The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

French millennials talk about life in a country struggling with unemployment, migration and terrorism

Unemployment is a major concern for French millennials, and the country is facing tough economic challenges. Heloise Ruel, a college student, says the French are reluctant to re-examine their labor policies. Students from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism spoke with French millennials during a time of uncertainty in their country. The Washington Post in partnership with Medill produced this video series. (Video: The Washington Post)

PARIS — As France scrambles to establish its place in post-Brexit Europe, French millennials find their country in transition and their own status uncertain.

The Washington Post recently interviewed French millennials in disparate corners of Paris on the eve of Britain’s startling vote to leave the European Union. The voices included young people at each end of the political spectrum and many points between, ranging from a leader of the anti-immigrant National Front to a survivor of the terrorist attack that left 89 dead in November at the Bataclan theater. While some focused on the toll they say migrants take on the country’s economy, others stressed solidarity and said they relate to the migrants’ struggle.

Like many French millennials, Fatima Benomar, 30, has trouble finding steady employment. The artist, who emigrated from Morocco as a teenager, contends that French laws don’t protect workers like her. According to Eurostat, the youth unemployment rate for people ages 15 to 24 has increased steadily, reaching a peak of 24.7 percent in 2015.

She says she hears from employers: “You will do this and this and this, and if you’re not okay with that, I can easily get rid of you and someone else will take your place.”

Benomar attends  protests regularly with Nuit Debout, a Paris-based group that started nightly demonstrations in March against France’s labor laws. Benomar says the weak economy and lackluster job market have increased tension about the vast influx of migrants who continue to arrive from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

“Our government is dealing very badly with the refugee crisis,” Benomar said.

Although some focused on the toll they say that migrants take on the country’s economy, others emphasized solidarity and said that they relate to the migrants’ struggle. Benomar advocates togetherness and a greater sense of decency. She compared the migrant crisis to the influx of Jewish refugees during the Holocaust, saying her country must do more to be on the right side of history.

Young voices in Paris: Immigration and the far right (Video: The Washington Post)

Nnoman Cadoret, a photojournalist, agrees. He laments the living conditions endured by many migrants to the prosperous capital of a country built on the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. One morning this summer, Paris authorities dismantled a migrant camp near the Stalingrad metro station. The area reeked of urine and rotting food. Volunteers at the scene said they worried the area harbored scabies and tuberculosis.

“People sleep in the streets and the metro,” said Cadoret, 27. “Some refugees I’ve met would rather die in the Syrian civil war than die from malnourishment in France. They’re treated as less human.”

Yet more than half of French millennials — people ages 18 to 35 — have negative views of migrants in their country, according to a March poll by Ifop. Among the youngest millennials, worries were stronger, with 70 percent of respondents ages 18 to 24 convinced that migrant groups arriving in Europe harbor terrorists.

A third of respondents said migrants in Europe affect France’s economic and financial resources, echoing the views of the National Front, France’s far-right party, led by Marine Le Pen. A contender for France’s 2017 presidential elections, Le Pen praised the Brexit vote as a step toward national control of borders.

Gaetan Dussausaye, the National Front’s youth leader, believes that migrants burden an economy already strained by high levels of unemployment and poverty. He says that they also pose a security risk.

“We have 6 million unemployed in France and 10 million people who are poor and who should be taken care of,” Dussausaye, 22, said. “We let people come into our territory without knowing who they are, where they come from, what their ambitions are, their goals for coming here.”

Dussausaye also criticized the government’s response to the migrants, pledging that the National Front would crack down on illegal immigration.

“We let Islamic fundamentalism grow in France and it all came to light in 2015 with the Charlie Hebdo [attacks], the Hyper Cacher one, at the Bataclan, at the Stade de France,” he said. “If tomorrow we come to power, these clandestine people, which by definition don’t respect the law and are operating illegally, will have only one option: to go back to where they came from.”

Young voices in Paris: Terrorism and its effects (Video: The Washington Post)

The November terrorist attacks, compounded by the bloody Bastille Day assault in the seaside city of Nice, left many young French citizens worried about the direction of the country and their own futures in a less-certain world.

“The far right has been rising in France for like 15 years now. The terrorist attack is something that has helped them a lot in recent elections,” said Alexis Lebrun, 27, who was in the crowd at the Bataclan when gunmen opened fire in November 2015. Despite intensified security across Paris after the attack, he is dubious about the government’s ability to cope. The scars remain fresh.

“Right now I am standing on a sidewalk in plain light, but I wouldn’t do it at night and I wouldn’t do it if we were in places of Paris that were targeted in November,” he said. “Before the attack, the basic feeling when you are in a public places is the trust — you don’t fear the person who is standing right next to you. And after the terrorist attack it is the complete opposite.”

Read more:

What we know about the Paris attacks and the hunt for the attackers

Failure to stop Paris attacks reveals fatal flaws at heart of European security

22-year-old offers most vivid account of surviving Bataclan massacre