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French Youth And The Far Right, A Budding Love Affair?

Long relied upon to rally against the far-right National Front party, young French people are increasingly seduced by the ideas of Marine Le Pen. Terrorism isn't the only reason.

Supporters of the National Front in Paris on May 1
Supporters of the National Front in Paris on May 1
Aurélie Collas and Eric Nunès

LILLE — Youssef is only 16. In 2017, when he'll be able to vote, he already knows what he'll do: "I'll vote for anyone as long as they stand in the way of the National Front!" A tenth grader at the lycée Baggio, in the northern French city of Lille, Youssef is relieved that in recent regional elections, his Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardy region, slipped away from the leader of the far-right National Front (FN) party of Marine Le Pen.

If he were able to vote, he would have chosen her rival, the candidate of The Republicans party, Xavier Bertrand. "The FN is racist. They hate Arabs, Black people, the Roma ... They don't want a multicultural France!" They are words we have gotten used to hearing from young people in elections going back a generation.

But how many, among tomorrow's voters, still see the far right party in such stark terms? How many are prepared to stand in its way in the ballot boxes, or to take to the streets, like between the two rounds of the 2002 presidential election when Le Pen's father, FN founder Jean-Marie Le Pen made it to the runoff against Jacques Chirac? Is the French youth still as united against the Front National as it has been for so long? The short answer is: No.

In the first round of the regional elections this month, one-third of the votes of the 18 to 24-year-olds went to the FN, far in front of the center-left coalition (21%) and the center-right coalition (20%), according to a survey by Harris Interactive on Dec. 6.

In the Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardy region, where the FN achieved its best results — 42.23% for Marine Le Pen, against 57.77% for the center-right winner, Xavier Bertrand — the younger generations, as diverse as they may be, seem to have something in common: great disillusionment towards traditional political parties.

For some people, in a context where elites appear to be always the same faces, the FN embodies novelty. Take Fabien, 15, also a 10th grader at the lycée Baggio: "Why not give it a chance? On the right and left, it's always the same guys, who've never been able to solve problems and have no other program than preventing the FN from accessing power."

Is she racist?

An "anti-system" reaction? Not only. In Lille, as well as in Beauvais, some 200 kilometers south, certain far-right ideas have real appeal with young people. Shana, in 11th grade at the lycée Félix-Faure in Beauvais, isn't surprised to see the FN at the gates of power, particularly after the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris. If she were able to, she would have voted for Marine Le Pen, "for more security, a reduction of energy costs, a pension increase," she says.

In Picardy, where 23% of children and teens live below the poverty line, the scapegoat is sometimes easily found: immigrants. "I understood that Marine Le Pen wanted to get rid of them. You should care about others, but we don't have any other choice than putting an end to immigration," says Laurie, 16, at the lycée Jacobins, in Beauvais. "We can't take them all in and we shouldn't be paying for them."

Laurie pauses, looking over at her classmate, Junior, an 18-year-old from Ivory Coast. "He shouldn't have to leave. Those who've been here a long time should be able to stay."

For some young people, the blatently racist past of FN founder Jean-Marie Le Pen is far away. "Marine Le Pen isn't racist, just nationalist," says Allan, 17, carrying out a vocational baccalaureate at the lycée Promeo, also in Beauvais.

"I understand those who vote for the FN," notes Noémie, another student at lycée Baggio. "Marine Le Pen is good at putting her finger on social problems. People are worried, but her absurd and demagogue ideas will only make the situation worse."

This former activist with the Socialist party youth organization says she is "truly disenchanted" with the ruling center-left arty. "They live in their own corner, out of touch with reality. They're only interested by their own little world," she says.

Though he considers FN as "fascists," and believed they were a real threat to take power in his region, Lucas, in his second year of Advanced Technician Certificate at the lycée Baggio, didn't vote. "Even if I did, I would have cast a blank vote, like in previous elections," he said. "Politicians are in their own world, out of touch, blowing hot air!"

For young people, indeed, abstention is the preferred choice. According to surveys carried out after the first round, two-thirds of the 18 to 24-year-olds didn't vote.

Bénédicte, 19, cast a blank vote instead, deciding it is always better to participate. Still, she is surprised by the number of her young peers who express sympathy towards the FN. "Some are actually racist," she says. "Others are just sick of the right and left-wing parties."

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In Northern Kenya, Where Climate Change Is Measured In Starving Children

The worst drought in 40 years, which has deepened from the effects of climate change, is hitting the young the hardest around the Horn of Africa. A close-up look at the victims, and attempts to save lives and limit lasting effects on an already fragile region in Kenya.

Photo of five mothers holding their malnourished children

At feeding time, nurses and aides encourage mothers to socialize their children and stimulate them to eat.

Georgina Gustin

KAKUMA — The words "Stabilization Ward" are painted in uneven black letters above the entrance, but everyone in this massive refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, calls it ya maziwa: The place of milk.

Rescue workers and doctors, mothers and fathers, have carried hundreds of starving children through the doors of this one-room hospital wing, which is sometimes so crowded that babies and toddlers have to share beds. A pediatric unit is only a few steps away, but malnourished children don’t go there. They need special care, and even that doesn’t always save them.

In an office of the International Rescue Committee nearby, Vincent Opinya sits behind a desk with figures on dry-erase boards and a map of the camp on the walls around him. “We’ve lost 45 children this year due to malnutrition,” he says, juggling emergencies, phone calls, and texts. “We’re seeing a significant increase in malnutrition cases as a result of the drought — the worst we’ve faced in 40 years.”

From January to June, the ward experienced an 800 percent rise in admissions of children under 5 who needed treatment for malnourishment — a surge that aid groups blame mostly on a climate change-fueled drought that has turned the region into a parched barren.

Opinya, the nutrition manager for the IRC here, has had to rattle off these statistics many times, but the reality of the numbers is starting to crack his professional armor. “It’s a very sad situation,” he says, wearily. And he believes it will only get worse. A third year of drought is likely on the way.

More children may die. But millions will survive malnutrition and hunger only to live through a compromised future, researchers say. The longer-term health effects of this drought — weakened immune systems, developmental problems — will persist for a generation or more, with consequences that will cascade into communities and societies for decades.

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