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In presidential election, French youth confront ‘two visions of France’

May 6, 2017 at 5:30 PM EDT
Two candidates facing off this weekend in the French presidential election runoff offer starkly different visions for the country. Centrist Emmanuel Macron supports immigration and the European Union, while the far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen wants to curb immigration and pull France out of the EU. Special Correspondent Christopher Livesay reports from France.
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CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: As France went to the polls two weeks ago to decide which of 11 candidates would make the presidential election runoff.

We watched the returns at an election party hosted by Eric Barbosa. He’s the 20-year-old president of the Paris chapter of the youth wing of Marine Le Pen’s party, the National Front — Le Front National, in French.

Le Pen’s second place finish that night, qualifying her for the final round, propelled the once fringe party into the mainstream.

ERIC BARBOSA: She’s a great woman. And everybody is like, we are going to win!

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Barbosa, a part-time baker and full-time party volunteer, says Le Pen’s populism and patriotism inspire him.

What is her vision for young people in the Front National?

ERIC BARBOSA: Be proud, be strong, be ready.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Be ready?

ERIC BARBOSA: Yes, because we are the future for France.

EURYANTHE MERCIER: I am quite happy.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Euryanthe Mercier, a 22-year-old college student, joined the party three years ago and volunteered for Le Pen’s campaign.

EURYANTHE MERCIER: I like her personality. And I trust her so, and I don’t trust a lot of politicians.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Manon Bouquin is secretary general of a national pro-Le Pen student group.

MANON BOUQUIN: We did manage the feat of making it to the second round. Three years ago, nobody would have believed it. And we think there’s a new world that can emerge, and the old world can collapse.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: The youth vote is an important source of strength for the National Front, which says its membership among 18-to-25 year-olds has more than tripled in the past five years.

SUPPORTERS: ”Madame President!”

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: A poll of France’s youngest voters before the first round found a majority were anti-establishment, supporting either Le Pen or the left-wing populist Jean-Luc Melenchon. Centrist Emmanuel Macron — Le Pen’s opponent in the runoff — was third choice, despite being the only candidate under 40.

But not long ago, Le Pen was considered so controversial, few would admit to supporting her.

CHARLOTTE ROTMAN: Why when you are French. Why when you are 20 you want to go to the Front National. Why?

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Journalist Charlotte Rotman spent 18 months traveling the country and getting to know young Le Pen activists for her book “20-Years-Old and At The Front.”

CHARLOTTE ROTMAN: She knows how to welcome them, the young people. Also when you are 20, and when somebody trusts you, I don’t know in the United States, but in France, it’s very rare. And when the Front National says, ‘Okay, you are 22, but you are going to be a head of this list for this next election.’ They feel really like…

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Like they are appreciated.

CHARLOTTE ROTMAN: Yes. Really.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: In fact, the party has asked Bouquin, who is just 24, to run for a Paris seat in Parliament next month.

MANON BOUQUIN: I was given new responsibilities, these were offered to me. I’ve never asked for anything. I was happy the party was placing their trust in me, for them to think of me as someone reasonable and ready to take on this role. It made me quite proud.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: “And you go through these points with people on the street…”

On issues, Bouquin says, she sees eye to eye with Le Pen over concerns about radical Islam. But Bouquin and the other young Le Pen supporters we met say what matters most in this election is France’s stagnating economy with 10 percent unemployment that’s approaching 26 percent among people under 25.

ERIC BARBOSA: Young people have a lot of hope. France is not going well, and the young people see it.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: They blame globalization and share Le Pen’s call for a referendum for France to leave the European Union, like Britain voted to do last year. They want France to tighten the borders — now open in accordance with EU rules and have France revert from the Euro to the Franc. They also want this familiar sight seen all over Paris, the French flag alongside the multi-starred EU flag, to be a thing of the past.

Aren’t there benefits of being in the European Union that you are worried about losing? What about freedom to travel?

ERIC BARBOSA: Before the European Union you can go where you want. A lot of people say it takes a lot of time to the border. Okay, one minute more! One minute.

MANON BOUQIN: Not to close the borders, of course, but to regulate them. To be able to manage our currency, devalue it, if we want to and to have weapons against globalization.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Le Pen says restricting immigration will protect France from terrorism, cheap foreign labor, and save French culture itself.

EURYANTHE MERCIER: I’m against massive immigration, of course. And actually we’ve seen some parts in France, some parts close to Paris especially, where people don’t speak anymore French together. They don’t celebrate French national days, so they don’t want to be French, and when they go to a country and they don’t want to be a member of the French community, I think it’s a problem.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Support for Le Pen among young voters is not only about policy, according to author Charlotte Rotman. She says the movement’s appeal is also personal.

CHARLOTTE ROTMAN: It’s like you have a new family. It’s us. It’s the Front National. The young supporters I’ve been talking to. They are describing something that looks like a family for them.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Have you met Marine Le Pen?

ERIC BARBOSA: Yes, a few times.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: What was your impression of her when you met her?

ERIC BARBOSA: She’s a very warm woman. She’s smiling every time. Like the mother of France. She wants to protect us, and that’s the message I think.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: But her political opponents call her a dangerous right-wing extremist. And certainly there are those on the streets of Paris who agree.

Right outside this polling station, there is a picture of Marine Le Pen and as you can see she is not very popular here in Paris. This one has been graffitied on top of it. Calls her a fascist.

Three hours south of Paris, in the town of Limoges, we caught up with young people who are strongly opposed to Le Pen. They’re backing Macron, the former Economy Minister making his first run for office.

A poll out this week showed Macron with the advantage among voters age 18-24, with 62 percent saying they intend to vote for him and 38 percent, for Le Pen.

Supporter Rachel-Flore Pardo discusses the high unemployment rate with this potential voter.

RACHEL-FLORE PARDO: Emmanuel Macron has a very interesting proposal on that. So I think it is very likely she will vote for Macron. I don’t know. Not 100 percent, but I think seeing us here may have made a difference.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: She’s one of four young people we met, all in their 20s, campaigning in a creative way for Macron.

VIOLAINE PIERRE: I was explaining to him that it’s not about capitalism and big banks. It’s more about entrepreneurs and helping them hire people, because in the end that’s what creates employment.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: They’re all traveling in a van named “En Marche…Le Tour” after Macron’s movement, “On The Move.” Since February, they’ve driven almost three thousand miles and talked to thousands of people in more than 60 different cities.

RACHEL-FLORE PARDO: It’s a small office.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: They say they felt compelled to take this road trip to understand what they see as a frightening trend in European and American politics.

MATTHIEU TEACHOUT: We were a bit worried by all populist votes all around the world and even more worried for France.

VIOLAINE PIERRE: With both the Brexit then Trump’s election, that really shocked me.

MATTHIEU TEACHOUT: And so for that election in France, we wanted to do something before, try to understand why people are interested in voting for a populist candidate, and this is how we got the idea.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: They focus on the French countryside, where Le Pen’s anti-EU and anti-globalization message has struck a chord with struggling farmers and factory workers.

They say they’ve met two types of Le Pen supporters, the true believers who generally blame immigrants for France’s problems, and those who are protesting politics as usual.

VALENTIN SOMMA: They tell us, ‘I am just tired with them all. I’m going to vote for her for a change.’ And those people, when we chat with them, they can realize that Marine Le Pen is not necessarily the person who offers them a solution. What she does well is speak about their problems, but I don’t think any solution she offers is realistic, and sometimes we can actually convince those people or at least open their mind and make them doubt about it.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: In the past two weeks since the runoff was set, they’ve tried to persuade people to consider Macron’s pro-EU message as the best way to ensure peace and prosperity, and move forward on issues like climate change.

MATTHIEU TEACHOUT: I don’t think France alone can be the leading country for the environment, but Europe together can. And the same thing for diplomacy in the world. I don’t think France matters a lot, but I think Europe together matters, and this is why I think the election in France is very important for the future of Europe and so in a sense for the future of the world.

RACHEL-FLORE PARDO: We have two visions of France that are confronting each other. It’s the Le Pen and the Macron vision. It’s a nationalist versus a more modern and open European vision. It’s a vision of France that is scared of the future and that is scared of Europe and of the world versus one that is hopeful about the opportunities that come with Europe and with modernity. So this is what it’s about.

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