France’s far right is luring young people like a nimble startup

Fresh faces up front.
Fresh faces up front.
Image: Reuters/Regis Duvignau
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France’s Marine Le Pen is the envy of the far right in Europe. Convincing energetic young voters to embrace staunch conservatives can be a tough sell, but Le Pen enjoys support from almost 40% (paywall) of French voters aged 18-24.

This has been the case for Le Pen’s party, the Front National (FN), throughout the country’s tight presidential race, which comes to a head this month. But in 2012, when Le Pen first ran for president, her support among voters under age 25 was around 15%. The dramatic upswing is a testament to Le Pen’s ruthless strategy to rebrand her party to appeal to the young.

France’s double-digit youth unemployment rate has sullied the image of its mainstream parties among French youth. Its opaque political system, with party candidates chosen behind closed doors, hasn’t helped. Hence the novel decision during this election by both the left and center-right parties to hold open primaries to select their presidential nominees.

Le Pen knows this, and has built a political machine to exploit their weakness. Breaking from the stodginess of party politics in France, the FN has quickly elevated its young members to prominent, visible positions in her campaign. “Whereas with the traditional parties it takes years to work your way up,” political reporter and Le Pen follower Olivier Beaumont told NPR, the FN runs like “a small company looking for people to grow nationwide.”

Under Le Pen’s direction, an army of under-30s have taken up leadership roles (paywall) within the party or been elected to local office. The most prominent is Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, the niece of Marine Le Pen, who at age 22 became France’s youngest MP in modern political history in 2012. Other shining stars include David Rachline, who became mayor of the southeastern commune of Frejus at age 26, and is now Le Pen’s presidential campaign chief. At age 18, Emilie Noé ran for mayor (link in French) of his town in 2014. He lost, but was snatched up as the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Meanwhile, the party’s values have shifted to meet young needs. High youth unemployment—which at 26% is more than three times Germany’s and roughy double the UK’s (paywall)—has been an important launching point for Le Pen’s attacks on immigrants and globalization. At a March rally in Bordeaux, Le Pen said (link in French) French youth were immigration’s “first victims,” because it “drags on wages and breaks the social system.” She has championed women’s rights and purged the party rhetoric of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who routinely slighted Jewish people, the Roma minority, and homosexuality as a “biological and social anomaly.”

“Because she refuses the globalist project and wishes to stay free, the youth are with Marine Le Pen!”

“With the Student Patriots for Marine Le Pen and members of the Student Parliament”

“The youth of France for Marine Le Pen. Here with Gaetan Dussausaye, national director of Young People for Marine, who animates them brilliantly”

The approach has paid off. In 2015, the think tank Institut Diderot (link in French) found 18 to 24-year-olds were more likely than the average voter to believe a Le Pen presidency would result in an improvement in three major issues: security, immigration, and jobs. In regional elections where security has stayed top of mind (paywall), youth have voted accordingly.