How Europe’s young voters flocked to the hard-Right

Jordan Bardella, president of the far-Right RN party
Jordan Bardella, president of the far-Right RN party, takes a selfie on the campaign trail - Alain Robert/SIPA/Shutterstock
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Unbuttoning his carefully ironed white shirt, Jordan Bardella took a sip of water at a sweltering political rally during his European election campaign and apologised for the pause by saying: “I’m already getting hot.”

“You’re the one making us hot,” screamed a girl from the young crowd.

The French call it “Bardella-mania”.

Wherever the handsome 28-year-old star of France’s hard-Right National Rally (RN) goes, he is mobbed, above all, by the young.

Such adulation morphed into electoral triumph on Sunday when 31.4 per cent of the French voted for Marine Le Pen’s impeccably dressed, carefully groomed and well-spoken protégé, offering his party a projected 30 seats in the European Parliament.

That is more than twice the seats won by Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance party, which scored a paltry 14.6 per cent (13 seats), and finished only just ahead of the Socialists, on 13.8 per cent.

But it was not just Mr Bardella who was drawing swarms of young voters. Germany’s hard-Right Alternative for Germany (AfD) also surged in the polls, propelled in part by voters under the age of 30.

One poll published on Sunday showed that 32 per cent of 18-34 year-olds voted for the RN in France, more than double the total of the 2019 European elections. In Germany, the AfD saw an 11 per cent jump in its vote share among 16-to-24 year-olds, claiming a total of 16 per cent. It saw big jumps in 25-44 year-olds, too.

In the last European election, young people in Europe overwhelmingly voted for green parties in what was heralded as a “green wave.”

However, interest has waned among a generation that grew up during the Covid pandemic and frets about war in Europe, an uncertain job market and a lack of affordable housing.

RN volunteers put up election posters featuring leader Marine Le Pen and charismatic party president Jordan Bardella
RN volunteers put up election posters featuring leader Marine Le Pen and charismatic party president Jordan Bardella - JEFF PACHOUD/AFP via Getty Images

Many young voters say mainstream parties are not tuned in to their concerns – at worst hardly speaking their language.

That is an opportunity that has been successfully exploited by the AfD and the RN. Their weapon of choice was Tiktok, the video-sharing app dominated by Gen Z.

All Mr Bardella’s official trips are accompanied by a team responsible for feeding his Instagram and TikTok accounts, which are followed by 1.5 million and 615,000 subscribers, respectively.

Analysts say he has aped the style of a social network influencer, rather than that of the head of a political party.

“We’ve invested a lot in social networks. It’s a way of talking to young people. In this election, I’m trying to politicise young people,” Mr Bardella told France Inter last week.

His tailored suits (from the Dutch brand Suit Supply, known for its affordable prices) are just hugging enough to show off his form sculpted from regular gym sessions. Aides admit the politician with the clean-cut boy-next-door image is “obsessive” about his appearance and has been known to throw a tantrum if a shirt collar is out of place.

“There is a personality cult around Bardella on social media. He’s everywhere and comes across as charming, charismatic, handsome, like a tele-reality star,” said Lola, 18, a Left-leaning Parisian who confessed that Mr Bardella was streets ahead in the social media space.

“Of course, his young, handsome side and his Tiktok make me laugh, but that’s not why I voted for him either,” said Sarah, 25, a native of Seine-Saint-Denis and of Moroccan origin.

“He says things in no uncertain terms. He talks about security and immigration.”

Young people follow his news stories about youth violence, inflation eroding the purchasing power of their parents, the decline of public services in rural areas and the challenges faced by young farmers.

These are often conveniently blamed on scapegoats, such as Brussels and immigrants. One video he posted decrying the “ensauvagement” of France after the death in April of a teenage boy stabbed by an Afghan teenager in Châteauroux has been viewed almost 5 million times. Another widely shared clip simply shows him eating sweets.

Many commentators were shocked that Maximilian Krah, the AFD’s lead candidate in the European elections, was able to shrug off a series of scandals in the mainstream press, ranging from employing a Chinese spy to declaring that not all members of the SS were “criminals”.

But on TikTok, the stories barely caused a ripple.

Instead, Mr Krah could be seen adopting the style of Andrew Tate, the self-confessed misogynist and “masculinity” influencer, in his appeal to young voters.

“One in three young men in Germany has never had a girlfriend. Are you one of them?” Mr Krah asks.

“Don’t watch porn, don’t vote green, go outside into the fresh air. Be confident. And above all don’t believe you need to be nice and soft. Real men stand on the far Right. Real men are patriots. That’s the way to find a girlfriend!”

In another post, Mr Krah again made a direct appeal to the young about the war in Ukraine.

“The war in Ukraine is not your war. Zelensky is not your president,” he says. “But this is costing you money and you are running the risk that Germany gets dragged into this war.”

Through videos like this, the AfD now reaches more young people on TikTok than all the other parties combined. Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, looked out of touch when he posted his first video on the platform this year, showing off his battered briefcase.

Philipp Jessen, founder of the Storymachine PR agency in Germany, told The Telegraph: “The dark side of power always understands new media first.”

“TikTok is the window for Right-wing radicals into our homes. The AfD communicate with our children like we do as if they were close family members … telling them stories for hours every day.

“It makes me angry that the [mainstream] ‘democratic’ parties are unable to understand how important this is. It’s not rocket science but they concentrate on traditional media, so they shouldn’t wonder why they’re missing out on the youth vote.”

Jean-Yves Camus, a political scientist, said the stereotype that most young people wanted to vote Green or Left or for “altruistic causes” was misguided and out-of-date.

“It sounds simplistic but there are young people in France who need order, who are losing a sense of verticality, who are looking for authority,” he said.

Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. Try The Telegraph free for 3 months with unlimited access to our award-winning website, exclusive app, money-saving offers and more.