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PARIS — Even if he didn’t qualify for the second round of France’s presidential election, there’s something Jean-Luc Mélenchon can be proud of: He won the hearts of young French voters, who are now grappling with a hard choice.
French voters aged under 30 preferred the left-wing Mélenchon over all of his rivals, several polls have shown, and they are now assessing all options ahead of the April 24 runoff between French President Emmanuel Macron and far-right contender Marine Le Pen.
During his final speech last Sunday, Mélenchon didn’t give an endorsement but called on his supporters “not to give a single vote to Madame Le Pen.” Earlier this week, he launched an online consultation asking his supporters to choose between three options: voting Macron, casting a blank vote or staying home. Results will be published Saturday.
Many of his young supporters are now struggling to decide what option to click, a foretaste of the choice they’ll have to make next week.
“It’s like choosing between the plague and cholera,” said Maha, a 19-year-old social science student, who gave her first vote to Mélenchon but could reluctantly vote for Macron in the second round.
The 70-year-old Mélenchon did better than Macron in targeting young voters, for instance with videos on TikTok and Instagram, Maha explained, as she left the so-called Tolbiac tower, one of the less fancy buildings of Paris University in the multicultural 13th arrondissement.
Mélenchon’s voters are easy to find at Tolbiac — a stronghold of far-left student movements since the 1970s — and they are all facing the same dilemma.
For some of them, voting for Macron is just too hard. They will either cast a blank ballot or stay home. “I don’t want to make a decision that goes against my convictions in my very first election,” said 19-year-old Enzo, who voted for Mélenchon because of his proposals on the environment. “I will abstain. I refuse to give my vote to the far right or to Macron. It’s the only way to make my dissatisfaction heard.”
That spirit of defiance was on display Thursday, when left-wing students opposed to both Macron and Le Pen occupied the Sorbonne and Sciences Po Paris university sites
Of all age groups, abstention is highest among French youths — more than 40 percent in the election’s first round. But Mélenchon has proved the most successful of any candidate at convincing young people to cast a ballot. Polls show that 36 percent of voters aged between 18 and 24 voted Mélenchon, and that supporters of the France Unbowed movement are harder to find among older voters, who largely preferred Macron over him.
Startup nation? No thanks
In his third bid for power, Mélenchon secured votes both from low-revenue families and educated voters — even though Le Pen and Macron, respectively, still did better than him in each category.
In the Seine-Saint-Denis department, a working-class and multicultural banlieue north of Paris, Mélenchon got almost 50 percent of votes. In Saint-Denis — the suburb’s best-known area — he won more than 60 percent of votes.
“It is a big signal. They recognized us as the defenders of the working class,” said Landry Ngang, a 22-year-old France Unbowed activist from Saint-Denis.
Despite being the youngest candidate and having distanced himself from traditional parties, Macron has so far failed to win the support of young voters, especially in working-class neighborhoods.
“Emmanuel Macron’s project dates from the 20th century. Neoliberalism does not speak to young people,” said Ngang. “We explained to them our project on emancipation, environment and redistribution of wealth. The youth is interested in these issues, not in becoming millionaires, as Emmanuel Macron would hope,” he added, accusing the president-candidate of embodying an “individualist project.”
The France Unbowed activist said he will go to the polls next week and won’t vote for Le Pen, but he refused to say whether he will now vote for Macron.
Approximately 41 percent of those who voted Mélenchon are expected to vote for Macron. Thirty-five percent of them could stay home or cast a blank ballot while the remaining 24 percent could vote for Le Pen, according to a poll by Opinionway.
That may seem odd given the two politicians come from opposite ends of the political spectrum and have contrasting stances on immigration and the environment. But they share a profound mistrust of both NATO and the EU, saying they no longer want French law to be subordinate to EU law.
Mélenchon — a former socialist who built his own new anti-establishment movement more than a decade ago — said that his program for France is incompatible with existing EU rules. He was ready for “a confrontation” with Brussels and to “disobey” EU rules, when needed.
But his radical positions on European integration didn’t scare France’s younger voters who, according to polls, are on average more favorable toward the EU than older voters.
“No young voter from working-class neighborhoods asked me about the European Union. The EU is absolutely not tangible for a large part of the youth, who doesn’t travel in Europe, who does not and will not participate to Erasmus [programs],” Ngang said.
Tupak, a 30-year-old voter with Bolivian ancestry, said he disagreed with some of Mélenchon’s proposals on the EU and foreign policy despite having backed him in the first round.
Come April 24, Tupak said, he would vote for Macron despite hesitation and some joshing from friends. “It goes against my ideas but I have no choice,” he said.