LA BAZOCHE-GOUET, France
Songbirds flitted among the redbud trees. The wind tickled yellow flowers in fields of rapeseed. The medieval church clock clanged on the hour.
Otherwise all was still in this one-boulangerie town in the French countryside when Marine Le Pen strode to the lectern and, with the unwavering force of a freight train, vowed to save the country on behalf of its forgotten young.
“Our youth are in despair,” the 48-year-old thundered. “I will be the voice of the voiceless.”
RISING RIGHT: A periodic examination of the people and pressures driving European politics away from the mainstream — and toward the fringe. See more in the series
Two-thirds of the way back in an overflow crowd, Adrien Vergnaud knew instantly that the leader of France’s far-right National Front was speaking for him. The joblessness, the migrants, the terrorism. She was the only one who cared.
Without her, said the tautly muscled 25-year-old construction worker, his troubled country has “no future.”
But with the backing of young voters like Vergnaud, Le Pen may become the next president of France.
As the country hurtles toward the election this spring that could alter the course of European history — the first round is Sunday — Le Pen’s once-longshot and now undeniably viable bid to lead France rests heavily on an unlikely source of support.
Populist triumphs in Britain and the United States came last year despite young voters, not because of them. Millennials — generally at ease with immigration, trade and multiculturalism — lined up against both Brexit and Donald Trump. It was older voters who sought to overturn the existing order with nationalist answers to the problems of a globalized world.
But France is a land of youthful revolts, from the 18th century barricades to the fevered university campuses of May 1968. And with youth unemployment stuck at 25 percent, Le Pen’s reactionary call to return the country to an era of lost glory by closing borders, exiting the European Union and restoring the national currency has fired the passions of young voters craving radical change.
“The National Front is trying to make us think they’ve changed. I don’t believe it.”
“We’ve been told our whole lives that everything is set. Free trade. Forgetting our borders. One currency for all of Europe. Nothing can change,” said Gaëtan Dussausaye, the mild-mannered 23-year-old leader of the National Front’s youth wing. “But young people don’t like this system. This system is a failure.”
The National Front’s strength among millennials suggests the populist wave that’s unsettled the West may be more durable than many may assume. Far from the last gasp of closed-society older voters who are demographically destined to be outnumbered by a rising tide of cosmopolitan youth, the populist insurgency could continue to build over years and decades if enough disenchanted young voters can be lured by the promise of something new.
And across Europe, that’s exactly what far-right movements are attempting. In Germany — a country where the two main parties are led by political veterans in their 60s — the anti-Muslim Alternative for Germany party is run by a fresh-faced 41-year-old. Scandinavian parliaments, meanwhile, are stocked with politicians in their 20s hailing from parties that just a decade ago were consigned to the extremist fringe.
The National Front was, until relatively recently, a fringe movement itself, seen by critics as a neo-fascist front filled with racists, anti-Semites and xenophobes and led by the convicted Holocaust denier Jean-Marie Le Pen.
To many older or middle-aged voters, the party’s essential DNA remains unaltered, even as it has furiously tried to refashion its image.
“The National Front is trying to make us think they’ve changed,” said Marie-Thérèse Fortenbach, a 50-year-old who said her half-Congolese heritage has made her a victim of the sort of discriminatory practices the party long preached. “I don’t believe it.”
But the young — who have only known the party since Jean-Marie Le Pen’s generally more calculating and cautious daughter Marine took over in 2011 — have been easier to convince that the National Front’s reputation for extremism is overblown.
Young volunteers hand out pro-Marine Le Pen literature outside a metro stop in Paris. The National Front leader has a commanding lead among France’s youngest voters in the election's first round, polls show.
The party now boasts the youngest member in both the National Assembly and the Senate. Its student activists can be seen on posh Paris street corners, handing out fliers, and Le Pen has surrounded herself with a coterie of 20- and 30-something advisers. This month she delivered a speech in Bordeaux focused exclusively on youth issues, complete with a plea to her cheering young supporters to “go against the currents of history.”
There are signs they are doing just that.
If Le Pen wins, European leaders fear the disintegration of the E.U. after decades spent trying to bind the continent more closely together. And although she’s down in hypothetical second-round contests, Le Pen enjoys a commanding lead among France’s youngest voters in the 11-candidate first round, polls show. One survey has her winning nearly 40 percent of the vote among those 18 to 24, nearly double the total of her nearest competitor, Emmanuel Macron.
That’s all the more surprising because Macron, at 39, is vying to become the youngest president in French history.
But it’s consistent with recent results: The last two times voters across France went to the polls — in European elections in 2014, and in regional voting a year later — the National Front triumphed among the young.
“It’s a paradox,” said Rémy Oudghiri, a sociologist with Sociovision, a firm that conducts major surveys of French attitudes. “The young overall are open to cultural diversity, open to immigration. But among the youth, there’s a portion that is radicalized, that believes the more we open to the outside world, the more we decline.”
The difference between the two groups, Oudghiri said, is that one hasn’t bothered lately to cast ballots.
French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron campaigns at a printer manufacturing plant in Paris on April 5. Macron, 39, is vying to become the youngest president in French history.
“Since only the radicalized youth goes to vote, the FN wins,” he said.
That dynamic could be especially pronounced this year. Polls show that support for Macron is shallow, with even those who say they back him unsure whether they will actually turn out for a candidate with no formal party affiliation and a platform that seeks to please both the left and right.
As a former economy minister and investment banker, the pro-E.U. Macron also struggles with young voters who don’t fit the profile of the successful urban cosmopolitan.
“In France, you have a lot of young people who don’t live in the big cities, who didn’t go to college, who left the education system,” said Jérémie Patrier-Leitus, the 28-year-old leader of one of Macron’s several youth factions. “You have young people who are unemployed, and it’s easy to tell them that’s because an immigrant took their job.”
Macron has taken the opposite tack, trying to convince France’s disgruntled youth that immigration is good for the country and that the E.U. is worth saving. It’s a pitch, Patrier-Leitus acknowledged, that doesn’t always bring crowds to their feet — or voters to the polls.
“Europe has strong opponents, but very weak supporters,” said Patrier-Leitus, who regularly travels between Paris and his job at a French cultural center in New York. “We didn’t realize how fragile Europe really was.”
If Europe’s young defenders have been tough to rouse, its opponents are filled with passionate intensity.
Dussausaye, the head of the National Front’s youth wing, said when he first saw Le Pen speak at a 2011 rally, it “was like Cupid’s arrow” for the then-17-year-old.
The two later bonded, he said, over their desire to seal the country’s borders from mass immigration — and their shared affection for cats.
“She has natural authority, but she’s also very human,” Dussausaye said, gushing from his desk at the party’s suburban Paris headquarters.
His office is decorated with personal photos of Le Pen cuddling her cats — as well as campaign posters, including one of a cafe table overturned in a pool of blood and the phrase “More immigration means more Islamism.”
After Marine Le Pen — a husky-voiced, twice-divorced Generation Xer — the party’s most prominent face is that of a millennial — the leader’s niece, 27-year-old Marion Maréchal-Le Pen.
To critics, she is the unbridled id to her aunt’s disciplined ego. To supporters, she is a modern-day Joan of Arc, defending a country yet again in the midst of a foreign invasion.
Having become in 2012 the youngest person ever elected to the French parliament, her unapologetically hard-line stances have earned her a certain celebrity status in right-wing circles the world over: Sarah Palin confessed a “political crush” on Maréchal-Le Pen, while Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon anointed her a “rising star.”
In an interview at her Paris office, Maréchal-Le Pen dismissed the notion that younger French voters — suffering from an unemployment rate more than twice the national average — are gravitating to the party her grandfather founded primarily because of its economic protectionism. Their motives, she insisted, were more cultural than pocketbook.
“The main concern for the youth is the question of immigration,” she said. “They have the feeling that they are being deprived of their own identity. The multicultural model defended by our elite is a model that doesn’t work.”
The National Front’s solution — a dramatic cut in immigration and an end to French participation in Europe’s border-free travel area — has found some unlikely adherents.
A refugee from Sudan who identified himself as Mohamed (he declined to give his full name) walks into a thicket in Calais, France, on April 1. Marine Le Pen has denounced the European Union's mandate for member states to help resettle refugees.
Davy Rodriguez, 23, is deputy leader of the party’s youth wing and a student at Paris’s Sciences Po, one of the most prestigious universities in France.
He’s also the son of immigrants. His mother is Portuguese, his father is Spanish.
Davy Rodriguez — whose Twitter page features a tableau of soldiers charging into battle behind a tattered French tri-color — now spends his days and nights campaigning to dramatically tighten, if not close, the borders his parents crossed decades ago to begin their lives in France.
To Rodriguez, there’s no contradiction between his life story and his politics: When his parents came to France, the country needed more workers. Today, he said, it doesn’t, but it’s being inundated nonetheless.
“We can’t accept what [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel is doing to our country — to our national identity — by putting migrants all over the countryside,” he said while sitting at an outdoor cafe in St. Germain, the famously bookish quarter of Paris’s Left Bank. “The E.U. is destroying Europe with mass immigration.”
In fact, France has received far fewer migrants per capita in recent years than many European nations. The foreign-born share of France’s overall population has risen relatively slowly, amounting to about 12 percent of the country last year — compared with 10 percent in 2000.
Economists also cast doubt on the idea that immigrants undercut the ability of the French to find work, noting that new arrivals often do the jobs that native-born workers refuse.
But the perception of an influx that is harming French workers — especially the young as they try to get their footing in an economy still badly bruised from the Great Recession — has persisted and is a key component of the National Front’s rhetoric.
Marine Le Pen visits a pig farm in Pordic, France, on March 30. Le Pen has been campaigning heavily in rural areas, where she is enjoying widespread support.
At her rally in the French countryside town of La Bazoche-Gouet, Le Pen denounced the E.U. for mandating that every country do its part to resettle refugees.
“Where will we put them all?” she asked, prompting a furious round of boos from the 600-strong crowd that had gathered in the town’s wooden-beam, open-air central hall.
Vergnaud, the 25-year-old construction worker, joined in lustily.
“My grandparents are afraid of Le Pen. They say she’s extreme, and that if she’s elected, we might have a war. I say maybe that’s a good thing.”
Manon Coudray, a 23-year-old secretary
“France’s problem is that it’s too generous,” he said after Le Pen had sent her faithful off with an emphatic rendition of “La Marseillaise,” the French national anthem. “We give to the people who are coming into the country, but not to the French.”
His arms swathed in elaborate tattoos, Vergnaud said he’s not normally the type to attend political rallies. But he and four friends, all in their 20s, had driven a half-hour from their own small town because they see Le Pen as the last hope for a country at risk of collapse.
The problems are everywhere Vergnaud looks: The companies that are leaving. The farms that are failing. The people who are dying in mass-casualty terrorist attacks. The mosque that’s gone up in his town, right next to the church.
“I live near the Muslims. They don’t work. They just take what they’re given by the government,” he said.
But they’re also taking French jobs, he argued minutes later. “I work mostly with foreigners — people from Turkey,” he said.
Among the five friends, there was no doubt that Le Pen is their savior — the only one who would bother coming to their picturesque but decaying slice of countryside, the only one willing to fight back against the immigrants who they say are jeopardizing France’s future — and their own.
The old folks may not understand. But to the young, it was all very clear.
“My grandparents are afraid of Le Pen. They say she’s extreme, and that if she’s elected, we might have a war,” said Manon Coudray, a 23-year-old secretary. “I say maybe that’s a good thing.”
A woman holds a French flag as she walks to a campaign event being held by Marine Le Pen in La Trinité-Porhoët on March 30. Le Pen's National Front has polled strongly among young voters in elections in 2014 and 2015.