Just mere hours before the results of the European elections were announced Sunday evening across the continent, students, academics, and French media outlets filled the wood-paneled auditorium at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po). I was one of these attentive participants – an American student in Paris.
It was the first time I was in Europe at the time of the vote, and I wanted to better understand these elections, especially from the perspective of young people like myself.
If you could vote…
We came for the university’s first “European Soirée,“ an evening of discussion and analysis of the election of 751 Euro-deputies from 28 member states to the European Parliament. These elections, the world’s largest transnational democratic exercise, have happened every five years since 1979, and yet they felt more urgent than ever before – as evidenced by a packed auditorium in the heart of Paris and, all over Europe, the first increase in voter turnout in 40 years. The viability of Europe itself seemed to be under referendum, as populists and pro-Europeans clashed over issues like immigration, democracy, and nationalism versus collaborative EU transnationalism, while citizen urgency over environmental concerns mounted.
To open the night, a speaker invited the audience to “cast their vote” for the French election, choosing one out of the 34 candidate lists representing different political parties via an instant polling application. Moments later, the crowd’s votes were broadcast onto the auditorium screens. 38% voted for La République en Marche, President Emmanuel Macron’s pro-European and liberal-centrist party (this brought comical groans), 25% for Europe Ecology and 13% for the Socialist Party (cheers)… all the way down to 2% for the Rassemblement National, the infamous anti-Europe far-right party originally known as the Front National.
An hour and a half later, the room waited with bated breath as the speaker read out the latest real-time estimates for France, revealing a completely different vote count. The extreme-right party, RN, was topping the French vote with 23,3 %, ahead of the République en Marche at 22,41%. Evidently, this audience stood on one side of an increasingly fractured continent.
To learn more about the author Diana Liu and her discoveries in Paris click HERE.
Just what are they thinking…
Admittedly, for a non-European like myself, there remains something very abstract about it all. However, I do remember stumbling into my kitchen in Paris early in the morning on November 9th 2016, dazed and in disbelief at the American election results that had come in overnight. Although similar forces were at stake in both elections, I wanted to hear the European perspective from my fellow students. What were the main issues at stake in the elections, and what did Europe mean to them?
As illustrated during the auditorium “vote”, ecology was a main concern among students. Garance, 20, talked about the importance of “voting to find solutions for global warming on a European level, which is more pertinent than on a national level.” Other students such as Thomas, 20, and Cécile, 18, also evoked the importance of maintaining democratic institutions and fighting against rising fascism, particularly in Italy where Thomas, a Franco-Italian, cast his vote. Chris, a 24-year old Brit, spoke about his desire for further European integration in light of an approaching Brexit.
“It’s a unique situation… a strong enough vote for the pro-remain party might be enough for us to stay.”
What’s bothering them…
Students also mentioned the increasing links between national and European concerns as well as Europe’s role in counterbalancing superpowers such as the U.S., China and Russia. Cécile had expected a high turnout given that “the social crises in France with the gilets jaunes or Yellow Vests weekly protests and the marches for the environment… concerns that are at once national and European.” Elise, 20, alluded to the loss of national economic vitality that many Eurosceptics attribute to the EU.
“There are a lot of misconceptions about Europe. To carry economic weight, we need the union — we’re in a connected world and our countries cannot live alone.”
However, opinions differ outside the politically charged atmosphere of the university, where some feel that the elections are distant and unrelated to everyday life. I spoke to Aude, who is 26 and works in Human Resources, near Châtelet Les Halles, and she told me that she wasn’t planning on voting, although our conversation made her think about doing it if only out of obligation.
“There has been very little communication about candidates on each [voting] list, and I don’t really see the point.”
As for the 2% at Sciences Po’s election night who voted for the far-right Rassemblement National, I couldn’t find them, although I would have liked to hear their perspective. The results of the elections will see an increase in the parliamentary representation of populist and Eurosceptic parties that swept the vote in Italy and Hungary and led the polls in France and the U.K.
And the winner is…
Although the right-wing nationalist parties didn’t achieve a continent-wide victory (75% of voters still backed parties that support Europe), they’ve put an end to the old center-right and center-left majority in the Parliament. Traditional pro-Europeans will need to start compromising with their diverse (and often divergent) concerns as well as those of the rising Green party in an increasingly fragmented political arena.
As the night came to a close, the participants gradually trickled into the warm Parisian night, relaxed and, dare I say, sanguine. Despite increasing dissensus around the future of Europe, the students were hopeful. Elise spoke of the Union as being “a message of hope, exchange, cooperation, and a system of values.” For Garance, the EU “opens the field of possibilities for us students. We can freely imagine studying and working everywhere in Europe.”
The worst had been avoided – as it turned out, this was no 2016 American presidential election. As I passed the tourists drinking on the terrace of Les Deux Magots, I wondered about their perception of Europe. Seen from abroad or through the eyes of a tourist, it’s easy to imagine entire continents as unified and more-or-less homogenous entities, at the service of our cultural and experience-oriented consumption. But to know Europe more is to understand the singularity of its regions and countries and witness the continent’s contradictions and controversies played out on the stage of these elections.
And therein lies the paradox: as we shed former assumptions about the continent that now seem fairy-tale and medieval, some of us still long for that shared “something” that will bring Europe back together – an ecological consensus, a sense of transnational belonging and opportunity. Of course, the beginning of a renewed sense of unity would mean that all parties lay self-righteousness and assumptions aside, reaching across the political aisle to cooperate – in Europe as much as in the U.S. I may not be able to vote in Europe (yet), but in the meantime, a girl can dream.