A party with no past, just a future?
Marine Le Pen is using young people to airbrush her party’s history. But why are so many attracted to the far right?
They are called Jordan, Bruno, François and Jimmy. They are 20-years-old and have decided to join France’s far-right National Front (FN), led by Marine Le Pen. They are the party’s new faces, its friendly showcase. These youths have become the party’s main strategic tool, smoothing its image and transforming it into an acceptable political party. Le Pen does not hesitate to push them onto the front lines, ensuring their names are high up in organisation charts and asking them to lead local election campaigns.
She uses them to ensure the French forget the party’s embarrassing past and the legacy of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. It is as if the party has no history but only a future.
My book, entitled 20 Ans et au Front (20 and at the Front) is an in-depth investigation of these young activists from across France. Why did they decide to push open the door of such a party? What are their social and moral values? What background do they come from? Are they representative of a disenfranchised French and European youth?
Their political commitment is no longer a taboo. Not so long ago supporting the FN was something you would keep quiet but those days are over. These young people do not hide. They are perfectly happy to have their names quoted in newspapers. They are proud of their affiliation. And they are also perfectly aware of being used to clean up the FN’s image.
Twenty-nine-year-old Mathilde Androuët says: “I know that my image is a peaceful one, I am smiley and I am short.” Twenty-five-year-old Raphaël Quinart, who is an elected representative in a city near Paris, said he waited before telling anybody he was a member of the FN: “I did not want to cause any prejudice to the party and I did not want to harm the FN’s image nor mine.”
This faith in their choices is crucial, especially for a generation that often feels humiliated, derided and threatened by globalisation. These young FN recruits need rules and are in search of an identity. The FN knows how to reassure them. In an increasingly complex world, which is harder to decipher, it is appealing with its unequivocal approach, pinpointing adversaries, and offering simple explanations for just about everything. The ideas are easily assimilated and reproduced. This lack of doubt is precious and strengthens their resolve.
Le Pen’s political movement offers them a collective identity. They are 'patriots'. During meetings, they chant: “On est chez nous! On est chez nous!” (“We are at home!”). They know how to define themselves, particularly in opposition to others, such as foreign citizens. Young militants defend the idea, like their elders, of reserving some rights only for the French. This programme is called “national priority”.
But what these young people have found in the FN is also an individual identity, a place within a community. Here, thanks to the party, they are no longer feeling lonely or isolated. “I don’t cry anymore, asking myself what I’m doing with my life. Now, I know why I am tired and why I wake up early in the morning,” a 29-year-old woman said. They have found in the party a “family”, giving them a sense of safety, affection and structure. They like their close-knit group, which is reinforced by the idea that the world around them is hostile.
They practice a comforting and gratifying political activism that allows them to grow and project into the future. It is a world of its own that exists not only during election campaigns but all year long. “We are permanently campaigning,” said FN activists in northern France.
For these young people, becoming a member of the FN is also a way to rebel. The party satisfies their need for rebellion in a world and in a country that does not promise a bright future. Some of them imagine they are carrying a personal revolution that they present as a reaction to the cultural victory of May 1968. But these young recruits also confess their need for authority in France and for themselves. They demand rules and a framework. Their need for protection and safety is met by a party which has a high degree of hierarchy and worships its leader. They feel reassured by a political line that claims it defends society’s weakest and those who do not get noticed, 'les invisibles'.
This is particularly true in the way the FN positions itself with regard to the European Union. Those who hate Brussels’ so-called 'magma', dream of borders and protection. The FN’s Europhobia appeals to young people who are distrustful of Europe and find traditional parties, whether on the left or right, too moderate in these matters.
French parties, moreover, appear unattractive and unwelcoming. They are perceived as weak when it comes to European affairs and not interested in giving young people a chance. “In other parties, young people are only used to stick up posters and give out pamphlets,” explained a former member of a French centre-right party who had left to join the FN because he felt nobody cared about what he had to say. He feels comfortable with Le Pen’s populism, which in his view, is different from the traditional far right: “Extreme right is the place for anti-establishment activity. As far as we are concerned, we want power.”
Charlotte Rotman is a former journalist at Libération and the author of 20 Ans et au Front : Les Nouveaux Visages du FN