Bridging the gap

Andrew Mitchell

With the triumph of Donald Trump in the United States and the victory of the leave campaign in the EU referendum, a distinct anti-establishment discourse has developed in Europe and the US. But with the continued rise of the Front National (FN) in France and an expectation that Marine Le Pen will win the first round of elections in 2017, progressives may have their biggest shock yet to come.

Many people in France go into the presidential elections with the prospect of voting for the right-wing scandal-ridden former-president Nicholas Sarkozy to try and stop Le Pen from gaining entry to the Elysée Palace. Whilst movements such as Emmanuel Macron’s ‘En Marche!’ (Forwards!) seek to gain ground, the polls suggest that the momentum is with Le Pen. Perhaps the most alarming results of recent polling is the support the FN have amongst young people. Polls have reported Le Pen achieving around 30 per cent of the under-26 vote, more than any other party. As Le Monde reported: ‘never before has the rupture between Hollande and the youth seemed so irreversible’.

However, against this backdrop, a new party has formed specifically to bridge the gap between the French youth of today and the Sarkozy, Hollande, Le Pen-type politician. Parti Allons Enfants was founded in earnest in 2013 by students at Sciences Po, one of the most prestigious universities in France, with the intention of reaching out to the 91 per cent (according to their website) of French people who currently have a negative image of politicians. The party is gaining ground with young, French voters in France and its micro-politics approach could usefully inform Labour party policy.

Agathe Batel, the vice president of Parti Allons Enfants, described to me in an interview how “often in politics, especially in the youth wings of political parties, you are expected to follow a line; once you become a member of the party, you end up defending decisions the party have made regardless of whether you agree with them or not.” In France, this is truer for the Parti Socialiste than any other. Young socialists, who had been inspired by Hollande’s 2012 campaign went on to feel betrayed by his inability to follow through on his promises. Batel told me: “You get tied down in loyalty regardless of your own personal beliefs; all of this while trying to navigate the endless bodies of people trying to make a career in politics. It is not appealing to young people in any way, it does not make you feel like you can actually change things for the better.”

Although the creation of a new political party may seem counter-productive, Batel makes a clear case for Parti Allons Enfant adopting a new approach:

The party does not enforce any sort of centralised decision-making, it is more of a centralised administration to enable young people to set up their own branches across the country. There is no overarching national interest, nor ideology or direction being commanded by any of the executive. The party functions to enable young people to have a forum in which they can discuss issues on a hyper-local level while engaging in the actual political process of trying to enforce these changes- whether it be new crossings, safety around town, new developments or schools. The local members decide what must be discussed and campaigned upon.

To help achieve this vision, the party limits its membership to those under 26 to ensure that young people have a voice. Indeed, your membership of the party is automatically cancelled on your 27th birthday.

Since it was founded three years ago, the party has attracted members from across the country and has been active in all forms of political engagement. For example, the party recently started a successful petition to open a residential centre in the 16th arrondissement of Paris to house homeless people; took direct action in a protest over the lack of young people in the French National Assembly in which it renamed its metro station ‘Retirement house’; and achieved 15.4 per cent of the vote in the Saint-Cloud Municipal elections. Parti Allons Enfant is still relatively very small, but it is growing.

As the so-called ‘centre’ of French politics becomes ever more unclear, with Alain Juppé and Macron fighting for the unaligned left vote and the far right trying to steal a march on Hollande’s collapsing socialists, micro-politics may forge a path in which communities can shape their futures, while increasing political engagement.

What lessons can the Labour party learn from this French micro-politics approach? As a party that has achieved much through local government and that has a younger membership than other parties, the Labour party has a lot to gain from the movement of power from Westminster to local devolved councils and regions. Through devolution deals, Labour out of government can continue to fight for those that need us most, whilst working to ensure the gap between citizen and politician becomes smaller.

Alongside the opportunity presented by devolution deals, Labour should capitalise on the energy that has accumulated amongst pro-European, pro-Labour young people. This is a chance for Labour to engage more people in the democratic process and to enable people in communities, especially in the north, that feel distanced from the government in Westminster to feel they do have a say in the future of their communities. Young people can be at the centre of the future of the country – and of the labour movement – if only they are given a voice, and an opportunity to make it heard.

Image: Richard Leeming

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