The attraction of populist parties in segments of the European youth isn’t new. But in recent years it has gained momentum in many countries and has led to the consolidation of a strong electoral base. Parties that merge anti-immigration policies with a nationalist focus and an anti-establishment stance have been able to develop that base and capitalise on it. The impact of youth unemployment is significant: 60% of unemployed first-time voters or first-time job seekers are willing to vote for the FN candidate in France (against 36% of unemployed people in the broader population).
But the electoral attractiveness of Le Pen encompasses segments of youth less exposed to the economic and social crisis, and with easier access to jobs: 27% of ‘students’ are also tempted by that political road.
It is therefore unsurprising that the working class youth finds in the programmes of populist parties, an outlet for its social issues and its worries and doubts about its future.
In many European countries, young people are the first group affected by the lack of access to the labour market and by rampant unemployment. In most cases, the responsibility falls onto the big government parties, which are considered inefficient. The EU is accused of eating away at national sovereignty to the profit of liberal globalisation forces. This thesis is nurtured by “anti-system” parties and echoes the concerns of downward social mobility of the low-skilled youth, with little education and belonging to the working class. Of course, populism also affects rich countries where the economic crisis has had little impact. But it appears particularly convincing for struggling young generations, which see themselves as the losers of the economic globalisation. It is therefore unsurprising that the working class youth finds in the programmes of populist parties, an outlet for its social issues and its worries and doubts about its future.
This feeling of vulnerability about the job market is reinforced by young people’s quest for identity in an increasingly complex environment. The lack of a supra-national mythology to help decipher the globalised and open world in which they evolve, fuels nationalism and protectionism. Indeed, no other European narrative has been able to replace the once uniting post-war idea of Europe as an engine of peace and growth. Against this vacuum, the most socially and economically fragile young have found solace in the simple and perennial symbols of the nation, defined by a language, a flag, a national history and local particularisms. National identities rally people around cultural references rooted in a familiar history.
Finally, national-populist parties benefit from their position outside of the ‘system’ and often appear as new; bringing new values and untarnished by the exercise of power. This is helped by the current political representation crisis where distrust towards political parties is strong and is damaging the democratic pact.
How should we address the success of populist parties with some young Europeans? By inventing a narrative and establishing practices in at least three directions.
The first, which is the most fundamental and urgent one, is the issue of unemployment and the absolute necessity to contain its damages. This has profoundly diminished the confidence of young people in the societies supposed to welcome and integrate them. No partial measure will remedy this problem. Getting a job should be the focus of political action, of all political stakeholders at all levels of governance. Training must be completely redesigned to adapt with the evolutions and transformations of the job market. It is also necessary to look into the professional orientation of young people from the start, alongside their professional integration.
Political and democratic pedagogy is necessary to reconcile these two levels and rehabilitate political action in young people’s minds.
The second direction that will recapture the politically disillusioned and disappointed youth, is the renovation of the political landscape. We need to find a new medium between citizens and those who hold power, through inclusive organisations. We need a better articulation of participative democracy, which is the direct intervention and expression of citizens, with representative democracy, which is the political representation and organisation that entails delegating responsibilities and power. Political and democratic pedagogy is necessary to reconcile these two levels and rehabilitate political action in young people’s minds. It is also vital that we redefine what the general interest is through common values, at a time when single-issue protests are multiplying. Moreover, we need to show strong resolve in fighting corruption, which erodes confidence in politics and its representatives, whilst widening the gap between the people and the elite. In taking this direction, we need to reinstate long-term politics as a project for a shared society. What is required is a roadmap that liberates the political agenda from the diktat of short-termism, in particular that is imposed by the media.
The third direction is a call to Europe and the European construction project. In this too, a real pedagogic effort is needed. It is urgent that the project be incarnated by social, economic and cultural personalities – but first and foremost, by politicians. Such reformulation of the European political project must not do without national feelings of belonging. But these must be redefined to be inclusive, with rights and duties being upheld within an open nation. This is an ambitious and visionary charter. It defines what the relationship amongst these national feelings of belonging should be, within Europe and beyond. What it does is allow us to address issues of immigration constructively, without fear and exclusion. The time has come to write the first draft of this charter.