FRANCE

Meet The Kids Of France’s Far Right

The National Front is France’s number one political movement for young people, thanks to its online strategy and active supporters

FRANCE
Gaetan Dussausaye, 23, at the National Front headquarters in Nanterre, just outside Paris
Apr 21, 2017 at 6:00 AM ET

Gaetan Dussausaye doesn’t remember high school as a time of pining over crushes and dreaming about the future. He says it was a time of political awakening.

“There were quite a few things in daily life that bothered me, that made me ask questions and have doubts,” he says. “Notably teachers’ loss of authority at school, the importance of brands on clothes and bags and how it influenced what we wanted with other individuals.”

Not too many years later Dussausaye, a tall, square-jawed 23-year-old with sleepy eyes and groomed floppy hair sits in a sunlit office at The National Front (Front National, or FN, in French) headquarters in Nanterre, just outside Paris. His adolescent aversion to consumerism and brands has evolved now; along the walls are posters denouncing international trade policies and left-wing French politicians.

He tosses a pack of cigarettes onto the desk. Gauloise, a French brand. Next to his computer is a picture of Marine Le Pen, the FN party leader currently leading in presidential polls, cuddling a cat. This eloquent philosopher now heads FN’s youth movement, which he claims has 25,000 members.

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As he was finishing high school and preparing to enter the famed Sorbonne in Paris to study philosophy in 2011, Dussausaye realized he would have the right to vote for the first time in France’s 2012 presidential elections. He says he didn’t grow up in a politically-active home and that his family votes across the spectrum. He says he wanted to decipher issues for himself to be certain of his choice.

“I undertook a big research to understand the policies and projects of the different political parties, and I arrived very naturally at Front National. I found an echo of my own convictions in her speech,” Dessausaye says of Le Pen. Her program, he argues, “breaks with 40 years of ultra-capitalism, free trade and globalization.”

The National Front is France’s party best known for its extreme right origins and rabble-rouser founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father, who often made racist, anti-semitic comments, including dismissing the Holocaust as a minor “detail” of World War II. Older voters remember Jean-Marie’s FN as a party of hate and intolerance, but Dussausaye says youth today are more open than previous generations to Marine Le Pen’s program.

In fact, The National Front is France’s number one political movement for young people aged 18-24 thanks to Marine Le Pen’s efforts to overhaul the party’s image and whitewash its controversial past.

When Le Pen became party president in 2011, she rooted out members accused of racism and anti-Semitism, even kicking Papa Le Pen out of the party. Although she was raised in politics, Le Pen has painted herself as an outsider taking on establishment elites for the common people and has redirected party rhetoric to take on the European Union and Islamic extremism.

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“Creating the public image of a ‘normalized’ but not established party has been a conscious strategy of the FN,” says Manès Weisskircher, a political scientist studying radical right movements at the European University Institute. “Already at the end of the 1980s the FN coined the term dédiabolisation (‘de-demonization’) in order to describe this process.”

In 2012 voters linked Nicolas Sarkozy’s right-wing rule to social unrest and unemployment. Young people voted overwhelmingly for socialist Francois Hollande, but Dussausaye says the socialist policies were too similar to the right that disappointed them.

“We saw our parents trust traditional left and right parties for years. A lot of my generation thought the right failed,” Dussausaye says.

Now the sentiment is the same for many who supported the left. Hollande leaves office as France’s most unpopular president in the Fifth Republic with a 22 percent approval rating. At one point he neared rock bottom at 4 percent.

“Young people always want a real political alternative,” Dessausaye says. “Ideas are very important for young people. Today, the alternative, the true radical change, the thought revolution, is Marine Le Pen who incarnates it.”

When Le Pen became president of the party in 2011, there were 2,000 young members. The Front National de la Jeunesse, the party’s youth movement, now claims to have 25,000 official members, which Dessausaye says aligns with the explosion of growth the party saw between 2007 to 2012, when it went from claiming 7 percent of the electorate to 18 percent. That meant about 6 million new votes for the far right. For many of FN’s young members, April 23 will be their first presidential election.

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Dussausaye says he receives at least 50 messages a day on social media from young people who have never engaged in politics and want to get involved.

The attraction is that Le Pen hasn’t isolated herself in an ivory tower, he says, like politicians from the established “political class completely disconnected from reality.”

“She’s sensitive to the daily life of the French, especially those who are suffering. She has a real closeness to the people and this touches young people,” says Dessausaye. “They see she understands them, how they feel, and their problems like university selection and housing difficulty. They want to believe in someone.”

The party’s success in recent years is due in large part to the youth base it has smartly cultivated through social media. Some experts say FN has the best online strategy and the most active supporters.

Online is native territory for FN compared to France’s other parties. They were the first to have a website in the mid-1990s, and Dussausaye says they were the first on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Its dedicated youth page on Facebook has more than 86,000 likes, more than double its nearest ideological rival Les Republicans. FN boasts three times as many likes as the socialists and Emmanuel Macron’s independent centrist party En Marche. Facebook notes that the FN youth page responds to messages “typically within minutes.”

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There’s a simple reason for the party’s early investment online Dussausaye says: the internet allowed them to be their own media platform. When FN takes the lead, he says mainstream media always talks of “shame.” The internet lets the party break out of established media’s definition of FN and push their own message.

But the party is also attracting young people offline with its on-the-ground strategy. The FN began planting regional offices under Marine Le Pen, which the elder Le Pen didn’t want. With new satellites around the country to man, there are posts to fill, and the opportunity for young people to move up more quickly than in traditional parties on the right and left.

Emilien Noé, 21, started his own political career much like party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen: as an agitator to the establishment. When he was 18 he ran for mayor in his small town. FN headquarters fully backed him.

“At first it was just to kick the anthill, to tell the mayor that he had been there too long and he had to do something for the town,” says Noé.

He lost the race, but the FN rewarded his initiative. He’s now the regional youth coordinator in the city of Metz in the east of France near the borders of Luxembourg and Germany.

On a recent Friday evening at FN regional offices in the east, bowls of pretzels and potato chips and bottles of cider and soda sat ready at a snacks table. It looked like a scene from any awkward group therapy session, albeit with Marine Le Pen looking on from posters on the wall. In reality members of the party’s local youth movement were gathering to make final preparations for Le Pen’s rally the next day.

Noé had Le Pen’s signature blue rose and the cross of Lorraine, a regional symbol used to signify France’s liberation from Germany by Gen. Charles de Gaulle, pinned to his navy blue blazer.

“The question is a bit stupid — why does Front National attract young people?” he says. “Because Front National is the youth.”

Noé supported the Socialist Party when he was younger but says he wasn’t particularly active. Some friends took him to hear Marine Le Pen speak after his pick for president, Segolène Royal, failed to capture the 2012 party nomination.

“I saw myself in Le Pen’s social and economic program, and I liked it immediately,” says Noé.

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In 2015 regional elections, 35 percent of young voters chose FN, and many young members were elected as regional counselors. Mainstream socialists and republicans received 14 percent less votes in the same demographic. According to French pollster Ipsos, the abstention rate among young voters is a staggering 65 percent.

Jean-Yves Camus is a political analyst at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs and specializes in the extreme right. He says even with high abstention rates, the FN youth phenomenon is still significant.

“It’s an enormous change from the 1990s when the FN only got a small share of the youth vote,” he says. “You can really see the difference between MLP and her father.”

Left-wing parties have typically been the political choice of young people in France, especially in the 1970’s, but Camus says extremist parties have always had youth supporters.

“It’s part of this culture of rebellion that goes with being a teenager, standing against the established order and society in general,” he says.

That’s the image Marine Le Pen offers her supporters who feel forgotten by the system.

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In a country where youth unemployment is 26 percent, the FN has built its youth ranks on promises to, essentially, “Make France Great Again” with an anti-EU and anti-immigration platform.

In Great Britain where largely older voters tipped the scales for Brexit, here in France it’s young people calling to quit the European Union.

“When you are young, you are unhappy about the way things are going and you want to vote for an outsider,” says Camus.

Arnaud De Rigné, 21, from Nantes, considers Le Pen a fearless straight shooter. He said the first time he saw her on television, she called Hollande the vice chancellor of Germany’s Angela Merkel, a popular line parroted by others in the group.

When De Rigné met Le Pen, he said he asked her how she could make such a bold comment. She told him it was just the reality.

De Rigné says his political awakening came around age 15. He saw a “big problem with massive immigration and globalization with no borders,” and that “the government wasn’t doing anything.”

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He describes growing up near a social housing sector in Nantes called Bellevue. “There is, I don’t know how to say… a lot of security problems with people who live there.” He says local police were told not to go into this neighborhood because of safety concerns.

None of the politicians want to solve the problem, he says — except Le Pen.

“When you are with her you know that she’s the boss,” De Rigné says. “For us, it’s very important to have a boss who is a leader.”

When asked about race and French identity, young FN supporters interviewed shied away from controversy that has plagued the party.

“For me there are no French of French origin, I don’t make any distinction between French, whatever their origin, whatever their religion,” says De Rigné. “It’s someone that speaks French, who knows our history, our culture.”

Grégoire Leloux, 21, was more stringent. “When you are French it’s not half, it’s not a percentage, we feel fully French whatever social origins, ethnic origins, religious origins,” he says. “We don’t care where else you’re from.”

Camus says it goes deeper than toppling the EU, and that state sovereignty is a subtle cover for identity politics and racism.

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“It’s not only about national sovereignty and opting out,” he says. “It also has to do with us, ‘young French people,’ versus them, the immigrants, especially from a non-European background.”

“Sovereignty for them means less foreigners, less immigrants. For those who are already working, the immigrants and foreigners are the kind of people they think are stealing their job,” Camus says. “By voting National Front, they think they get some kind of certainty about their future and their jobs, that they will become more protected.”

Beyond the tamer young FN supporters waving the Frexit flag, the more menacing views on foreigners and Islam in France can be found in outspoken youth identity movements like Génération Identitaire. That group describes itself as the Greenpeace of the extreme right for its aggressive tactics and violent stunts. In 2012, dozens of its members overran a mosque in Poitiers and rolled out a banner referencing the year 732, the year Charles Martel and European allies defeated the Umayyad Caliphate in the Battle of Tours.

Génération Identitaire vocally supports Le Pen and sees FN as a vehicle for its white supremacist ideology, but Le Pen is more measured when asked about the group’s support. She told French media she didn’t approve of their methods, “but understands their worries.”

Echoing issues of Russian interference in U.S. elections, foreign sway on the French presidential race is also a concern here, but Le Pen’s supporters say it’s not the Kremlin France should worry about.

Dussausaye, the FN youth leader, deflects interference back onto the EU. “We should stop always accusing the Russians,” he says. “Putin did not call to support any specific candidate, but the EU commission did. They engaged against FN in our country.”

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The two-round French election system is designed to keep out extremists like the FN. Voters will cast their ballots April 23 and the top two candidates will face off May 7. Recent polls put Le Pen and Macron neck and neck in the first round, but have Le Pen losing by a landslide in the second round.

Le Pen’s youth aren’t listening to establishment polls though.

“We can’t change France’s policies if we don’t take back the reins of our destiny,” said Leloux, the quote machine historian. “They said Brexit wasn’t possible, but they did it.”

For good measure, Leloux quoted Napoleon I: “Impossible is not French.”

Thirty years ago The National Front and other extreme right parties in Europe were considered fascists and enemies of democracy, Camus says. They are still marginalized, but they have taken centerstage partly on a wave of youth enthusiasm that will endure.

“They are really part of the political landscape now, and they will remain, especially since many young people vote for them,” Camus says. “Dessaussaye and the others will stay with this party for quite some time. They are not fascists. It’s nonsense to say that. They are simply nationalists. They are the next generation of National Front leaders.”

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