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How Europe’s Far-Right Parties Are Winning Over Young Voters

6 minute read

The writing was on the wall—or, at least, in the polls. Despite the fact that young Europeans had turned out en masse to prevent a predicted far-right surge during the 2019 European Parliament elections, they wouldn’t necessarily be compelled to do so again five years later. If anything, many analysts warned in the days and weeks leading up the vote, many of them would end up voting for the far right.

And vote they did. While these latest European elections ended earlier this month in a victory for Europe’s center-right parties, which are poised to make up the largest grouping in the next European Parliament, the radical right made historic gains—enough to throw the bloc’s biggest powers, France and Germany, off balance. In the former, Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally emerged victorious with 30% of the vote—an electoral blow so devastating that French President Emmanuel Macron announced a snap parliamentary election to be held in a matter of weeks. In the latter, the extreme-right Alternative for Germany (known by its shorthand AfD) secured the second-largest share of votes behind the opposition center-right Christian Democrats, trouncing Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats and their coalition partners, the Greens and the liberal Free Democrats, and throwing the government’s stability into doubt.

Young people played their part. Among French voters under the age of 34, the National Rally was the most popular party, securing 32% of the vote, according to French broadcaster BFMTV; Macron’s ruling Renaissance Party won just 5% of the youth vote. Though the AfD did not earn the distinction of being the most popular party among young Germans, it did manage to triple its support from 5% in 2019 to 16% today, according to the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle

Such an outcome would have been unthinkable just five years ago, when young Europeans were thought to be more likely to throw a milkshake at a far-right politician than vote for one. While this shift to the far right can be explained by a number of factors—not least the cost-of-living and housing crises that have hit Europe’s Gen-Z and younger Millennials particularly hard—many observers credit the far right’s social media prowess for their success with younger voters. Indeed, Jordan Bardella, the National Rally’s 28-year-old president and presumed successor to Le Pen, has proven to be a social media sensation in France, boasting 1.6 million followers on TikTok. It’s a platform he has used to communicate with young voters directly, to great effect. (Should his party replicate its European election performance in France’s upcoming legislative vote, Bardella could become the country’s youngest-ever prime minister.)

The AfD has similarly used social media to court young voters. “If you look at TikTok, the AfD has more reach than all the other parties combined,” Laura-Kristine Krause, the executive director of the More in Common think tank in Germany, told TIME and other journalists in Berlin in the days leading up to the European elections. The country’s mainstream parties are only just catching up. Scholz, for example, only established his TikTok account in April.

Read More: This 28-Year-Old Is the New Face of Europe’s Far Right

This phenomenon isn’t limited to France and Germany. Across Europe, far-right parties have been able to strike a chord with young voters—not only by appealing to them on their favorite social media platforms, but by tying the issues young people care about (such as a lack of affordable housing) with their own signature policies (namely, restricting immigration). This was evident during last year’s Dutch elections, in which the far-right firebrand Geert Wilders’ anti-immigration Freedom Party won the largest share of votes, including 17% of voters aged 18 to 34 (up from 7%). Far-right parties have made similar inroads with young voters in Portugal, Spain, and Finland.

These trends present a stark shift from just five years ago, when the received wisdom was that younger generations were more politically progressive and environmentally-minded than those that came before them. The reality, however, is that younger people “are way more open in all directions,” says German political scientist Thorsten Faas. Indeed, the second-most popular party among French voters under the age of 34 was Jean Luc Melenchon’s leftist France Unbowed party. In Germany, meanwhile, young voters were split across a range of parties, with most of their support going to the AfD, the Christian Democrats, and the Greens.

“There was this perception that young people are progressive, and they’re not,” Krause said. But she noted that those who are opting to support the far right aren’t necessarily doing it for purely ideological reasons. Rather, she says young people tend to be overrepresented among what she dubs “The Invisible Third,” a segment of society that isn’t as socially or politically integrated and has thus proven more susceptible to far-right talking points. “They don’t feel like they’re being talked to by politicians; like they don’t have a seat at the table,” she added. “The disillusioned very much care about a just society, care about a just Germany, but don’t see that as being fulfilled.”

None of this is to say that young voters necessarily represent a burgeoning far-right generation. “Youth support for the far-right parties likely stems from the same factors driving many of their peers to the left: frustrations with political establishments and policies seen as ill-equipped to address the structural causes of big issues,” Lucas Robinson, a senior research associate and digital media manager at the Eurasia Group’s Institute for Global Affairs, tells TIME. The Institute’s recent study found that global challenges such as pandemics and climate change are considered to be the biggest threats among young adults (aged 18-29) in France, Germany, the U.K., and the U.S.; political elites making decisions that hurt the public was deemed the second biggest, whereas immigration came in third.

If there are any lessons more moderate political parties can take from the European elections, it’s that they can no longer presuppose the support of young voters, even in the face of an ascendant far right. “Gen Z and millennials are not monoliths,” Robinson says. “These election results showed that their views cannot be taken for granted.”

The Friedrich Ebert Foundation (Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung) supported reporting costs for this story.

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Write to Yasmeen Serhan at yasmeen.serhan@time.com