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Will young voters boost far right in EU elections?

Ella Joyner in Brussels
June 6, 2024

Young voters fueled a Green wave in 2019. Now, under-30s seem poised to boost the far right in the European Parliament. It's not quite a youth wave, but euroskeptic, anti-immigrant parties are no longer just for the old.

A young woman seen from above, putting her ballot into a collection box
Image: Jan Woitas/dpa/picture-alliance

Allan Arnera, 23, can count on two hands the number of people he has told about his voting intentions for this week's European parliamentary elections.

"Being from a family of five, that's already half," the French national, who lives and works in Brussels, told DW.

Like 33% of his French compatriots, according to the latest polls, Arnera plans to vote for the far-right National Rally (RN), led by 28-year-old sitting member of European Parliament Jordan Bardella.

"For me, it boils down to them having France's best interests at heart," Arnera told DW. He agrees with RN's nationalist approach to EU integration, as he does with Bardella's policy of a "double border," which would limit the free movement of migrants within the EU's open Schengen area by reintroducing systematic checks at France's land borders. Arnera, himself a migrant within Europe, feels that EU immigration is too high.

Frankreich | Versammlung Rassemblement National in Henin-Beaumont | Jordan Bardella
Young and charismatic, French MEP Jordan Bardella is lead candidate of the far-right National Rally for the upcoming European electionImage: Michel Euler/AP Photo/picture alliance

"We've just reached a point where we have so many issues in France, like high unemployment, or the cost of living crisis," he explained.

Young, with an international background and a stable employment in a white-collar job, Arnera is aware he does not fit the typical image of the disenfranchised RN voter. His politics are unpopular with many contemporaries in his social circles. He keeps them quiet.

From Green wave to Green wipeout

In the previous EU election in 2019, high youth turnout helped drive what many heralded as a "Green wave" that saw climate-focused parties win a record 74 seats in the European Parliament. In this upcoming election, while still popular among young voters, the Greens are projected to suffer severe losses, gaining only an estimated 41 of the 720 seats available.

Arnera is part of a young, radical-right voting demographic that is on the rise in parts of Europe in the run-up to the June polls. A recent Ipsos survey showed that 34% of French under-30s who planned to vote would choose the right-wing populist Bardella. The next most popular options were leftist France Unbowed (14%), the center-left Socialist Party (12%) and the Greens (11%).

Greens polling badly ahead of EU elections

Polling data analyzed by the Washington-based news outlet Politico has suggested strong and rising youth support for similar far-right parties across Europe, such as VOX in Spain, Chega (Enough) in Portugal, Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) in Belgium and the Finns Party in Finland.

'Angry old men' no more?

Josse de Voogd, an electoral researcher in the Netherlands, has seen the typical profile of far-right voters shift in his home country.

"After 2016, the year of Brexit and [the election of former US President Donald] Trump, there was a lot of discussion about the far-right or right-wing populism as a thing of angry, older white men. Although I think it was exaggerated, it was true that there was this correlation," he said.

Now, many younger people, particularly those priced out of increasingly expensive cities like Amsterdam, have turned to the staunchly Islamophobic and anti-immigration Party for Freedom (PVV), which topped polls among young Dutch voters in last year's parliamentary election, he pointed out.

"Those parties being stronger among the young does not always mean that, on average, their ideas are more popular among the youth. The reason can also be that younger voters are more volatile, while older voters stay with traditional parties," he added.

Claims of far-right youth wave overblown, expert says

Roderik Rekker of Radboud University in the Netherlands sees things similarly, but is skeptical about what he sees as a false media narrative touting a far-right youth wave.

"It doesn't add up. Every study out there shows there's never been a more progressive generation," he said. Young people are generally still more favorable to Green and left-wing parties, he believes, with young right-wing voters remaining "broadly in line with the rest of society."

"I don't see a striking structural trend," Rekker argued. Neither was this the first time in living memory when youth support for the far right had been high, he added.

A young man in a white sweater stands next to a house entrance and smiles into the distance
Young, cosmopolitan and well-employed, Allan Arnera does not fit conventional expectations of disgruntled and disenfranchised older right-wing votersImage: Ella Joyner/DW

What is salient, both Rekker and de Voogd pointed out, is that cultural issues are much more polarized for this generation entering the workforce.

"Many older people grew up in a time when religion or the left-right axis on economic issues was dominant, while younger people grew up in a period in which migration, globalization, diversity-policies, etc., are relevant," de Voogd explained.

'World looks like a dark place'

Back in Brussels, Arnera said his planned vote for RN was largely due to his feelings of insecurity. "I don't necessarily think we're in a situation where, as a 23-year-old, it's motivating to go out into the world," he said. "The world looks like a dark place, it's economically tough."

But he does not see himself voting for RN, a party founded as the National Front in the 1970s by the openly racist and antisemitic politician Jean-Marie Le Pen, indefinitely.

Despite the some more moderate course pursued by the founder's daughter Marine Le Pen, who has handed over RN leadership to Bardella and is expected to launch a fresh presidential bid in 2027, Arnera admits some RN politicians make him uncomfortable. He cites European lawmaker Thierry Mariani, who holds very pro-Russian views, as an example.

Arnera sees his choice as a kind of a protest vote. He hopes Bardella will provide a "shock therapy" to the way the EU works. But, he added, "I think there will come a time when I won't be voting that way anymore."

Edited by: Maren Sass