Yann Darmon was never passionate about politics until he left his native France last year to spend the fall semester on an exchange program at a university in California. At the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, students were buzzing about a politician who argued passionately for social change and spoke to citizens in a straightforward way, someone who wasn’t concerned with corporate interests and wanted to protect social services. That politician was Bernie Sanders, and Darmon, 21, was hooked.
“He’s the only real politician who has the goal of actually changing things,” said Darmon, a dual French-American citizen who grew up in Paris. Upon his return to Paris a few weeks ago, he joined an organizing group called “Paris 4 Bernie” and began attending meetings with fellow Sanders supporters. “His ideas shock the French people much less than the Americans because it’s similar to the French ‘socialist’ system,” he explained.
The Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. senator from Vermont has built a voter base through promises to make big changes when it comes to such issues as Wall Street regulation, tuition reform and healthcare. The self-proclaimed socialist's fiery speeches and no-nonsense attitude have resonated with young U.S. voters, also capturing the attention of many young French people who see him as a refreshing alternative to establishment candidates in both countries. As France looks toward its own presidential election in 2017 amid a loss of faith in its ruling leadership, Sanders has become a symbol of progressive ideals for many young Parisians who increasingly "feel the Bern."
“We’re seeing the same trend in Paris that Bernie sees nationwide,” said Penny Schantz, 57, one of the lead organizers of “Paris 4 Bernie,” noting the people attending meetings were increasingly coming from a younger age bracket, often in their 20s and 30s. France has long had socialized medicine and a host of state-run social programs, and Sanders' ideas have struck many French residents as obvious reforms, Schantz said. “Ensuring the minimum standards of human dignity for a population: These are not radical ideas in Western Europe.”
Sanders first broke onto the political scene when he was elected mayor of Burlington, Vermont, in 1981. He went on to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives and now in the Senate, where he ran and was elected as an independent identifying as a socialist.
Facing down Democratic Party veteran and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Sanders has fared better than many pollsters first predicted. He won the New Hampshire primary Tuesday in a landslide, capturing more than 60 percent of the vote and beating Clinton by more than 20 percentage points. The senator went on to win important support from several civil rights leaders during the week, meeting with the Rev. Al Sharpton, as U.S. voters increasingly embraced his message. Sanders' national opinion poll numbers have risen steadily from 19.4 percent in September to around 36 percent in February, according to Real Clear Politics, which averages available polling data.
Much of the support for Sanders in the U.S. arguably comes from a growing dissatisfaction with political elites and desire for a new chapter in the American establishment. France, too, has seen a loss of faith in the current leadership, particularly concerning the left-wing government in power under Socialist President François Hollande. The federal government has struggled to form a united front in the three months since a terror attack rocked Paris, leaving 130 dead and several hundred more wounded following coordinated assaults across the city, and as a 2017 presidential election looms, the prospect of Hollande’s re-election has grown dimmer.
The French president spearheaded a series of controversial counterterrorism efforts, including an ongoing state of emergency as well as a constitutional amendment under which dual nationals would lose their French citizenship over terrorism offenses. Hollande’s Socialist Party, along with its allies on the left, has splintered as fellow left-wing politicians accused him of betraying the progressive values on which the party was built and upon which he was elected. As a result, many young French, disappointed with their system, have looked abroad for inspiration and found it in the 74-year-old Jewish firebrand.
“The first thing that drew me to Bernie Sanders was the fact that he has been very consistent and coherent in his opinions, in his speeches — this is something that we don’t have a lot of in France,” explained Mathieu Simon, 27, a Frenchman who works in sports marketing in Paris. Simon described a growing malaise among voters 20-30 years of age who were no longer interested in being politically involved, saying the politicians were all the same.
“François Hollande was elected on his progressive vision,” he said, adding, “In reality we realize that a certain number of measures he announced in his campaign were never followed through on, and instead we continued in the same right-wing agenda.”
As support for the left has faded, a far-right wing movement led by Marine Le Pen’s National Front Party has blossomed. Capitalizing on anti-immigrant sentiment in the wake of the Paris attacks, the National Front swept the first round of regional elections in December, only to be kept from power through a last-minute alliance between the two establishment parties.
Le Pen, who has often been compared to Republican presidential hopeful and real estate mogul Donald Trump for their shared anti-immigrant sentiments, is expected to run in the presidential elections in 2017. No charismatic left-wing candidate has emerged, however, and French voters are bemoaning their lack of a Sanders-esque prospect.
“He seems like a sincere person, this is something that we in France, and in all of Europe, are looking for,” said Benjamin Lucas, 25, who is president of Young Socialists, a left-wing political organizing group. Sanders’ importance, like President Barack Obama in 2008, has taken on symbolic more than political importance, Lucas said.
“[Hillary Clinton] does not seem to embody hope, but Bernie Sanders does,” he said.
Correction, Feb. 14, 10 p.m. EST -- A previous version of this story reported that the Rev. Al Sharpton endorsed Bernie Sanders. Sharpton has not officially endorsed any candidate as yet.