Why Europe’s young people are flirting with the far right

Pollsters were surprised by the burst of populism in 2016, but many now think they shouldn’t have been. In the United States and United Kingdom, swaths of voters in deprived regions – places “left behind” by globalization – were given the chance to stick it to the system, and they took it. Why was anyone surprised?

Pollsters have now been surprised by another trend. In this month’s European Parliament elections, far-right parties performed predictably well – but especially, and unexpectedly, among young people. A few years ago, “Generation Climate” – thought to be unquestionably liberal and progressive – were voting mostly green. But now, their vote has helped far-right parties capture one in four seats in Brussels. What happened?

Perhaps the “left behind” is not only a geographical phenomenon, but generational.

Gen-Z - those born between 1995 and 2012 - has been baptized in crises: first the financial, then the eurozone, then of the pandemic and now of war in Europe. More and more young people believe they will have harder lives than their parents. Why should a left-behind generation be less vulnerable to the lure of populism than left-behind places?

Roberto Foa, co-director of the Centre for the Future of Democracy at the University of Cambridge, a leading researcher of youth dissatisfaction with democracy, sees “two big divides” in Western societies: “The wealth divide between economically successful and left-behind regions, and the intergenerational divide in life opportunities.”

Political scientists may have overlooked both cohorts because they have long been disconnected. But now their apathy is turning into antipathy – a desire, once more, to stick it to the system. “If you are a political entrepreneur who is seeking to break the established party system, those are your options, in terms of mobilizing fresh support,” Foa told CNN. The trend, he says, has been a long time coming: “I’m surprised that people are surprised.”

Youth support for far-right parties is being felt in several European countries. In Germany, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), won 16% of the under-25 vote in the EU elections – tripling its share in that demographic from the previous vote in 2019. Among French voters under 34, the National Rally (RN) was the most popular party, with 32% of the vote – a 10-point rise compared to 2019. In Poland, 30% of under-30 voters supported the far-right Confederation party, up from 18.5% in 2019. Far-right parties enjoyed a similar uptick in support in the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Austria, and continued to do well in Italy.

How alarmed – and surprised – should mainstream parties be?

AfD party co-chairs Alice Weidel and Tino Chrupalla react to an exit poll in the EU elections in Berlin, June 9, 2024. - Annegret Hilse/Reuters
AfD party co-chairs Alice Weidel and Tino Chrupalla react to an exit poll in the EU elections in Berlin, June 9, 2024. - Annegret Hilse/Reuters

Generation, not geography

Consider these policy proposals. Young people will pay no income tax. If they start a business, they will be exempt from corporation tax for five years. Students working part-time will have their wages topped up by the state, which will also build 100,000 units of student housing. They can also travel by train for free.

You’d be forgiven for thinking this must be the platform of the far left. But no: This was RN doyenne Marine Le Pen’s offer in the 2022 French presidential election, which she narrowly lost. Young people, unsurprisingly, loved it. Just under 50% of 25-to-34-year-olds who cast a vote opted for Le Pen, compared to just 41% of the general population and 29% of voters over 70. Whereas the “gray vote” took Donald Trump to the White House and Britain from the EU, it kept the French far right at bay.

That may soon change. After his Renaissance party was trounced by the far-right in the EU elections, President Emmanuel Macron called a snap parliamentary election, which could result in Jordan Bardella, the RN’s 28-year-old leader, becoming France’s prime minister next month.

For Arthur Prevot, manager of the RN’s youth wing in Paris, this is great news. Macron’s presidency has failed to deliver for young people, he says.

“Purchasing power has decreased incredibly over the past seven years. Between the ‘gilets jaunes’ crisis, the rise in fuel prices, and all the different taxes that have been introduced – all of this impacts daily life, including mine,” Prevot, 22, told CNN. His economic concerns prompted him to join the party which may soon govern France, although Macron will remain president.

Jonathan Verbeken, a deputy RN candidate in Paris’ 15th district, said the main reason he joined the party was because, “we see people suffering daily, struggling to make ends meet. We see a deplorable situation in France, specifically with security and immigration. We want to react to that.”

To many older voters, the RN remains a terrifying prospect. Despite its years-long effort to “normalize,” previous generations remember its antisemitic, neofascist origins.

RN leaders Marine Le Pen and Jordan Bardella attend a rally ahead of the EU elections in Marseille, France, March 3, 2024. - Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters
RN leaders Marine Le Pen and Jordan Bardella attend a rally ahead of the EU elections in Marseille, France, March 3, 2024. - Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

But young voters appear less concerned by these roots, says Simon Schnetzer, author of a recent survey of Germany’s youth.

“Young people are first-time voters. They are a blank sheet. What drives their decisions most is: Who can offer me something that best fits my needs?” he told CNN.

The lack of historical baggage, coupled with the strange death of center-left parties in many parts of Europe, has allowed the far right to appear respectable and armed with economic solutions to young people’s problems.

Sarah-Lee Heinrichs, a 23-year-old politician for the German Green Party, said economic concerns have become far more prevalent among young people since the last European Parliament elections in 2019, when the Greens became the second largest party in Germany for the first time. In the wake of the pandemic, the full-scale war in Ukraine and the return of soaring inflation, environmentalism is no longer young people’s priority, she says.

“If governments don’t provide social security – good jobs and a place to live that doesn’t cost more than 50% of your income every month – then the far-right will rise,” Heinrichs told CNN.

And with economic insecurity is coming fiercer opposition to immigration, nearly a decade after the continent – and especially Germany - welcomed a record number of refugees fleeing war in Syria.

An alarming new trend began last month, after a short clip filmed on the German vacation island of Sylt was posted on X. In the video, well-dressed German youths belt out “Ausländer Raus!” (“foreigners out!”) and “Deutschland den Deutschen!” (“Germany for Germans!”) over a 1999 Eurodance beat. The chant has since swirled across the country, currently hosting the European soccer championships. Its appeal is not confined to Germans. As Italy played Spain last week, fans in the stadium could be heard giving their own rendition.

Swiping right

If that’s the “demand” side, what about the supply?

After her center-right bloc secured the most seats in the European Parliament, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen took to the stage in Brussels to give a victory speech. But her tone was more somber than victorious. She spoke of the importance of defending European values: integration, democracy and the rule of law.

How do these abstract values sound to young voters?

“Young people will double check, does that help me with any of my needs? Does it entertain me? Does it give me security? Is it fun? And if it’s none of that, it’s boring,” said Schnetzer. “If you have this TikTok logic, you’ll quickly swipe further.”

While Europe’s mainstream gives grave speeches, the far right is developing vast followings on social media platform TikTok. The RN’s clean-shaven Bardella posts videos of himself wine tasting and doing shots. Maximilian Krah, the AfD’s lead candidate going into the EU elections, offers his followers dating advice: “Don’t watch porn, don’t vote for the Greens.”

Nigel Farage, leader of the Reform UK party, speaks at a press conference in London, June 3, 2024. - Maja Smiejkowska/Reuters
Nigel Farage, leader of the Reform UK party, speaks at a press conference in London, June 3, 2024. - Maja Smiejkowska/Reuters

In one TikTok, Nigel Farage – often described as the “architect” of Brexit – approaches a fruit store, says “lovely melons,” raises his eyebrows and walks off. The clip has been viewed 2.5 million times.

Farage seems aware of this burgeoning market and keen to exploit it. In a recent interview, he praised misogynist online influencer Andrew Tate for being an “important voice” for “emasculated” young boys. Tate – who has racked up billions of views on TikTok – is facing charges in Romania of human trafficking and rape, which he denies.

But those who have puzzled over Tate’s appeal to young men should not be surprised that politicians making jokes about breasts enjoy similar success. The distinction between politicians and entertainment has long grown fuzzy – but for today’s young, they no longer even exist in separate spaces. Just one swipe separates the voice of a figure like Tate and the voice of a politician. We shouldn’t be surprised if here is where ideas are shaped.

Thrill of the new

It is not yet clear how deeply these far-right sympathies are held. In a trend especially pronounced among young people, voters are increasingly “not loyal to any particular party or platform,” says Foa. “They’re very volatile between one election and the next.” Just as young voters campaigned vociferously for green parties in 2019, their allegiances could switch again.

The appeal of the far right may also be dampened if its politicians begin to govern. Out of office, the far right is unable to break promises, while it can point endlessly to the mainstream’s inability to deliver. Once in government, it will prove just as disappointing. That, at least, appears to be Macron’s theory.

But the burst in support for far-right parties could spell a darker trend. In his studies of youth dissatisfaction with democracy, Foa noted a growing penchant for authoritarianism. Lacking a personal memory of life under authoritarian rule or the struggle to achieve democracy, young people are less enamored with the system than previous generations.

This success of far-right parties should be a warning to Europe’s mainstream. To Churchill’s famous quote, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others,” we should not be surprised if young people ask in reply: “Really?”

CNN’s Emmanuel Miculita contributed reporting.

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