France is struggling to attract young voters; its political system is only making it harder

As the French election proceeds, young voters are struggling to decide between candidates they feel do not address the issues that matter to them. France’s voter participation is especially low among young voters with only 13 percent of 18-24 year olds turning out to vote in the 2021 municipal election. At the same time, new, fresh candidates are struggling to get on the ballot as they cannot pass a particular hurdle – the parrainage system.

On his election website, 35-year-old Anasse Kazib, a union leader and political activist in the anti-capitalist party, Révolution Permanente, poses in front of a bright red background, wearing a blue denim jacket with his arms folded across his chest. “A revolutionary program for the workers, youth and working-class neighborhoods,” reads the headline in big, bold letters on top of the page.

Born in Sarcelles, on the outskirts of Paris, Kazib comes from a working-class, French-Moroccan background and has worked as a train switchman at SNCF (the French National Railway Company) for almost 10 years. Early this month, when I called him, he was at work. The trains hummed in the background, and the network caused us to periodically lose the connection. 

When Anasse Kazib first decided to run for president in the 2022 election, he wanted his platform to gather support from the working class and youth; his proposals include raising the minimum wage to 1,800 euros per month and providing minimum wage to students.

“During the five-year term of Emmanuel Macron, we have seen the rallying of Gilet Jeunes, the strikes against pension reforms, against the railway reforms… We needed to renew the political faces represented in the presidential election,” he said. “[Révolution Permanente and I] decided to run for president… because we felt we needed to,” Kazib told me.

But his plans were cut unceremoniously short when he failed to get on the ballot. Kazib could not make it past an especially difficult aspect of the French electoral system – the parrainage stage. 

Kazib’s struggle to get on the ballot mirrors the difficulties of many new and unestablished political candidates in France to get footing to bring new types of politicians and new ideas into the political arena. At the same time, France’s youth are frustrated that their concerns are not being addressed by the candidate that they can choose between. 

The parrainage system

The French parrainage system is a method of filtering potential candidates down to a smaller amount for the election. Many countries, including the U.S., ask potential candidates to gather citizens’ signatures to have their candidacy validated by the Constitutional Council. To move on to the first round of the Presidential election, candidates need to persuade support from 500 elected officials. 

The word “parrain” translates to Godfather, and refers to a sponsorship for the political candidate by elected officials across the country. These elected officials can range from small-town mayors to senators and French members of the European parliament. The sponsorships must also represent at least 30 different French départments with no more than 50 signatures coming from a single one. 

The point of the parrainage system is to filter out some of the more eccentric candidate bids. “If there was no system, all the crazy people across the country would apply,” explains Professor Olivier Costa, a researcher at Sciences Po Paris. 

The current parrainage law was passed in 1976. It raised the required amount of signatures to 500 from 100, which had been the previous amount. This initiative stemmed from what was considered an overwhelming number of candidates on the ballot in the 1974 election – as many as 12 candidates.

Costa explained that running an election with too many candidates would not only bring logistical difficulties—they may not be given enough time at debates—but it could also result in a democratic issue. 

“If 200 candidates were running, no candidate would have a strong majority support,” Costa said. 

A potential problem with the parrainage system is that it makes it easier for candidates from well-established political parties since they can gather support from elected officials around the country who are in the same party. Smaller parties or independent candidates often do not make it onto the ballot. 

“It’s a system that is quite conservative. In a way, it is quite old fashioned,” Costa said.

Getting the support of a sponsor as an unknown candidate has become especially difficult since 2016, as signatures are made public online. This is bound to make elected officials think twice before sponsoring a candidate that sticks out from the established parties. 

Costa points out that, in general, candidates who maintain a large amount of public support never fail to pass the parrainage stage. Still, Costa concedes that it does have the potential to create a generational divide between voters and candidates. The parrains, who ultimately decide who the candidates will be, do not perfectly mirror the general population. One of the ways they skew away from a perfect representation is their age. Young voters’ interests are not part of the parrainage equation. 

An uncertain youth

France has a long standing problem with youth voter participation. Only 13 percent of 18-24 year olds turned out to vote in the 2021 municipal election in France. The decline in youth voter participation has been steady since the 2007 Presidential elections. In the previous Presidential election of 2017, only 18 percent of registered voters participated in all rounds of the election.

For Emanuele Ferrari, who is approaching his second time voting, deciding among the validated candidates remains an uncertain task.

“We are one week away from the first round and to be honest I still don’t have a clear idea on who I’m going to vote for,” he said.

Ferrari had hoped to cast his vote for Christiane Taubira, who failed to gain a spot on the 2022 ballot after receiving only 274 signatures. The former Justice Minister became the first black woman to run for President in 2002.

Taubira is best known for passing a same-sex marriage bill in 2013 despite heavy opposition from the far-right. “As someone who is part of the gay community, being able to vote someone who was part of legalizing same sex marriage was a big moment for me,” Ferrari said.

The 70-year-old’s candidature inspired many—she is a stateswomen and poet and was born in French Guinea. She is known as a feminist and as a defender of minorities. In her 2012 memoir, she quips when she writes that she was born a “woman, Black, poor, what fabulous capital!”

“I think that her candidacy has made a lot of people happy. Especially minorities who are more left leaning. But I think we all knew that she wouldn’t get her 500 signatures. So, I am a little disappointed, but not really surprised,” Ferrari said.

As France’s politics drift towards the right, the left is increasingly fragmenting, which disadvantages candidates in the parrainage round. Elected officials backing a more left wing political platform must decide between several candidates with similar ideological platforms. “They are fighting for the same signatures,” Professor Olivier Costa of Sciences Po said.

“I think we’re all very frustrated because we’re going to vote next Sunday and we’re not at all satisfied with the candidates who are going to run,” Ferrari said. 

Why do the French youth not turn out?

Dorian Dreuil, co-president of A Voté, a French advocacy group that encourages people to vote, sees two main reasons behind low youth voter participation. The first issue, according to Dreuil, is technical. In France, you are automatically registered to the polling station where your parents reside. “The phenomenon that we have observed for the last twenty years is that young people, in fact, are in a society that encourages more and more mobility. So, they find themselves registered in a polling station that is far from their home, “ he said.

The second issue, Dreuil argues, is political. “Today, we have a youth who are very politically active, who are involved in associations, who sign petitions, who participate in citizen protests, but who have the impression that politics no longer have the power or the impact to change things in their lives,” Dreuil said.

Dreuil concedes that the French youth also feel underrepresented by candidates, but he does not think the parrainage system is to blame. “When you look at the 12 candidates, almost the whole political arc is represented; it goes from Trotskyites to nationalists, to conservatives.” 

Anasse Kazib disagrees. While a variety of political platforms are represented, he mentions a noticeable lack of youth and minority representation among the elected officials around the country. 

In an interview with Al Jazeera, French minority youth expressed frustrations ahead of the election, especially due to a feeling that their concerns are not addressed by the candidats.

Why do the French youth not turn out?

When Professor Costa considered possible alternative systems, he considered the success of the small Pirate Party in the Nordics. 

The Pirate party not only achieved surprising electoral success despite lack of name recognition and formal campaigning, they were exceedingly popular among young voters. Despite only winning 7.1% of the vote, the Pirate Party was the second biggest party for voters aged 18-29. 24% of voters under 21 voted for the Pirate Party. The lack of publicity meant that their primary way of campaigning was through the internet, where their membership grew across the country.

Founded in Sweden in 2006, The Pirate Party ran on a platform of wanting to liberalize piracy and copyright laws, a policy point especially salient to young voters at the time. Furthermore, they campaigned exclusively online, since they were not invited to any political debates. The Pirate Party ran in the parliamentary election for the first time in 2006. In the European election of 2009, the Pirate Party won 7.1 percent of the vote, winning 1 seat.

“Every country has systems in place to keep small parties out,” said Mattias Bjärnemalm, vice party leader of The Pirate Party. 

 “In Sweden, the largest challenge is ballot distribution,” he said. Bjärnemalm remembers sitting in his car driving around the Swedish countryside ahead of the election, delivering ballots.

Similar parallels can be drawn to the United States, where grassroots organizations, such as Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats, have played a large role in finding new candidates who do not have a background in politics. Through such efforts, several young representatives, notably Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, won over more established candidates in 2018. The 2018 election in the United States also saw a historic jump in youth voter participation, with the voter turnout for 18-29 year olds jumping 10 percentage points. 

While it is reasonable to differentiate between a Presidential election and elections for lower posts such as the European parliament and U.S. Congress, the inclusion of fairly unknown, young candidates in Sweden and the U.S. managed something France cannot grasp – inspiring the youth vote.

Looking forward

Speaking loudly over the drum of the trains in the background, Anasse Kazib shared his thoughts on the experience of campaigning for sponsorships around France.

“The collection of the signatures is really anti-democratic” Kazib said. “It made it almost impossible at times. It really threw a spanner in the works.”

Kazib and his team drove around France to see the mayors of small villages to campaign for sponsorship. “We visited seven thousand mayors in person and spoke to them one, two, three times to convince them.” In the end, Anasse Kazib received 160 signatures, a far cry from the required 500 despite buzz surrounding his campaign. 

“We felt disappointed because there had been many people who rallied behind us, but I was still able to visit the country and give speeches, which was a great experience,” Kazib said.

Kazib plans to run for office again, and the next time he is aiming at the National Assembly where he plans to stand for election in the 93rd département Seine-Saint-Denis located just outside Paris. Kazib said that in the end, getting into office is not his ultimate goal. “What matters to us is to build a strong political movement,” Kazib said.

Article and photo by Isabella ANDERSON

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