PARIS/LYON — Just a few years ago, it was hard to find students willing to admit to being National Front cardholders. When a journalist went looking for members of the FNJ youth movement during the last presidential election campaign, most would agree to speak only if their names were withheld.
Five years on, young activists supporting Marine Le Pen’s election bid say they no longer have anything to hide, as she cruises to an expected first place showing in the first round next month.
“It just provides for lively discussions,” said 21-year-old economics student Corentin Corcelette, who, far from keeping his views secret, says he talks about the rollercoaster presidential election with friends of all political persuasions on campus.
Sitting in the same car as they drove around Lyon to put up “Marine President” posters, 20-year old biology student Remi Berthoux was also happy to give a reporter his name. He joined the FN two years ago, he said proudly, “to defend France’s values.”
Once consigned mainly to the shadows, young National Front supporters have come out into the open, as voters their age have lined up behind Le Pen. Daily polls by firm Ifop consistently show her earning nearly a third of the youth vote in the first round, easily beating any of her opponents, although she is still forecast to lose in a second-round run-off in May.
She fares better among voters under 25 than she does among the population at large, often by a margin as high as 7 percentage points. That is a big reversal from her first bid for the presidency five years ago, when her 15 percent share of the youth vote was around 3 points below her overall tally. Winning over young voters has been an achievement for Le Pen’s campaign to detoxify the National Front brand.
In the past, when the Front’s FNJ youth wing put up posters, “they would do so in the middle of the night,” said Sylvain Crepon, a researcher at the University of Tours who studies the French far right.
“They carried baseball bats to protect themselves and would often be with skinheads,” he said. “Now they can do it in broad daylight, which shows people have grown more accustomed to the FN. It’s become more acceptable.”
There was not a baseball bat or skinhead in sight on the early evening last month when a group of nine clean-cut young men including Corcelette and Berthoux put up Le Pen posters in the streets of Lyon and on its university campus. “We absolutely don’t see ourselves as far right, but as patriots who are disappointed with other parties,” said David Sedoff, a 26-year old warehouse worker.
Demographics are a major difference between the far right surge on the European continent and last year’s rise of populists in Britain and the United States.
US President Donald Trump and the campaign to withdraw Britain from the EU both lost badly among young voters, on their way to victories won with overwhelming support from pensioners.
For Le Pen, the demographics are almost exactly reversed. She performs well among all categories of younger voters: those under 25, under 35 and under 45. Her worst results are among pensioners: the over 65’s are only age group where she consistently trails her rivals in polling for the first round.