LYON, France — It was 11pm on Saturday night and around 200 young French nationalists had gathered at La Traboule, a bar in Lyon's old town known for hosting the city's far-right youth.
The formerly fringe National Front party was holding its convention nearby, and as the night went on, several key figures would make an appearance.
Around 30 young people stood at the bar at the top of a staircase, smoking and chatting. Three activists with the nationalist youth group Génération Identitaire, easily identifiable thanks to their distinctive yellow jackets, worked the door.
The party was barely getting started, but the venue, opened in April 2011 by French nativists, those who want greater rights for "native inhabitants" over immigrants, was quite full. At the back of the bar, activists set up a stall to sell merchandise, where a well-known figure among the US alt-right took center stage: Pepe the Frog.
Among the youthful crowd were three people in their sixties who had made the trip to Lyon from Paris to attend the National Front’s convention and wore its entry passes proudly around their necks. Two recalled their younger days in the GUD, a far-right student group to which several French lawmakers from the center-right Republican party also once belonged.
One of the older men wasn’t in the GUD – "at that time, I went to exterminate the rats in Africa!" he said, referring to France’s attempts to end Algeria’s bid for independence. The trio laughed, then left to go to bed early in order not to miss the second day of the convention, when Marine Le Pen, the head of the party, was due to give her speech.
Of the nearly 200 people BuzzFeed News counted at the party, at most 20 were women. The average age of attendees was around 25, and the youngest present were no older than 18. We struck up a conversation with T and F*. T is a tax officer in the Lyon area and a member of the National Front; F is Irish, but lives in Rhône, studying for a professional degree. The two hit it off fast.
"I see it every day,” T said of his work as a tax officer. “There are of course French people among those who pay the least amount in taxes. But well, the great majority, they have Arabic names."
"It’s not Emmanuel ‘Macrouille’ who’s going to get us rid of them!" he said, mocking Emmanuel Macron, the independent candidate from the left, with a racist portmanteau of Macron's name and a derogatory term for North Africans in France.
F agreed, saying the situation "is the same" in Ireland. He complained about the "10,000 Muslims whom come to Ireland."
”Everyone hates Arabs," he continued.
"Nowadays, we dare not talk of extermination, so we say remigration!”
“Ha, turns out Stalin's methods weren't all bad!” T said, punctuating his sentence with a quick Nazi salute. The gesture was brief and nobody appeared to notice it, but T's arm and hand were clearly outstretched.
An hour later, the tax officer made a revelation as three colleagues listened while smoking their cigarettes: “Six generations back, I have a Jew [in my family]!”
“He is going to ask you for five cents!” one of his compatriots yelled. “European Jew, now!” T chided.
“Yeah, but on the mother's side?”
“Um, yes it is on the mother's side,” he acknowledged.
“But always on the mother's side?”
“Oh shit, then you are sick!”
“To the oven!”
The group laughed, and T spilled some of his beer. One of his friends quipped in response: "Be careful, he's going to ask you for money!"
It wasn't just right-wing youth at the party that night — high-level members of Marine Le Pen's close-knit inner circle also made an appearance. At around midnight Frédéric Chatillon and Axel Loustau arrived. Chatillon is one of Le Pen’s closest friends, having helped paved the way for her presidential run in secret; he’s also tight with some of France’s most prominent anti-Semites. Loustau is now a member of the Paris region’s local parliament. Both are under investigation for irregularities in the party’s 2012 campaign financing.
They were accompanied by Nicolas Crochet, a close friend of Chatillon's who was named in the Panama Papers scandal via his connection with the Riwal company, which provided campaign material for the National Front. (Crochet never spoke out to confirm or deny whether he actually held offshore bank accounts, as implied in the leaked papers.) They shook hands, chatted, laughed, and drank.
"Ah, they came!" shouted a young activist holding a beer. They were joined a bit later by Damien Rieu, former leader of the Generation Identitaire. Rieu now works for Le Pen’s niece, National Front MP Marion Maréchal-Le Pen. They seemed at home at the bar, judging by the handshakes they doled out.
In a corner, Arnaud Delrieux, the current president of Generation Identitaire, excitedly told those around him that that the date for his trial would be set soon. Delrieux — whose fellow Génération Identitaire members occupied the roof of a Poitiers mosque in 2012 as part of the fight against what they call the “islamization of France” — has been indicted for "complicity in theft, degradation, and incitement to racial hatred."
"The civil parties are the UOIF [Union of the Islamic Organizations of France] and the CCIF [Collective Against Islamophobia in France] of Marwan,” he explained to his audience. “It's perfect, the sons of France against the Muslim brothers! That's a great platform for us!"
The bar's speakers played French music and politically active singer Renaud’s voice echoed onto the stone walls. T, the tax officer, despite being fiercely "anti-leftist," listened to Renaud with pleasure.
"Renaud, it's like [singer Jean] Ferrat,” he told his friends. “Politically, it's unforgivable, but musically it's magnificent. Just as some hate Louis-Ferdinand Céline [a famous French writer who was anti-Semitic], except that for Céline, there is nothing to forgive."
He and his friend don't understand the "leftists’ obsession with multiculturalism."
"You don’t need 5 million Arabs to eat couscous!" one of T's friends said, with the air of a person announcing a self-evident fact. "You buy chicken, semolina and there you go! Just like you don't need 5 million Japanese at home to eat sushi.”
“Although if I had to choose, I prefer millions of Japanese,” the young man said. ”At least they are a great people."
Contacted by BuzzFeed News about the comments heard at the party, Damien Rieu simply said that he no longer held any responsibilities with Génération Identitaire. A source close to the group, speaking on the condition of anonymity, assured BuzzFeed France that such behavior is not usually tolerated by Génération Identitaire. Neither Axel Loustau or Génération Identitaire responded to requests for comment from BuzzFeed News.
On Sunday night, the day after the party, the management of La Traboule, the host venue, told BuzzFeed News in an email, "We condemn the potential provocative behaviors which are not a part of the culture in nativist establishments and of the nativist movement.
"It is possible that the two misconducts noted by your fake participant escaped the vigilance of La Traboule's leadership team, which is unfortunately not equipped with an Orwellian surveillance system for conversations. When such facts are noted, the definitive exclusion from the premises is systematic. That was by the way unfortunately the case for three external visitors this weekend, which is a tiny minority that would therefore certainly not represent the totality of the participants in the party nor its organizers."
*We have modified both persons' names. The sound present in the video was recorded using a discreet microphone.
This post was translated from French.
Listen to some of what BuzzFeed France overheard in the original French here:
Damien Rieu works for Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, who is Marine Le Pen's niece. A previous version of this post misidentified her relationship to Marine Le Pen. An earlier version of this post also referred to Celine Dion, the Canadian chanteuse, due to an editing error during the translation process.