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.”
Le Pen's response to the attacks
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.
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.”
“So when you have someone who’s a populist and says I’ll defend you, your values, and what you are, that’s right we’re in a culture war, that works,” he said. “And you’re not in the margin anymore, if you were supposed to be extreme right. And you go in the center of the political field. And it’s exactly what happened with Marine Le Pen. She needs the fear, she needs the collective anguish.”
The de-demonization process hasn’t gone without bumps. In 2011, the journalist Claire Checcaglini went undercover for eight months as a Front activist in the Hauts-de-Seine area where the party is based. Checcaglini’s resulting book, Welcome to the Front, contained serious accusations about racism and anti-Muslim sentiment among Front members. She told BuzzFeed News that a top activist posted a video by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke on a Front site and was not punished by the organization, and that she attended an event in Nice where an adviser to Marine Le Pen praised the Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson during dinner, and where some of the activists joked about killing Muslims.
Checcaglini said she went one night to the house of a top FN member who is close with the Le Pen family and who is the “typical profile of someone who supports Jean-Marie Le Pen.” And in his dining room, she said, he had a portrait of Maréchal Petain, the leader of the wartime Vichy government, who collaborated with the Nazis. “I looked at it the whole evening.”
The party sued Checcaglini for attributing anti-Muslim comments to Marine Le Pen, but the suit was later dismissed (though the party says it is appealing). Checcaglini has been criticized for going undercover to write the book.
She is a skeptic of Le Pen’s de-demonization process, which she has called a “façade” in past interviews.
“From what I saw in the National Front, I can’t say that it’s no longer a party of the extreme right,” Checcaglini told BuzzFeed News. “Unfortunately, Marine Le Pen’s ideas are becoming banal. But that doesn’t mean that the ideas themselves are banal.”
As for Le Pen, “She wants to distinguish herself from her father,” Checcaglini said. “But she’s much more dangerous than her father.”
Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, is 86 years old. He stepped down as president of the party in 2011, though he still holds the title of president d’honneur. Le Pen is nicknamed le Menhir, after the ancient stone monoliths that are found throughout his native Brittany. Whether he’s reviled or admired, Le Pen is known as a skilled orator, and often uses old-fashioned locutions in his speech.
Le Pen sat for an interview at his office in the National Front headquarters in Nanterre last Friday. Wearing a bright orange turtleneck and blue blazer, Le Pen was jovial and energetic, though he at times had trouble hearing. On a side table sat the book The Atlas of Creation by Harun Yahya, a large tome that argues that evolution is a myth.
“My objective is obviously the same as any other political party: to take power, and to put in place our program,” Le Pen said. “I knew that the road would be long. We were in the opposition practically to all the political elements of the time. We’ve proven our patience, our perseverance, our dynamism, and our courage, to march against the wind and against the current.”
Le Pen has made several attention-getting statements since the terrorist attacks, first urging to people to vote for his daughter in the middle of the hostage crisis at the kosher market, then by declaring “Je ne suis pas Charlie” and that “I won’t fight to defend the spirit of Charlie Hebdo, which is an anarcho-Trotskyist spirit harmful to political morality.” On Monday, Le Pen became a truther of sorts of the attacks, saying that they “carry the signature of the secret services” in an interview with a Russian news outlet.
There is a constant push-and-pull between Le Pen and the new, savvy, more politically correct members of the party he founded. Philippot, after being asked by a reporter about Le Pen’s statements, said that Le Pen is “inoffensive” today and told the reporter to “Ask Jean-Marie Le Pen. Don’t make an amalgamation. Ask him, I’m not in his brain.”
Le Pen was dismissive of Philippot’s response.
“Monsieur Philippot is a recent leader in the Front National,” he said. “He has his own opinion. I don’t need his approval, or his judgment.”
After 60 years in politics, Le Pen said, “I have the skin of a crocodile.”
Le Pen seemed skeptical of the new, friendlier, more mainstream face of the party.
“We must defend our ideas in their totality whatever our adversaries think, and whatever the commentaries that their media allies make,” Le Pen said. “The temptation is great to make oneself accepted. We don’t need to make ourselves accepted. Either our ideas are right, or they’re not.”
“I hate political correctness,” Le Pen said. He’s the godfather of one of the comedian Dieudonné’s children, a girl named Plume, and though he hasn’t spoken with Dieudonné in “several months,” he thinks he’s “a talented man.” His enthusiasm for Dieudonné doesn’t extend to all of the Front’s leaders; Wallerand de Saint Just referred to the comedian as “raving mad” in an interview with BuzzFeed News.
Le Pen still scraps with everyone, including Michel Houellebecq, the French author who was caricatured on Charlie Hebdo’s last cover before the shootings and who has written a controversial book, Soumission (“Submission”), that envisions a scenario in the near future in which France elects an Islamist president who institutes Sharia law. In the book, the president is elected because the mainstream political parties coalesce around him to prevent Marine Le Pen from being elected.
Le Pen tweeted last week that Houellebecq “writes that I’m an uneducated idiot. Could be wrong, I’ve always thought he was a drunk bum!” (Le Pen says he writes his own tweets.)
However, Le Pen thinks that the scenario imagined by Houellebecq of Islamists running France is “absolutely inevitable if we don’t come to power.”
Marine Le Pen has openly made efforts to distance herself from her father’s rhetoric and image, a situation familiar to many in American politics. In a rare public rebuke last year, Le Pen criticized her father for making an anti-Semitic joke about a French singer in one of his weekly online videos, calling it a “gaffe” and ordering the video removed from the party’s website. In fact, Le Pen’s videos are no longer hosted on the party’s website at all, but on his own personal site.
Le Pen had to think for a few moments to remember the last time he had given advice to Marine. “She’s someone who’s very, very busy,” he said. “She’s very in demand in the media, and sometimes it’s not easy to reach her.” The last time they spoke, he says he told her to accept the “diversity of opinions” within the Front, and that she shouldn’t restrain the differences between members. “Our criteria is patriotism, and whatever the opinion that one could have on a certain number of subjects, what’s important for us is neither race nor religion nor origin, it’s that we’re patriots,” Le Pen says he told her.
“I don’t know,” Le Pen said when asked if she had listened to him. “I hope. I’m a member of the direction of the movement with maybe the little handicap of being her father.”
“You know that according to Monsieur Freud, it’s necessary to kill the father,” Le Pen said, laughing. “I don’t believe that myself.”
Le Pen played down a reported incident in which his dog killed his daughter’s cat last year, causing Marine to move out of the family home in Montretout, in Paris’ western suburbs.
“One, that wasn’t my dog,” Le Pen said. “Two, they didn’t kill the cat, they were playing with him, and while playing with him they mortally wounded him.” Le Pen said the dogs belonged to the guards at Montretout, where Marine was living as well as Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, her niece and Jean-Marie Le Pen’s granddaughter, who is also in politics.
“She was very affected by the death of her cat,” he said. “Marine really loves cats.”
For Le Pen, the defining feature of the 20th century is what he called a “demographic explosion,” which, in his reasoning, has resulted in terrible violence around the world, leading people to leave their homes and seek refuge in places like France in “torrents of immigration.”
The United States, which takes in more immigrants than France, is better off, he says, because “In the United States the immigration, even clandestine, is principally Christian. It’s not Muslim. Here, the immigration problem is gravely complicated by the belonging to a religion that is not only spiritual, but also judicial and political.”
So Le Pen feels vindicated by the terrorist attacks; “People are saying ‘Le Pen was right,’” he said. And when he looks at his own family, he sees a dynasty, though he made pains not to call it that: Not only is there Marine, but also his granddaughter Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, 25, who was elected in 2012 as the youngest member of parliament in French history.
And, sidelined as he may be in the day-to-day decision making of the Front, he has no plans to retire. “I should have retired 25 years ago, and I didn’t,” he said. “Like Victor Hugo said, 'Je suis une force qui va.’”
These are good days to be Jean-Marie Le Pen, France’s political doomsday prophet.
“In ’72, when we founded the National Front,” he recalled, “the slogan was ‘With us, before it’s too late.’”
Alexia Luquet contributed reporting and research to this story.