PARIS — Last Wednesday, one week after the attack on Charlie Hebdo devastated France, around 40 people, most in their late teens and twenties, crammed into a small room filled with books to hear a lecture. Albert Salon, a former French diplomat who is an ardent defender of the French language, was holding forth on the importance of preserving French in the face of English. The rapt audience asked questions like “How should we react to the Americanization of the culture?” On a table next to Salon lay bumper stickers and flyers with slogans like “No to colonial English!” and “In France, we speak French!” A poster on the wall depicted Marianne, the symbol of the French Republic.
The headquarters of the Paris branch of the National Front, France’s ascendant nativist party, hosts these meetings every Wednesday, and each week features a different speaker or debate. Sometimes top party officials come. After Salon finished his nearly two-hour-long lecture, most of the crowd stuck around having a drink or leaning out the door to smoke. Three school friends — Eve Froger, 18, Margaux Leborgne, 19, and Paola Mangano, 18 — milled about. You might not guess from looking at them, but all three young girls are frontistes.
“I’ve always had these ideas,” Froger said. The Front National gave her somewhere to fit them. At first, when Leborgne got to college she didn’t admit openly that she was a member. “I didn’t say I was, because I was afraid they would react badly,” she said, referring to other students. “But when I said it, nothing changed.”
“I think it’s totally normal” to be a member of the party, said Marie-Anaëlle Pampouille, 26, a nanny who is running for a local office on a National Front ticket and who said she registered as a member of the Front a year ago. “Young people have less and less shame about it.”
These young people are the future of a movement that, in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 17, could be on the verge of bursting out of the fringe of French politics and into the mainstream. The leaders of the National Front (Front National in French) — founded in 1972 by the far-right politician Jean-Marie Le Pen, and today led by his charismatic daughter, Marine Le Pen — feel vindicated by the events, having warned for years about Islamist terror in France. The National Front advocates a strict anti-immigration border policy and argues that it’s impossible to assimilate new immigrants in a climate of continuing mass immigration. It does this so vehemently that many in France and beyond view the party as simply xenophobic and anti-Muslim. Jean-Marie Le Pen has a long history of offensive and provocative statements, from calling the Nazi’s gas chambers a “detail” in the history of World War II to advocating that people with HIV be imprisoned in special facilities.
Now, the image of the National Front is starting to change. Marine Le Pen has largely avoided the kind of forthrightly intolerant comments her father is famous for, and she is a savvy public figure, the Rand Paul to Jean-Marie’s Ron. The party has seen some of its positions leaking into the mainstream, and even into the left. For example, after the Charlie Hebdo attack, Socialist politician Jean-Marc Germain said that France must re-examine the Schengen zone — the policy of border-free travel within most of Europe, a position that the Front, which wants to remove France from the Schengen area of border-free travel entirely, has held for years. Le Pen has deftly kept herself in the center of the French political conversation during the crisis, announcing that she would not attend the massive unity rally in Paris after French President François Hollande did not invite her. On Sunday night, the New York Times published an op-ed by her, both in English and French, slamming the French government for what she perceives as its unwillingness to clearly name radical Islam as the reason for the attack. “Now the French people, as if a single person, must put pressure on their leaders so that these days in January will not have been in vain,” Le Pen wrote. “From France’s tragedy must spring hope for real change.”
Electorally, the Front has seen concrete successes, taking 25% of the vote for the European Parliament elections last year, claiming 12 mayoralties in last year’s municipal elections, and gaining two seats in the Senate this past year. Marine Le Pen doesn’t poll like an oddball fringe candidate either. A much-cited poll from February showed that 34% of French people agree with the National Front’s ideas, and the numbers indicated that more and more people have started supporting the Front since Marine took over. The number of people who say they share the Front’s ideas has shot up since Marine took charge; polls showed that only 18% responded that way in 2010, the year before her election. Twenty-nine percent of respondents in a November poll said they would vote for Le Pen if the election were held that week, putting her ahead of former President Nicolas Sarkozy and current President Hollande. If these numbers hold up, Le Pen is likely to make it to the second round of the 2017 presidential election, like her father did in 2002.
Encouraging poll numbers, a changing, more youthful image, and a fearful political and economic climate: These are the ingredients the National Front needs for a breakout moment. And it has them.
“First, we’re very sorry about these events,” Wallerand de Saint Just, the National Front’s treasurer and a member of its executive bureau, told BuzzFeed News in an interview last week at his office in the party’s Paris branch. “Second, we predicted them. We’ve said that this was going to happen.”
Saint Just said that the party had seen an explosion of interest in the days following the attacks on the newspaper Charlie Hebdo and on a kosher market.
“We think that, naturally, the French are going to turn to us,” he said. “Since Wednesday, the number of requests to join the Front National has exploded. Since Thursday, it’s three times as many as usual. We had to have a whole team during the weekend, Saturday and Sunday, for answering the phone and registering new members, while normally they don’t work [on weekends].”
Saint Just, who wore a chèvaliere ring signifying that he comes from a noble family, bemoaned the “bourgeois” nature of the unity march that drew millions to the streets the weekend after the attacks. “The working classes of France didn’t come to this demonstration, neither in Paris nor in the other cities of France.” An estimated 3.7 million people marched all over France that Sunday.
(Just a few months before the march, in September, Saint Just was in Moscow to get a nearly 10 million euro loan from a Russian bank. Saint Just defended the loan, pointing out that the party needs money and saying he had no idea if the Russian government had been aware of the loan. “In any case, why not?” he said. “If you know a bank in Washington that can give me a loan, I’ll borrow right away.”)
Louis Aliot, a vice president of the National Front and Marine Le Pen’s partner, agreed. “There are more calls, more visits to the site. For example the video that Marine Le Pen did the day of the attacks was viewed more than 2 million times, and that had never been the case.”
<a href="http://bit.ly/1AO2Ebt" target="_blank">View Video ›</a> Le Pen's response to the attacks
Marine Le Pen / Via facebook.com
For Aliot, a native of the south of France where support for the Front is strongest, the increased interest is even more remarkable considering the “anti-National Front propaganda” that he thinks is regularly distributed in the French press. Part of this, he said, is how the party handled the days after the attack, including choosing not to go to the unity rally where Le Pen was not invited.
“We made the right decision and we handled the events with sangfroid and with respect for the victims,” he said.
“The telephone is ringing all day at Front National,” said Florian Philippot, the party’s vice president in charge of strategy and communication and one of Le Pen’s closest deputies.
Philippot, a graduate of France’s elite HEC business school who began his political career on the left working for the 2002 presidential campaign of Eurosceptic former Socialist Jean-Pierre Chevènement, thinks that now is the moment when French people will blame their mainstream political parties for the tragedy and turn toward the Front.
He called it a “huge error” that France’s two main parties, the center-right Union Pour Un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) and the Socialist Party (PS), “refuse to talk about Islamism and Islamist terror.”
“You have to call things what they are,” he said. “We’re now a big party in the government. We’re the only real alternative for changing politics.”
The Front’s ideas, once deemed extreme, are now even appearing in the French political mainstream, which has by and large not confronted problems of immigration and assimilation head-on.
Aliot cited a Socialist party politician, Malek Boutih, who recently declared that corrupt local politicians had sided with the “Islamo-Nazis” and were allowing them to continue unchecked. “These are things we’ve been saying for 30 years,” Aliot said. “And yet we’re called racists because of that.”
That doesn’t seem to be a charge that many inside the party fear. Saint Just said other parties “try to take our measures” but “each time they want to take these actions, they are accused of racism. They’re very afraid of this accusation — that’s what’s preventing them.”
Now, the movement is looking to grow.
Attracting young people has been essential in making over its image as a reactionary party of old men. It also provides it with thousands of activists — the French word for them is “militants” — who are energetically engaged.
“I’ve been receiving an enormous amount of messages from young people who want to meet us.”
The leader of the Front’s youth movement, Gaëtan Dussausaye, is a clean-cut 20-year-old who has his own office at the Front’s national headquarters in Nanterre, west of Paris. If it weren’t for the Gauloises he smoked, Dussausaye would seem like a college Republican. His explanation of how he ended up in the Front recalls the criticisms that American conservatives make of college campuses. “I didn’t necessarily want to participate in a political party; I was more interested in the debate of ideas and philosophy,” Dussausaye said. “What happened is that I arrived at university and realized that this democratic debate couldn’t happen.” Dussausaye blamed a “left-extreme left syndicate” for the fact that “debate didn’t exist.”
“When I understood that in France and particularly in French universities there was no longer the possibility to have and participate in a democratic debate, I said to myself that’s too bad, I’m going to join a political party,” he said. “I was already a big sympathizer of the National Front.”
Dussausaye worked his way up the ranks of the Parisian branch of the National Front de la Jeunesse (FNJ), the youth movement, and became the leader of the whole organization in October.
Today, Dussausaye says he helms an organization that has 25,000 activists, and that more are joining up.
“I’ve been receiving an enormous amount of messages from young people who want to meet us, who want to know our project and program, and who want to be activists on our side,” he said.
Dussausaye argues that it’s now become socially acceptable to support the Front, and that people are no longer afraid of being open adherents, whereas before people might have been scared of being labeled a fascist or a racist during the tenure of Jean-Marie Le Pen, who has often shocked France during his decades in politics.
“Already there’s been this process of de-demonization that was started by the election of Marine Le Pen to the presidency of the movement” in 2011, he said. “The de-demonization, it’s not changing our ideas, it’s just insisting to the media to look at us as we are, not as they want us to be.”
Le Pen’s policy of dédiabolisation, or “de-demonization,” is a conscious effort to spruce up the party’s image, giving it a friendlier, more politically correct face than the one shown by the old guard.
Frontistes’ politics can be confusing from a U.S. perspective. While the party is lumped on the “far right” vis-à-vis Europe as a whole, economically some of its ideas mirror those of U.S. liberals, and individual members can often express views that seem rather left wing. At a bar after the youth meeting at the Paris office, Charles and Arthur, two twentysomething Front members, peppered BuzzFeed News with questions about U.S. politics. They found the Monica Lewinsky scandal mystifying and expressed a reverence for Americans’ patriotic nature. They proudly stated that they’re fans of the anti-Semitic French comedian Dieudonné, who they don’t view as a true bigot. But they also expressed concern about the influence of lobbies in American politics, particularly AIPAC, viewing money in politics and the concept of lobbying in general as anti-democratic. The movement has an uncomfortable history with anti-Semitism, with Jean-Marie Le Pen’s statements about the Holocaust, or when he accused Jacques Chirac of being on the payroll of Jewish organizations. But a focus on getting money out of politics and reducing Israel’s influence is something one hears in the U.S. all the time — from progressives.
The party’s positions are a mix of issues that would be considered conservative in the U.S., like increasing the defense budget and building more prisons, and some that would be considered left, like being against the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.
“There are many people who were extreme left who left to join the FN,” said Raphael Liogier, a French academic who is the author of a 2013 book Ce populisme qui vient (“The coming populism”) that takes a critical look at the Front and other populist parties in Europe.
The Front “are not crazy and they’re very rational people. They became rational with people like Florian Philippot,” said Liogier.
In Liogier’s view, the National Front’s focus on cherished French precepts like laïcité, or the French notion of secularism, is hollow: “It’s part of our patrimony to defend, but [Le Pen] doesn’t care about what’s inside it. It’s like defending the castle of Versailles or the virginity of Joan of Arc. You need to defend it but don’t care about what’s inside it.”
Still, it’s working, in part because Europeans are being hit by an identity crisis and an economic crisis at the same time.
“It’s not just an economic crisis; it’s like in the ‘30s in Germany,” Liogier said. “The economic crisis of ‘29 existed everywhere, even in the U.S. But Hitler was only in Germany. Why? Because there was the war before and the complete humiliation of Germany, and people felt humiliated and inferior. And Europeans feel that at the moment.”
“She wants to distinguish herself from her father,” Checcaglini said. “But she’s much more dangerous than her father.”