how he will implement his plans. “I voted for Hamon in the socialist primaries – I am a member of the Socialist Party. But it was mostly to kick Manuel Valls out.” She does agree with some of Hamon’s policies, particularly with the idea of a universal wage and for his stance on feminism, but her priorities are the environment, a strong European Union, and helping refugees, so she feels more inclined to vote for Macron.
Realistically, Chene thinks she will do a “vote utile” (tactical vote) for Macron. “I am afraid that if I vote Mélenchon or Hamon, it will be Fillon vs. Le Pen in the second round, and that would be a really terrible situation for me – imagine my first second-round presidential vote having to be cast for Fillon!”
“But most importantly, I find Macron inspiring. Before he launched his movement, I was already saying that political parties cause problems. They are too rigid; all members have to stick to an ideology or they are accused of backstabbing their political family – I think that’s detrimental to debate. I think it puts people into boxes that are not always relevant.”
As an aspiring politician, Chene hopes to run for presidency one day, and thinks that youth should be seen as a positive. “Experience is very important, but I think the supreme office shouldn’t be restricted to experts.” She says that it’s refreshing to have a newcomer: “Especially since En Marche! grew with citizen committees who participated in the drafting of the project.”
17-year-old Antoine Humbert disagrees with Chene; he doesn’t think Macron deserves a place in this campaign and says he only uses demagogy. Humbert describes him as “a banker who believed after less than 3 years in politics that he could run as a candidate for the presidential elections thanks to the financial support he received from his former colleagues”.
Despite not being old enough to vote in the coming election, Humbert, has been following the build-up with interest and hopes that the National Front candidate, Marine Le Pen will win. “I am a supporter of Le Pen as I believe that the European Project has come to an end and if we want our country to keep going forward, it must quit the European Union.”
With a possible Frexit on the cards, Humbert believes French households will see their purchasing power increase. “There will be more job creations as internal demand would shift upward and social inequalities will decrease as measures will be taken to improve the social conditions of poor people and better reallocate the state money.”
He also cites the threat of terrorism as a major reason for his support of the National Front. “Le Pen is the only one to propose some strong measures in terms of defence. With an increase of the army budget to 2% of the GDP and an increase in the number of the police employees, it will bring back security in our streets.”
His reason for voting for an alternative party is due to disappointment at the Républicains and Socialist parties. According to him they have done nothing to ease the social inequalities within France, and neither have proved to be successful at governing.
But for Cliona Noone, 19 from Vincennes, the Socialist candidate, Benoît Hamon, is the one that makes her hope for a better future. “He is the only one that puts the youth at the center of his campaign and is the most vocal about women’s rights.”
When asked what she thinks about criticism of him being too radical, she replies: “He is not “too radical”, people have forgotten what it means to be “à gauche”, to want to protect the workers, to protect people from the side effects of globalization. People have forgotten what the state is meant to do: protect and support its citizens.”
Noone thinks this is the worst election the 5th Republic has ever experienced. “The Républicains party is exploding and shifting towards more extreme views. The Socialists are also being torn apart between Macron and Mélenchon; both were rejected from primary posts in the government.”
“The extremes (Mélenchon and Le Pen) seem more than likely to get the power, as the electorate is fractured.” She thinks the outcome may be violent as the political climate has been hostile ever since the ‘manif pour tous’. The huge demonstration in January 2013 against the law allowing same-sex marriage; the right extreme movement that emerged called itself the “manif pour tous” (like the name of the law ‘Mariage pour tous’), which included a mixture of royalists, Catholic associations, Républicains, and National Front supporters.
Pierre Wang, 19, from Beijing and Normandy, thinks that if common sense prevails, Les Républicains candidate, François Fillon, will be elected as President on 7th May. “He has the most ambitious, detailed and pragmatic project. After 5 wasted years under François Hollande whose election was based on people’s hatred of his adversary, reforms are more than ever necessary.”
He is also a firm believer in the benefits of the EU, and is shocked by the views of the other candidates on this topic. “No less than half of the candidates blame the EU for everything or threaten to get out of it. How is this possible? Those candidates are old enough to have listened to the testimonies of World War survivors – their parents! – or have lived during the Cold War. Blaming the EU in such a way is intellectually dishonest. The EU fosters peace, economic cooperation, high-quality norms and standards, science and research. When I look at all of them and this 2017 election process, I wonder what General de Gaulle would think.”
But what is Wang’s view on the allegations against Fillon? He is accused of misuse of public funds – dubbed “Penelope-gate” by the French media after his wife, whom he allegedly paid for fake employment – and is slipping in the polls because of it.
Wang believes that the ones who threw this affair on the public stage simply want to damage Fillon’s performance in the election. “But they can be happy as they already succeeded in sabotaging the 2017 presidential campaign. There was no serious presidential campaign in the past 2 months. That’s a shame when you think at all the issues and challenges that should be discussed and solved.”
Despite the allegations, Wang’s support for Fillon has not diminished; “I still support him because I believe that he has the most comprehensive project that France needs. He is a statesman unlike all the others. Behind him, the right and the center are ready to govern and manage the country. Fillon is the only one capable of having a majority in both houses of Parliament. Don’t forget that the legislative branch is important as well. How will Mr. Macron govern with a Republican Senate and a Republican or a very divided National Assembly?”
On the other hand, Adeline Massard, 20 from Gabon, is supporting Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of the far-left party, ‘Unsubmissive France’, in the coming election. “First and foremost, because I share most of the ideas he puts forward. In my opinion, his political platform is the fairest and most realistic, especially with regard to the environment, social policy, the EU, and foreign policy. He is not afraid of saying what he thinks, and doesn’t seem susceptible to the influence of lobbies, contrary to many other candidates.”
Massard describes some of the other candidates as “frenetic caricatures” and says she is really disappointed by the level of debate, which has been degraded by polarization around certain issues like terrorism and the migratory crisis. “I consider it a regrettable strategy employed by some politicians who tend to give these issues a privileged place at the expense of other fundamental topics such as the environment (the need to establish energy transition as soon as possible, for instance), unemployment or implementing a better distribution of wealth.”
Referred to by many as a leftist firebrand, Mélenchon, was widely regarded as performing the best in the last TV debate between the 11 candidates. A snap poll by Elabe for BFM TV found that he had managed to convince 25 percent of those who had watched the debate. But Massard thinks it is still going to be a tight race to the finish line. “Several months ago, we wouldn’t have expected Fillon and Hamon to win the presidential primary elections. With them, Marine Le Pen is slipping in recent polls while Mélenchon is gaining ground.” As we have seen with Brexit and the US Presidential election, anything could happen, as the French would say: rien n’est encore joué.
Originally published on The Sundial Press.