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EU ـ Why young voters swung right?

Jun 18, 2024 | Studies & Reports

European Centre for Counterterrorism and Intelligence Studies, Germany & Netherlands – ECCI

Europe’s ‘foreigners out!’ generation: Why young people vote far right

politico– The historic success of the radical right in last weekend’s European Parliament election may have come as a shock, knocking two of the bloc’s most important governments off balance.

But it shouldn’t have been too much of a surprise for anyone paying attention to the outraged mood among many of the Continent’s young people, who have not only embraced hard-line anti-immigration views but seem prouder than ever to broadcast them.

Consider this as evidence: A 14-second clip filmed on the German holiday island of Sylt and uploaded to the social media platform X about two weeks before the vote. In it, a group of expensively dressed German youths can be seen belting out the words “Ausländer Raus!” (“foreigners out!”) over a euro-dance beat as they swirl glasses of rosé.

The all-white group, whose preppy attire wouldn’t be out of place in other European holiday hotspots like France’s Biarritz or Sweden’s Gotland, all know exactly when to chime in with the xenophobic lyrics laid over l’Amour Toujours, a turn-of-the-century track by DJ Gigi D’Agostino. At one point in the video, one of the partygoers is so taken with the song that he gives himself a Hitler mustache with two fingers while throwing up a floppy “Seig Heil” salute with his other hand.

The video’s release prompted a furor in Germany, with one politician calling for the partygoers to be brought to justice for breaking the country’s hate speech laws. But there was no stopping the forces on display in the video. When European voters headed to the polls on June 9, the far-right Alternative for Germany party (AfD) pulled off its best performance ever, beating Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democratic Party and sending political shockwaves through Europe’s most populous country.

A similar feeling of whiplash is rippling across France, where President Emmanuel Macron has called a snap election after being trounced by the far-right National Rally party. And in Brussels, policymakers are bracing for a European Parliament in which one in four lawmakers belongs to the radical right.

As a reeling Continent tries to make sense of what just hit it, the role of young voters like the Sylt partygoers is coming into focus as an important factor. In Germany, the share of young people who voted for the AfD jumped between the last European Parliament election in 2019 and this one (rising by 11 percent among voters aged between 24 and 30). In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party raked in some 30 percent of the youth vote nationally — a 10-point rise compared to 2019.

Which begs the question: Why are so many of Europe’s Gen-Z and younger Millennials — whose parents and grandparents espoused left-wing politics, ushering in the sexual revolution in the 1960s — embracing the antithesis of their elders’ ideals? And whatever happened to the stigma or shame that once surrounded overtly racist and xenophobic attitudes like those on display in the Sylt video?

The answer is a hodgepodge of factors ranging from Europe’s cost-of-living crisis to the isolation many youths suffered during the COVID lockdown years to a delayed backlash following the bloc’s 2015 migration crisis when nearly two million migrants flowed into the bloc. But there are also more intangible factors, linked to the fact that many young people experience politics solely via social media platforms like X and TikTok where far-right content glorifying the “Great Replacement” theory and linking immigration to violence runs unchecked.

Why young voters swung right

Mathieu Gallard, research director at the Ipsos polling firm, says that left-wing parties — namely the far-left France Unbowed party — remain the dominant political force among youths aged between 18 and 24 in France. But he acknowledged that support for the National Rally had skyrocketed for the same age bracket over the past five years. “There is a section of young people who are hostile to immigration and who vote on these issues,” he said.

The fact that the president of the National Rally is now Jordan Bardella, a smooth-talking 28-year-old at home on TikTok, helps to explain the rise in youth support. In one video posted to the platform a week before the European Parliament election, Bardella appeals primarily to young voters, urging them to mobilize their “parents,” “friends and loved ones” to turn out “in big numbers” to a pre-election rally. In another video posted before Bardella goes on stage for a political rally, he confides that he decided to wear jeans because he “couldn’t be bothered to iron” his suit — an obvious “I’m just like you” moment that seems to resonate with the commenters.

Bardella’s youth and social media acumen aren’t the only factors in his success, Gallard said: “His youth, his presence on social media, widen the electorate somewhat … but it’s not the main factor. The main factors are the unpopularity of the executive [led by Macron] and the importance of immigration in the campaign.” Indeed, the far-right figureheads in the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and Austria aren’t exactly spring chickens, yet they too appeal to youth voters with a similar formula of anti-EU, anti-immigrant and anti-elite doomerism which paints the leaders of their country as being corrupt and detached.

For Yanis Ouadah, who joined the National Rally in 2021 and is now a local party representative in southwestern France, the party’s anti-immigration, tough-on-crime message resonates with students who fear they are competing with recent immigrants for access to housing among other benefits. “When you see that the French can’t find housing in their own country but that foreigners can, we are asking for a national priority [in access to housing], something that more and more young people agree with,” he told POLITICO before the election.

Over in the Netherlands, two students who cast their first-ever votes for anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders last November, struck a similar chord when asked to explain their choice. “I’m not against refugees, not at all,” said a 20-year-old student in Rotterdam named Chess van Leeuwen. “But if it gets too much, in times of crisis, we have to think about ourselves.” Regardless of what else Wilders stands for, “the Netherlands comes first for him,” he added.

Ouadah, who hopes to become a police officer, also linked his political choice to his perception that criminality has run rampant in France. “We can no longer go out safely,” he said. “Look at the number of knife attacks taking place. We have a government that clearly doesn’t care about the French.” Oudah also mentioned what he called “extremism” on display during pro-Palestinian protests in recent months as a factor helping the National Rally.

Another oft-cited factor: COVID and the lockdowns that confined youths at a time when many were due to leave their homes to start university. The lockdown orders that were handed down by leaders across Europe within a few weeks in 2020 helped cement the idea that political elites were high-handed and insulated from the effects of their policies. Such grievances are deeply entrenched among right-wing voters in many European countries.

Then there’s the subject of the song captured on video in Sylt. Nearly a decade after the bloc opened its doors to a record number of refugees fleeing war in Syria, undocumented migration to the Continent has dropped sharply even if legal migration remains elevated. Yet immigration remains by far the number one issue for right-wing voters, intermingled as it is with fear of a “Great Replacement” of white Europeans by dark-skinned, mainly Muslim immigrants from outside the bloc — a term coined by French intellectual Renaud Camus which now permeates the right-wing “meme-o-sphere.”

The far right wave is here to stay

In many ways, the surge in youth support is disconnected from reality. After hitting a high of more than 10 percent in October 2022, Europe’s inflation rate is now back down to 2 percent. The same goes for unemployment which, at 6 percent on average across the EU according to Eurostat, is far below the 12.2 percent average joblessness rate reached in 2013.

In other words, on the economy, migration and the effects of the pandemic, Europe has already weathered the worst of the storm. But the lingering effects of these convulsions are shaping politics today, and perhaps for many years to come.

The challenge facing Europe’s elites today is sizing up the consequences of the bloc’s youth-led shift to the right. In France, the Bardella generation will return to the polls to vote in a new national parliament during a two-round election on June 30 and July 7. The snap election, called by Macron, will show whether the shock performance of the National Rally last Sunday was an outburst of protest voting or a seismic shift in the country’s politics that will cement the far-right party as a leading political force.

While pollsters say voters are unlikely to install Bardella as his country’s youngest-ever prime minister, the National Rally could well expand its number of seats in the National Assembly, paving the way for yet another attempt by either Le Pen or Bardella himself at winning the presidency in 2027.

Leading up to the vote, the far right’s performance is already shaking up the country’s political landscape. Eric Ciotti, leader of the conservative Les Républicains party, broke a long-standing taboo by announcing he would seek local alliances with the National Rally — only to be denounced by several of his party’s heavyweights.

In Germany, the abysmal performance by the three parties in Olaf Scholz’s ruling coalition hasn’t triggered a snap election, but it may have signed the government’s death warrant. While the chancellor has ruled out calling an election, he could yet face a vote of confidence that might lead to his replacement, possibly without an election. If Scholz goes, the country’s most likely next leader would be Friedrich Merz, a conservative member of the Christian Democratic Union whose party won the most votes in the June 9 election.

Whatever twists and turns the next weeks and months will deliver, young far-right voters will shape European politics for years, if not decades, to come. Political allegiances forged in young adulthood tend to last lifetimes.

Europe’s “foreigners out” generation may have arrived in a surge; it’s unlikely to ebb away anytime soon.

European Centre for Counterterrorism and Intelligence Studies, Germany & Netherlands – ECCI

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