Young people in France are poorer than their parents and are consumed by frustration. Only the Front National has recognized that resentment, says Louis Chauvel.
ZEIT Campus ONLINE: Mr. Chauvel, almost a quarter of people under the age of 25 in France are unemployed. Are we looking at a lost generation?
Louis Chauvel: It's not lost, not yet. But it is a disillusioned and frustrated generation. First, though, let's take a look at the number: It's incorrect to say that every fourth person in France under 25 is unemployed, rather it is every fourth person of those who are in the labor market – which excludes people studying at university or who aren't working for other reasons. Nevertheless, it is a huge problem: Youth unemployment in France is more than three times as high as it is in Germany. In addition to the youth unemployment rate, it is also important to look at the number of those who still haven't found work one year after completing their university degree. That, too, is at 25 percent. In the 1970s, it was at just 5 percent. These young men and women are well-educated, but many of them can't find work. And if they do, the jobs are temporary or poorly paid. France is increasingly heading in the direction of southern European countries, where a university degree is necessary just to get a poorly paid job. These young people are the successors of the Baby Boomers. I call them Baby Losers.
ZEIT Campus ONLINE: How do these Baby Losers feel?
Chauvel: For these young people in France, unemployment is a constant threat. Through my work, I also meet many young German students, for whom unemployment is also a constant risk, but it isn't an intrinsic fear that weighs on their psyches as it does for French graduates. They are affected by a widespread societal slide, which I call the "spiral of decline."
ZEIT Campus ONLINE: What do you mean by that?
Chauvel: The spiral is comprised of four factors: Unemployment and, as I already mentioned, precarity. The other two are low wages and a lack of political representation. Baby Losers earn less than their parents did. To reach the same income level, they have to study two-and-a-half years longer and obtain a higher degree. There is a large survey in France that has been undertaken for decades. It includes simple questions like: Compared to your parents, do you see your situation as better or worse? And for years, the share of those saying they are worse off than their parents has been growing. The share used to be at 45 percent whereas today it is over 60 percent. And it's not only about their ability to afford a fast computer. It's about the existential values of civic life: an apartment, for example. Young people can't buy the kind of apartment that their parents could afford when they were the same age. Finally, a decreasing number of young French are active in unions or in politics. As such, their interests aren't represented and their problems are not solved. That leads to a division between them and the political establishment.
ZEIT Campus ONLINE: This division between politics and society is a topic of discussion across Europe and also in the United States. What is so special about France?
Chauvel: There hasn't been a renewal of the political establishment for around 30 years. Lawmakers spend decades in parliament. Take conservative presidential candidate François Fillon as an example: He entered the French National Assembly in 1981, when he was 27. He was a parliamentarian until 2007, with a couple of breaks due to other appointments. That is 26 years, and he isn't an exception. That means that the societal problems and tensions that young people in particular experience each day are not reflected in the political personnel and are not recognized by the elite. But it's not just in the political realm. The lives of young people hardly play a role in French culture and intellectual life either: in the media, in literature, in the public debate, it's just old people talking to old people about problems facing old people.
ZEIT Campus ONLINE: How do young people react to that?
Chauvel: They distance themselves from the political process. Participation in elections and in political parties is extremely low among those under 35 when compared to older generations, who are heavily involved in all civic society institutions, which are characterized by debate. They take part in events and in the political lives of their cities and towns. Younger French distance themselves and radicalize. You can find younger French in extremist left or environmental spectrums. There are many young people in the anti-fascist movement or in the extreme left wing of the Communist Party, represented by Jean-Luc Mélenchon. That is the one side of the coin. On the other side is the only party pledging political renewal: Front National. That attracts a lot of young people.
ZEIT Campus ONLINE: The founder of Front National, Jean-Marie Le Pen, spent 39 years as head of the party. And young people find this party attractive?
Chauvel: His daughter, Marine Le Pen, has completely rejuvenated the party since she took over leadership in 2011. Front National used to consist of nostalgics, anti-Semites and radicals. But thanks to her grassroots renewal, recent years have seen the development of an extremely motivated group of young people who are involved in the party and extremely motivated young voters. There are very few people in Front National who are in the public eye on the national stage like Marine Le Pen, but behind them is a growing young generation in all regions of France that is extremely motivated. It is a group that can be identified by their first names.
ZEIT Campus ONLINE: Their first names?
Chauvel: Yes. They have names like "Steeve" and "Mylène." France has a long tradition of sociology of names. The cultural and political elite have certain names – and give them to their children – which make it clear that they belong to a certain class. Front National candidates don't have such names, they have relatively new names that are used by the lower middle class, like "Steeve." You won't find any university professors or senior officials in France with that name. First names are sufficient to recognize the vast cultural divide in French society.
ZEIT Campus ONLINE: What is it that the younger generation likes about Front National?
Chauvel: Especially in areas outside the large cities like Paris, Front National offers young people opportunities to advance in politics. One example is Hayange, an old industrial city that always had a strong union movement. The city's mayor, Fabien Engelmann, is from a leftist union family and, at 37, is quite young for French politics. People like him wouldn't otherwise have a chance to become mayor at that age, but Front National gives them such opportunities. Especially in areas that used to be centers of industry or mining, there are a lot of people whose children feel as though they are being shoved to the periphery because nobody caters to them. In French slang, you say "ras-le-bol:" People are fed up.
ZEIT Campus ONLINE: But why do they go to Front National instead of continuing to support the Communist Party like their parents did?
Chauvel: Because the French left is still strongly shaped by the 1968 generation and there hasn't been a political renewal there either. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, for example, became a local political leader in May 1968 as a 17-year-old. It is the kind of career profile you often find among French leftists, even in the National Assembly, where there are lawmakers now in their 70s who were young activists 50 years ago. It was similar with the Nuit Debout movement. There were a lot of young people, but most of the movement consisted of older leftists who have dominated French politics for decades. At the same time, the economic policies being pursued by Front National aren't all that different from those supported by the extreme left: Frexit, leaving the eurozone, closing borders to imported goods and massive borrowing. Many in the declining generation grew up in leftist, extreme leftist or union households and have realized that they can no longer reach the level of prosperity their parents enjoy. Front National gives them the possibility to advance without having to take on aging Communist men. And the French political elite hasn't recognized the problems these people are facing.
ZEIT Campus ONLINE: Youth unemployment in France has been at over 20 percent for decades. Why hasn't the French government been able to do anything about it?
Chauvel: Because leading state officials and politicians have been denying the problem of social decline for decades. This inaccurate perception is draped like a veil over the people who govern France.
ZEIT Campus ONLINE: Where does the veil come from?
Chauvel: It isn't some conspiracy among the nation's leadership, it is more of a self-deception: The country's situation is appraised more positively than it actually is. That leads to self-affirmation. There is this saying in France: "Tout va très bien madame la marquise" (Eds. Note: "everything's just fine, Ms. Marquise"), which comes from a song of the same name. The song is about the downfall of the nobility. The castle is burning and the Marquise's husband has killed himself, but aside from that, Ms. Marquise is assured that everything is just fine. That's how it is in France. To avoid scaring the voters, politicians tell themselves and the people in the country that everything is just fine.
ZEIT Campus ONLINE: Front National doesn't see the situation in a particularly positive light.
Chauvel: And that is precisely the danger. The worldview of Marine Le Pen is extremely pessimistic, as is that of the radical leftist Communist Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Their message to voters is: Globalization took your jobs, you will lose everything – and the euro and Ms. Merkel are to blame. And many voters, particularly young people, feel as though they've been heard because that is exactly the view they have. They have the feeling that things are going downhill in this country. Because the other candidates don't talk about the problems, they leave the field to the pessimists. But the solutions proposed by Le Pen and Mélenchon are nonsense and wouldn't solve the problems. We have seen, though, with the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump, that people vote for those who recognize their problems, whether or not the solutions they propose will work.
ZEIT Campus ONLINE: What would have to be done to solve the problem?
Chauvel: The government must first recognize the problem. And then it would have to invest money in the university system and in the real economy. Many more people in France complete their Baccalauréat (Eds. Note: college prep high school degree) than in Germany. But aside from the elite universities, there are no restrictions on university entrance, which has led to a situation where there is an extremely high number of universities, but they teach at an extremely low level. Either you get a degree that is worth almost nothing or you win the lottery and are accepted to one of the elite universities. That has to change.
ZEIT Campus ONLINE: Do you think that Ms. Le Pen will be successful with her pessimism?
Chauvel: Last October, I said that Trump would never get elected. And last May I said the British would never vote for Brexit. That's why now all I'll say is: I don't know. But I am extremely worried. In the televised debate before last, Emmanuel Macron spoke optimistically about the country's economic situation for seven minutes. When he was done, Marine Le Pen told viewers: "You hear that? It's like pleasant music, it's nice to listen to. But what did Mr. Macron really say in the last seven minutes? Almost nothing." That is indeed a problem for Mr. Macron, that he is extremely ambiguous and optimistic and doesn't speak about the significant problems facing France. Ms. Le Pen and Mr. Macron will likely face off against each other in the second round of voting and Le Pen has a significant amount of ammunition to use against Mr. Macron. We cannot leave it to the pessimists to paint a realistic image of French society.
Translated by Charles Hawley
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. This is the English translation of the original German version.