Guillaume De Langre reached “peak Trump” sometime around 3:30 in the morning. A 24-year-old recent graduate in International Relations from Sciences Po, a social sciences university in Paris, he has been following the American presidential race closely for the past year — closely enough to wake up in the middle of the night (Paris is six hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time) and watch the second debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
Calling Trump “dangerous,” Mr. De Langre pointed to his own conservative upbringing when conveying his dismay. “I thought that conservatism was about putting values, including religious ones, ahead of short term political gamesmanship,” Mr. De Langre said. “The GOP has shown that ideas, values, and leadership don’t matter anymore.”
All but the oldest cohort of French millennials have come of age with Barack Obama as one of their most prominent symbols of the United States. Where George W. Bush left office with high extremely low approval ratings abroad, Obama’s approval rating in France has steadily remained above 85% — a long way from the days when the Congressional dining hall served “freedom fries” and anti-Iraq War protestors in Paris aimed their anger at McDonald’s.
But now, a generation that grew up enthralled with Obama is increasingly turned off by Trump, whom it views as a deeply American incarnation of the populist winds sweeping through their own continent.
First is the disbelief.
Louise Boehm, originally from Strasbourg and currently studying business in Grenoble, said that for many students her age, the election has become “a major joke,” and that “the fact that so many people in the US are ready to vote for Trump doesn’t give a very positive image of the population.”
Oriane Nething, 23, a recent graduate in political science and finance, and also from the eastern region of Alsace, has yet to meet a single Trump supporter. Originally drawn to Lawrence Lessig’s message about campaign finance reform during the primaries, she doesn’t understand how someone so bombastic about his wealth can find success with a populist message.
Others share the same distaste for adulation of personal wealth. Julie Henches, a Master’s student taking a gap year to work at NUMA, a Paris startup incubator, and who spent a year reading novels written only by women, said that “the money-centered life, the bling, it’s just so far from everything the French values.”
“The idea of money meaning success is very American to me,” explained Olivia Frank, 24, noting that wealthy political elites in France would be loath to publicly flaunt their money. Both Nething and Frank have paid less attention to the election recently, not because they don’t care, but because as Ms. Nething lamented, “It’s so depressing.”
Ms. Henches, 22, sees in this election the juxtaposition of the best and the worst of the United States. “In France, we could never have produced an Obama, but on the other hand, we could never have produced a Trump.”
Indeed, the French polling institute IFOP found that 80% of French have a poor opinion of Trump. And 77%, including even higher numbers of youth, like Arnaud Vermeersch, a 26-year-old lawyer from Lille, are worried about what a Trump presidency would mean relations between the United States and Europe.
Yet some find a common thread between Trump and France’s National Front, an anti-immigration, anti-globalization, Eurosceptic party whose leader, Marine Le Pen, has endorsed Trump. Though it has drawn less polling and electoral support than Trump has, the National Front has been more successful in courting young voters.
In both the United States and in France, the media is partly to blame for the rise in political extremism, said Colline Serra, a self-described ecologist who supports Clinton as a matter of strategy, but whose heart lies with Jill Stein. “Trump knew how to manipulate the media in the same way that Jean Marie and Marine Le Pen have done in France: say something shocking that creates a lot of headlines and get visibility, then, after criticism, play the victim and the anti-system outsider in order to get votes.”
25-year-old Julien Rath, who has both French and German nationalities, and works in advertising in Paris, sees similar forces at work on both sides of the Atlantic. From opposition to trade to nostalgia for days when nations were more ethnically homogenous, Rath cited nationalism and populism as identity-based backlashes to the openness of globalization.
That sort of openness is what Ariane Forgues, 22, wants to protect against growing Euroscepticism.
A centrist when it comes to French politics, Ms. Forgues recently embarked on a seven month long “listening tour” that will crisscross France asking everyday people what kind of European Union they want to see. She sees Trump is an American figure born of the same roots as skepticism towards the EU — a desire to preserve an identity that seems to be under threat from change.
Finally, a generation even 70 years removed from World War II views Trump with trepidation for what his proposals might mean for the postwar liberal internationalist order. Notably, Trump has aired doubts about honoring NATO’s mutual defense guarantee, implied an acceptance of Putin’s annexation of Crimea, suggested that American allies like Japan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia develop their own nuclear weapons, and forcefully stated that his foreign policy would be based on “America first.”
Ms. Serra places Trump in the context of a long line of political extremism in Europe. “The rise of Nazism and other extremisms showed us that democracy isn’t always sufficient,” she said. “Societies need more than that — healthy political debate, educated citizens, social mobility. But instead, we’re seeing a rise in extremism and authoritarianism.”
That’s a specter that haunts Mr. De Langre.
“Our collective emotional memory of the two world wars is fading, and with it, the big moral and political principles that our former leaders learnt from the suffering and absurdity of that era,” he said. “How could someone who has read about WWII and who still empathizes with the suffering that our forefathers endured still support Trump, Le Pen, Orban, or Brexit?”