A youth revolt boosts the far right bid
The Washington Post
Unemployment rates and discredited establishment lead many to back Le Pen
LA BAZOCHE-GOUET, France — Songbirds flitted among the redbud trees. The wind tickled yellow flowers in fields of rapeseed. The medieval church clock clanged on the hour.
Otherwise all was still in this one-boulangerie town in the French countryside when Marine Le Pen strode to the lectern and, with the unwavering force of a freight train, vowed to save the country on behalf of its forgotten young.
"Our youth are in despair," the 48-year-old thundered. "I will be the voice of the voiceless."
Two-thirds of the way back in an overflow crowd, Adrien Vergnaud knew instantly that the leader of France's far-right National Front was speaking for him. The joblessness, the migrants, the terrorism. She was the only one who cared.
Without her, said the tautly muscled 25-year-old construction worker, his troubled country has "no future." But with the backing of young voters like Vergnaud, Le Pen may become the next president of France.
Populist triumphs in Britain and the United States came last year despite young voters, not because of them. Millennials — generally at ease with immigration, trade and multiculturalism — lined up against both Brexit and Donald Trump. It was older voters who sought to overturn the existing order with nationalist answers to the problems of a globalised world.
But France is a land of youthful revolts, from the 18th century barricades to the fevered university campuses of May 1968. And with youth unemployment stuck at 25 percent, Le Pen's reactionary call to return the country to an era of lost glory by closing borders, exiting the European Union and restoring the national currency has fired the passions of young voters craving radical change.
“We’ve been told our whole lives that everything is set. Free trade. Forgetting our borders. One currency for all of Europe. Nothing can change,” said Gaëtan Dussausaye, the mild-mannered 23-year-old leader of the National Front's youth wing. “But young people don't like this system. This system is a failure.”
The National Front's strength among millennials suggests the populist wave that's unsettled the West may be more durable than many may assume. Far from the last gasp of closed-society older voters who are demographically destined to be outnumbered by a rising tide of cosmopolitan youth, the populist insurgency could continue to build over years and decades if enough disenchanted young voters can be lured by the promise of something new.
The National Front was, until relatively recently, a fringe movement itself, seen by critics as a neo-fascist front filled with racists, anti-Semites and xenophobes and led by the convicted Holocaust denier Jean-Marie Le Pen.
To many older or middle-aged voters, the party's essential DNA remains unaltered, even as it has furiously tried to refashion its image.
“The National Front is trying to make us think they've changed,” said Marie-Thérèse Fortenbach, a 50-year-old who said her half-Congolese heritage has made her a victim of the sort of discriminatory practices the party long preached. “I don't believe it.”
But the young — who have only known the party since Jean-Marie Le Pen's generally more calculating and cautious daughter Marine took over in 2011 — have been easier to convince that the National Front's reputation for extremism is overblown.
The party now boasts the youngest member in both the National Assembly and the Senate. Its student activists can be seen on posh Paris street corners, handing out fliers, and Le Pen has surrounded herself with a coterie of 20- and 30-something advisers. This month she delivered a speech in Bordeaux focused exclusively on youth issues, complete with a plea to her cheering young supporters to “go against the currents of history.”
Although Le Pen is down in hypothetical second-round contests, she enjoys a commanding lead among youngest voters in the 11-candidate first round, polls show. One survey has her winning nearly 40 percent of the vote among those 18 to 24, nearly double the total of her nearest competitor, Emmanuel Macron.
That's all the more surprising because Macron, at 39, is vying to become the youngest president in French history.
But it's consistent with recent results: The last two times voters across France went to the polls — in European elections in 2014, and in regional voting a year later — the National Front triumphed among the young.
“It's a paradox,” said Rémy Oudghiri, a sociologist with Sociovision, a firm that conducts major surveys of French attitudes. “The young overall are open to cultural diversity, open to immigration. But among the youth, there’s a portion that is radicalised, that believes the more we open to the outside world, the more we decline.”
The difference between the two groups, Oudghiri said, is that one hasn’t bothered lately to cast ballots.
“Since only the radicalised youth goes to vote, the FN wins,” he said.
As a former economy minister and investment banker, the pro-EU Macron also struggles with young voters who don’t fit the profile of the successful urban cosmopolitan.
“In France, you have a lot of young people who don’t live in the big cities, who didn’t go to college, who left the education system,” said Jérémie Patrier-Leitus, the 28-year-old leader of one of Macron’s several youth factions. “You have young people who are unemployed, and it’s easy to tell them that’s because an immigrant took their job.”
If Europe’s young defenders have been tough to rouse, its opponents are filled with passionate intensity.
Dussausaye, the head of the National Front’s youth wing, said when he first saw Le Pen speak at a 2011 rally, it “was like Cupid’s arrow” for the then-17-year-old.
The two later bonded, he said, over their desire to seal the country’s borders from mass immigration — and their shared affection for cats.
“She has natural authority, but she’s also very human,” Dussausaye said, gushing from his desk at the party’s suburban Paris headquarters.
His office is decorated with personal photos of Le Pen cuddling her cats - as well as campaign posters, including one of a cafe table overturned in a pool of blood and the phrase “More immigration means more Islamism.”
After Marine Le Pen — a husky-voiced, twice-divorced Generation Xer — the party’s most prominent face is that of a millennial — the leader’s niece, 27-year-old Marion Maréchal-Le Pen.
To critics, she is the unbridled id to her aunt’s disciplined ego. To supporters, she is a modern-day Joan of Arc, defending a country yet again in the midst of a foreign invasion.
Having become in 2012 the youngest person ever elected to the French parliament, her unapologetically hard-line stances have earned her a certain celebrity status in right-wing circles the world over: Sarah Palin confessed a “political crush” on Maréchal-Le Pen, while Trump adviser Stephen Bannon anointed her a “rising star.”
In an interview at her Paris office, Maréchal-Le Pen dismissed the notion that younger French voters — suffering from an unemployment rate more than twice the national average — are gravitating to the party her grandfather founded primarily because of its economic protectionism. Their motives, she insisted, were more cultural than pocketbook.
“The main concern for the youth is the question of immigration,” she said. “They have the feeling that they are being deprived of their own identity. The multicultural model defended by our elite is a model that doesn’t work.”
The National Front’s solution — a dramatic cut in immigration and an end to French participation in Europe’s border-free travel area — has found some unlikely adherents.
In fact, France has received far fewer migrants per capita in recent years than many European nations. The foreign-born share of France’s overall population has risen relatively slowly, amounting to about 12 percent of the country last year — compared with 10 percent in 2000.
Economists also cast doubt on the idea that immigrants undercut the ability of the French to find work, noting that new arrivals often do the jobs that native-born workers refuse.
But the perception of an influx that is harming French workers — especially the young as they try to get their footing in an economy still badly bruised from the Great Recession — has persisted and is a key component of the National Front’s rhetoric.
At her rally in the French countryside town of La Bazoche-Gouet, Le Pen denounced the EU for mandating that every country do its part to resettle refugees. “Where will we put them all?” she asked, prompting a furious round of boos from the 600-strong crowd that had gathered in the town’s wooden-beam, open-air central hall.
Vergnaud, the 25-year-old construction worker, joined in lustily.
“France’s problem is that it’s too generous,” he said after Le Pen had sent her faithful off with an emphatic rendition of “La Marseillaise,” the French national anthem. “We give to the people who are coming into the country, but not to the French.”The old folks may not understand. But to the young, it was all very clear.
“My grandparents are afraid of Le Pen. They say she’s extreme, and that if she’s elected, we might have a war,” said Manon Coudray, a 23-year-old secretary. “I say maybe that’s a good thing.”