It’s creeping toward 9 in the evening, but a group of young people is still busy at the National Front party’s office in Metz, in eastern France. They’re preparing for a rally for their presidential candidate, Marine Le Pen.
Twenty-one-year-old Arnaud de Rigné remembers when he first became interested in the party.
“I was just 16 and I saw that there was a big problem in France with massive immigration and also globalization with no economic borders,” he says. “And there was insecurity and places in the city where police didn’t even want to go. And for me this was a very big problem.”
De Rigné knows some people accuse his party of racism. But he says he’s not racist and hasn’t seen racism among other young National Front supporters. De Rigné believes all French citizens — no matter their religion or origin — are equal. But he says France can’t take any more immigrants because there aren’t enough jobs for French people.
He thinks Le Pen has the strength needed to turn the country around.
“When you are in front of her, you know that she’s the boss,” he says. “And for us this is very, very important.”
The French go to the polls to elect a new president in April and May in a two-round vote. Right now the number one party with young people is the far-right National Front. Recent polls show Le Pen has 40 percent support among French youths aged 18 to 24, a startling fact for a country that’s traditionally been known for its leftist youth movements.
Two-hundred miles to the west in Paris, Gaëtan Dussausaye unlocks his office door at the National Front party headquarters. The 23-year-old heads the National Front’s youth wing, the FNJ (Front National Jeunesse). Dussausaye says during the last presidential election five years ago, the FNJ had 10,000 members; it’s now swelled to 25,000, the largest of any of the political parties’ youth factions. He says it’s not hard to see why.
“We saw our parents put their trust in the traditional parties from the left and right, only to be let down,” he says.
His generation had only known conservative presidents until 2012, he says.
“We thought the right had failed because there was still high unemployment and more insecurity and social misery,” he says. “So five years ago when we had a chance to vote for the left, we did. But President François Hollande has turned out to be exactly like former President Nicolas Sarkozy, and nothing has changed.”
He says only Marine Le Pen will break with 40 years of globalization, multiculturalism and savage, free market policies that have hurt France.
Dessausaye’s office walls are decorated with flyers designed by the party’s youth wing — trendy slogans against immigration and free-trade, and support for an end to the European Union and more generous government benefits for French citizens. He also has personal pictures of Marine Le Pen — on a sailboat, with her cats. Dessausaye says the candidate’s personality plays a huge role in the party’s popularity with young people. She has three children of her own in their late teens. He says young people feel Le Pen understands them.
“We feel like she’s always been out among the people and hearing their concerns and not in an ivory tower like the other mainstream politicians,” Dessausaye says. “They are completely disconnected from reality.”
Political reporter Olivier Beaumont has written a book about the Le Pen family and the party it founded. He says young supporters don’t remember the days when the National Front was widely seen as a pariah, fringe party run by Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. He was convicted several times for hate speech. Beaumont says his daughter has broken with that image and tried to change the party.
Another reason why the party is so attractive to young people, Beaumont says, is if you are looking to get involved in politics and have some responsibility you can advance pretty quickly, “whereas with the traditional parties it takes years to work your way up,” he says, comparing the National Front to “a small company looking for people to grow nationwide.”
Back in Metz, 21-year-old Emilien Noé is instructing the young people on their duties at the rally. Noé runs the National Front youth movement in eastern France. In 2014, he ran for mayor of a small town on the French-German border. He lost, but he says his campaign shook up the entrenched mayor and he had the full support of the party behind him.
Noé says he used to be a socialist, but then a friend took him to hear one of Le Pen’s speeches, and that was all it took. “I liked her right away,” he says. “She’s an exceptional woman.”
A lot of young people are leaving France to find jobs, he says, and that’s sad for a country like France. “What attracts young people to Marine Le Pen is her promise to restore French grandeur,” he says. “We will not only have a better economy, but she will make us proud to be French again.”
The young rally participants believe France needs to get back its sovereignty from the EU so it can control its borders and its economy.
That group includes 25-year-old Cedric Beaufort, the son of a woodcutter who grew up in the countryside. He says he has aspirations and wants to move forward, but he hasn’t been able to find a job. Youth unemployment is above the national average in France, hovering around 20 percent. Beaufort says Marine Le Pen is the only one who can change things.
“For me there is no one who can hold a candle to her,” he says. “All the other politicians are just blah blah. Marine is the future.”
The crowd is elated as Le Pen takes the stage at the rally in Metz, where the group of young activists also congregates. Le Pen, the frontrunner in the first round in April, is set to be one of the candidates in the runoff in May. Her promises to restore French jobs, French borders and French pride are met with roars from the crowd.