All of the major political parties in France have youth wings, but the National Rally remains particularly concentrated on attracting young people, training them, promoting them to leadership positions, and encouraging them to run for office. It does this with an eye towards expanding its base and recruiting youth like Ferreira and her ambitious, well-educated peers in and around Paris—a population usually thought more likely to sympathize with the students of 1968 or the people who took to the streets to protest systemic racism this summer than with a party best known for anti-Semitism, nationalism, and xenophobia. But the next generation of the French radical right lives outside of the stereotype of National Rally voters as rural, less educated, older, and male. Instead, many of its dedicated organizers and future leaders reside in universities at the center of a city widely associated with protests, strikes, and revolution, antagonizing that centuries-long history from the inside.
The next generation of the French radical right lives outside of the stereotype of National Rally voters.
Founded in 1972 by Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine Le Pen’s father, the National Rally has historically attracted men, both very young and very old, and been most notorious for the elder Le Pen’s Holocaust denial, hate crime accusations, and flirtations with Nazism. When Marine Le Pen took control of the party in 2011, she sought to change that image and professionalize the party. With her “de-demonization” strategy, she saw results fairly quickly: In 2014, the party began experiencing gains in municipal, regional, and European Parliament elections. Last year, the National Rally beat Macron’s party in elections for the European Parliament, riding a wave of anti-elite sentiment embodied by the Yellow Vest protest movement that rocked the country for months. The party’s 2018 name change was part of Le Pen’s larger strategy to distance herself from her father, whose reputation is seen as beyond salvageable. The presence of well-groomed students from elite universities, too, fits nicely into that strategy.
They also expressed blatantly nationalistic and Islamophobic views, remnants of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s party that remain hallmarks of the National Rally today.
These votes have names: There was Manon Bouquin, head of student life for Generation Nation and completing a Master’s degree in history at the Sorbonne when I met her in 2018. Growing up in Normandy, in northwestern France, she’d never had time for politics and her family wasn’t particularly political. “I never demonized the National Front,” she told me. “And when Marine Le Pen was denounced on television, I thought she was really courageous.” Then she moved to Paris and started university. Suddenly, she had time to think—and then came a series of terrorist attacks in 2015 and 2016, which triggered a “crisis of conscience” for her and a nationwide rise in Islamophobia and anti-Muslim attacks that continues today. (Some of the terrorist attacks occurred in Saint-Denis, the suburb where Ferreira went to school.) “It was really something for us Parisians. It was horrible at that time. We wanted to do something and for me, it was this political engagement,” Bouquin said.
“We wanted to do something and for me, it was this political engagement.”
Éric found Le Pen’s speeches online and was intrigued. In 2015, he saw a post on her Facebook page calling on supporters to meet in Paris on May Day. He’d gone to one New Anticapitalist Party event. He figured it was only fair to go to one National Rally event. There, thirteen years after he’d watched his family members put aside their disparate opinions to join the republican front against Jean-Marie Le Pen, Éric cemented his interest in the National Rally. “I had no regrets. Everybody sang. Everybody took arms singing the Marseillaise. It was amazing. And then I began to be really interested.”Éric told me this story in 2018, when he was the leader of Generation Nation’s Paris branch. (He once lost a job due to his political affiliation and agreed to speak on the condition that I only publish his last initial.) Among the Generation Nation members I interviewed, Éric stood out: He adhered more closely to the mold of a classic radical right supporter. His leadership position, however, allowed him insight into how the party was actively working to appeal to the other young activists I was meeting, who did not fit so neatly into that mold.“A lot of young people unconsciously go to the left at first, but when they begin to work, begin to see the real problems of life—taxes, etcetera—they begin to change their minds,” he argued. “People have their little life, little apartment, have their dogs and the TV and a beer and have completely lost their minds. And that’s a real tragedy. If people are conscious of the problems, they generally vote for us. And when they listen to too much TV or to the mainstream media, they are completely brainwashed.”“I think we attract [young people] today because we are anti-establishment, with the media, with the state,” he continued. He emphasized something Ponelle and others had brought up: taking action. “We are still active, almost every weekend on the streets giving out flyers or gluing posters, and a lot of parties don’t do that.” He also stressed the role of social media and how effectively Generation Nation engages young people online through memes and video content.Organizing in Paris presents additional challenges. Bouquin, Generation Nation’s head of student life when we spoke, emphasized how the party works to appeal to young Parisians. “It’s more difficult here than in the provinces … because it’s a city with a very cosmopolitan culture,” Bouquin told me. “We have a following that is very working-class, who are workers, farmers, etcetera.” But, she said, “We’re a party that tries to adapt to the local issues. So in Paris, we don’t talk about agriculture, of course. We talk about pollution. We talk about ecology. We talk about problems with illegal immigrants. We talk about housing policies, social policies. In Brittany [a western region known for farming], we talk about agriculture.”Young people, she said, “can have a fascination with responsibility,” and the National Rally is “a party that truly puts young people at the front,” showing them a clear path from joining to taking on more responsibility, doing media appearances, interacting with party leaders, and progressing to leadership roles or elected office.The last time I saw Éric was in 2019, when the Yellow Vest protest movement was still going strong. He was thinking about how to channel that energy into National Rally votes in upcoming elections for the European Parliament. By then, Dussausaye, whom I’d met when he was leading Generation Nation, had progressed to a member of the party’s National Council. A year later, in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, Ponelle, at 24 years old, represented the National Rally in municipal elections in Paris and became Generation Nation’s Secretary General, its second-highest position, while still pursuing a law degree. Boury, at age 22, represented the party in Valentigney, near the Swiss border in eastern France, in the same elections. Falcon, now 22, became the communications manager for the National Rally’s Val-de-Marne chapter, just south of Paris, and attends business school; he started a company that advises clients on digital communication. Éric is in charge of training activists in Generation Nation’s Île-de-France chapter, the region including Paris and its suburbs. And in those 2019 elections, then-23-year-old Jordan Bardella, who succeeded Dussausaye as the leader of Generation Nation, won a seat in the European Parliament. Now, at age 25, he is Marine Le Pen’s second in command and the party’s vice-president. Another political career nurtured at rapid speed by the National Rally’s youth wing, he is laying out a blueprint for the right-wing French youth queued up behind him.
“Everybody took arms singing the Marseillaise. It was amazing. And then I began to be really interested.”