French far-leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon on Sunday fell just short of advancing to the presidential run-off, leaving far-right flagbearer Marine Le Pen to challenge Emmanuel Macron again for France’s top job. But among 18-to-25 year-olds, it was Mélenchon, 70, who won the night with 29 percent of their vote. What his supporters do next will be critical on April 24. FRANCE 24 met with students north of Paris who voted for Mélenchon. None were keen to help re-elect Macron, even against the far right.
“Macron or Le Pen, we’re screwed in any case. For my first election, I’d hoped for better,” mused Esteban, one hand in his pocket, the other resting against a Vélib bike-share stand outside Paris 8-Saint-Denis University, north of the French capital. Voting in Sunday’s first round, the 18-year-old cast his vote for Mélenchon. “It was the vote closest to my convictions. I’m not going to lie to you: It makes me lose hope in a better world, or at least one with more social progress,” he lamented after his candidate’s narrow defeat.
The film student is waiting for a professor who asked his class to come in despite the strike action under way, unrelated to the dramatic contest for the Élysée Palace. The university’s entrance is blocked off by a chain of bins linked together. It’s 2pm and the picketing students have left their morning posts. The school had decided anyway to close for the day. The posters and flyers in the bins shed light on the strikers’ demands: “The presidency of the university refuses to register students fleeing the war in Ukraine. There are still 23 students without residency papers that the school is refusing to admit!”
‘Blank ballot or Le Pen vote’
Esteban’s friend Bruno (not his real name) wants to talk, too. He jumps in to finish his mate’s sentences. An 18-year-old student from Paris, Bruno hails from a very politically aware family, he explained. “My grandfather was a Communist member of the French Resistance and my father was steeped in that culture,” he boasted. “I especially do not want to see Macron in power again, so for the second round I’m hesitating between casting a blank ballot and voting Le Pen. Marine Le Pen is better than Macron on social issues. And Macron, after all, put cabinet ministers in office who conducted far-right policies,” Bruno said, accusing Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin of hardline repression.
Esteban concurred. He resents the incumbent for going back on his environmental promises. “There was yet another report [by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] recently saying we have three years to take action on climate change,” he explained. Neither friend said he could identify with the run-off candidates’ stances on environmental issues.
“However, I find the protectionism that Marine Le Pen is proposing more interesting than Macron’s ultra-liberalism,” Bruno said. Having a far-right National Rally leader as president of France doesn’t scare him, he explained. “The zero immigration policy doesn’t work, it can’t be applied. It’s obvious. Even Macron hasn’t managed to see through deportations. It’ll be like it was for Donald Trump – did you know he deported fewer migrants than Barack Obama had?”
‘I’ll have to pick up Le Pen’s platform’
“I don’t like Macron and the favours he does for his mates on the sly, like for his friends at McKinsey,” Esteban said, citing the consulting firm the French government has hired for its services, not without controversy, adding yet another line to the student’s laundry list of grievances.
The French financial prosecutor’s office on March 31 opened a preliminary probe against the US consulting firm McKinsey over possible tax fraud. But neither student is reserving their judgement in the meantime. “He doesn’t leave anything to chance,” Esteban said of Macron. “He’s someone who seeks to profit from everything.”
While he is certain not to vote for Macron, Esteban begins expressing doubts about voting for Le Pen over the course of the conversation. “I’ll have to pick up Marine Le Pen’s platform anyway to see what ballot I put in the box,” he said.
Esteban is comfortable talking politics with his mother, who strings together odd jobs in the south of France. “My mother is an actress. She’s over 50, but she is a waitress, a home-care worker. She serves lunches in school canteens to earn a wage because she had problems with getting [the unemployment insurance agency] to recognise her status as a temporary entertainment worker,” he explained, with a worried look. “She voted for Mélenchon and she’ll cast a blank ballot in the second round.”
‘I’ll still go to the ballot box’
Not everyone shares their parents’ politics, though. Nineteen-year-old Lilou, for one. Waiting outside the university for her film professor, too, she explained choosing Mélenchon in the first round, initially for his environmental proposals. “In my family, votes were always kept secret. But I think my parents voted for Macron,” she said, before hesitating. “Which candidate proposed raising the minimum pension?” she asked. The topic is front and centre in Lilou’s family; everything rests on her father’s pension. “My mother stopped working at the age of 25 to raise my sister, my brother and me,” she explained.
For Lilou, one worry is money. “Macron wants students to pay for university, to raise registration fees. That won’t be possible,” she said. While that proposal does not actually feature clearly in Macron’s campaign platform, it was attributed to him in January after remarks he made to a conference of university presidents, saying “we will not be able to remain lastingly in a system where higher education has no price for the near-entirety of students”. The comment set off fierce reactions from student unions, after which the incumbent went back on his equivocal remarks. “When one wants to fight students’ economic insecurity, one doesn’t raise registration fees,” he said later that month. But to hear Lilou tell it, fears remain.
One thing is certain: Lilou won’t be voting for Macron. “I’ll still go to the ballot box. It’s important. But since I don’t like either of the candidates, I prefer not to take part in this vote. I will cast a blank ballot,” she explained.
Clinging to leftist hopes for parliament
More students are arriving outside the shuttered university. A group is due to attend a political science talk on preventing inequality, set to take place outdoors in a nearby square.
Before joining the rest of the group, one student shared her disappointment with a reporter. She voted for Mélenchon and said she refuses to cast a Macron ballot in the April 24 run-off. “It would be lending him legitimacy, when he didn’t manage to stand in the way of the rise of the far right. Quite the opposite,” she contended. “I’m angry with him for his increasingly repressive politics, for the police violence he couldn’t put a stop to, for his disdainful line against the poorest people,” she said.
The 21-year-old prefers to sit out the second-round vote, she said. But she is anxious for the next election after that: French voters go back to the polls on June 12 and 19 to elect their lower-house National Assembly lawmakers. “I’m clinging to the legislative elections to get a left-wing majority. I will have no relief before I’m sure we can counter the future president’s power,” she said, before turning to join her friends.
This article has been translated from the original in French.