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How Interested Are UK Students in the French Elections?

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This Sunday, voting in the first round of the French Presidential elections takes place, yet I find Student interest in the battle for the Élysée Palace across the Channel still heavily shadowed by the race for the White House across the pond. Is this because of language, culture or the varied mix of political parties in France? Or has euro-scepticism among British students increased?

Having looked into the French Presidential campaign in greater detail over the last month, I have found it to present the variety of characters, twists and turns you would expect in a great political novel. One poll published this month suggested that Marine Le Pen's far-right National Front party is most popular with young people aged 18 - 24. This provides ample talking points for me and my fellow students, is nationalism now more relevant than ever before? Is this a long-standing trend amongst young people or simply one poll during one campaign? However, while it is clear some students, take an interest in the interesting features of foreign elections such as the rise of nationalism and the prominence of immigration, most do not.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon's far-left Left Front party has risen ten percentage points since October, leading to commentators to point to the on-going Euro crisis as causing a rise in more extreme views either side of the political spectrum. Incumbent President Nicholas Sarkozy's campaign has wavered, recovered and now wavered again and he has seen some of his party's vote move toward Le Pen. As we enter voting weekend, it is the centre-left Socialist Party's Francois Hollande who leads the polls by a tantalisingly narrow margin, fears of high abstention could make this narrower still. Such a lively, vibrant and interesting campaign means the run up to the second-round has a lot to live up to.

Yet, it is still been difficult to engage as freely in the French campaign as the American one. The American Presidential campaign has, until now, been largely concerned with the selection of the Republican Party's nominee. Stand out events, like the Super Tuesday group of primaries and caucuses and the suspension of Rick Santorum's bid, provide ample opportunity to follow the campaign and the likely nominee, Mitt Romney, who will take on the Democrat's incumbent President Obama at the polls in November. So far, long-standing policy issues such as Gay Marriage and Immigration have been coupled with America's frustration with Government.

While it is difficult to compare the American and French campaigns, with one just starting and the other practically finished, the amount of debate and conversations I have had with fellow students suggests a stark difference in interest between the two. Why?

First and possibly most important is the language barrier. Many students don't speak a European language and rely on their International friends to provide their views on important speeches, policies or just interesting points of culture. For me, this presents the biggest problem because without a good grasp of French, I am unable to understand the full meaning, nuances and background to the public speeches of candidates and why they promote one policy over another. To combat my lack of language skills I take to the Internet and watch television news however, instead of forming my own opinion, I am now listening to somebody else's.

Culture is an important factor, too with American and British culture largely indistinguishable. We are familiar with many of America's top television journalists, I'm well acquainted with Bill O'Reilly thanks to YouTube, and Piers Morgan has a prime-time show on CNN. British news channels devoted a lot of time to the American primaries with interviews and in depth analysis, to a level that the French elections did not receive.

Education plays a part, as well. I have spent twice the amount of time studying Britain and America's 'special relationship' than I have the European Union and the politics of its member states. Any knowledge I have of France's National Assembly and Senate, Germany's Bundestag or Norway's Storting has largely been gained from my own research. Along-side this is the fact that the number of students studying languages at secondary level has fallen, leading the Government to suggest a change in the way they are taught in schools. Certainly, I intend to make up for my shortcoming by attending a language introduction class or two.

The French election has opened my eyes to the difference in interest between European politics and American politics, only a few of my peers seem to be aware of the vibrancy of the French election thus far, making me wonder just how many will take note when the campaign for the second round begins.