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20 June 2024

How the far right seduced France’s Gen Z

Marine Le Pen and Jordan Bardella have the following of political rock stars.

By Andrew Hussey

In France, the youth far right has its own neologism: the Fachosphère. Not unlike the manosphere and online alt-right communities across the West, the term denotes a subculture of young influencers who use social media, fashion and music to spread and promote their self-consciously edgy and authoritarian anti-immigration politics. The term has been in circulation for some years, but a case can be made that the movement behind it has now gone mainstream. This is because the National Rally (RN) party of Marine Le Pen has substantially become the party of French youth, winning the votes of around a third of 18- to 24-year-olds at the recent European elections. With a French national election imminent, this young right could help propel the RN into government for the first time.

To understand this unlikely political uprising, on a grey Sunday I set off to attend a National Rally demonstration at the Porte de Versailles in the south of Paris. The star billing comprised Le Pen herself, the RN’s parliamentary leader, and the party’s president and France’s likely next prime minister, Jordan Bardella. As I queued to get in, and busloads of supporters arrived from the provinces, the atmosphere was excited and expectant, with spontaneous chants of “on va gagner!” (“We’re going to win!”). With a jolt, I remembered that the last time I had been at this venue was almost exactly 40 years ago to see a Smiths concert and then, with another jolt, I noticed that much of the queue here was as young, if not younger, than I had been in 1984.

With this in mind, as the rally began my first thoughts were of Morrissey’s 1992 song “The National Front Disco” – all strobe lights, flags, fist-pumps in the air, and a mild frenzy created by the RN-approved techno soundtrack. But I noticed too that a lot of the audience were not just young but female, more like Swifties than the tattooed neo-Nazis of Morrissey’s imagination – or indeed of the real, quite recent past of the RN. I sat next to four young women, all decked out in RN merchandise as if this really were a dance concert, who swayed in unison and sang along to their favourite tunes. One of the most popular songs was Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”, a fan favourite during the 1998 World Cup and whose wordless chorus has become the French equivalent of “Three Lions”.

It means much more than that at an RN rally however. It is something of an unofficial party anthem, a discofied “La Marseillaise”, which when sung lustily aloud by a flag-waving throng, packs a powerful nationalist punch. The second-favourite chant of the crowd was “On est chez nous”, which translates literally as “We are in our own home”. A banal enough sentiment on its own terms, but in this environment there is a clear subtext: France for the French – and no one else.

The girls next to me all screamed when Marine Le Pen came to the stage in a blaze of flashing lights and flares, and did the same for Jordan Bardella. The man on the other side of me, a 25-year-old farmer from Burgundy called Yves, shouted “Mariiine!” as loud as he could, and waved his tricolour. Only minutes earlier we had been chatting – this was his first rally, and he’d made the journey especially. He had never voted RN before, having previously been part of the gilets jaunes movement. But now, in the thrall of Bardella and Le Pen, he was a full-throated fanatic – on his feet for the next hour or so, cheering at every slogan.

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Their combined speeches represented a National Rally greatest hits package. Immigration was bad; the RN would take care of agriculturists and the other “forgotten” classes of France. Macron was said to be anti-French and needlessly taking France to war in Ukraine. The poet Paul Valéry was quoted for his aphorism that “all civilisations can die”. In short, France is in grave danger, and the EU is evil. However, in a break with previous policy, Le Pen pulled back from condemning the EU entirely, and steered away from advocating what she once called “Frexit caché” – “a hidden Frexit”. But, Euroscepticism tamed, there was still plenty of rhetoric here designed to stir nationalist sentiment. Notably, Le Pen and Bardella both stressed the word “Islam” as harshly as they could when they each mentioned Islamophobia, “Islamo-Leftism” or Islamism. At the mere sound of the word “Islam” the crowd erupted into loud boos and jeers, and cries of “Vive La France!”

Despite the apparent racism on show, the RN has spent the best part of the last decade undergoing a process of dédiabolisation, “detoxifying” the party and shedding its hard-line neo-Nazi trappings. This has largely been a success, and did not happen by accident. It is the result of a marketing strategy conceived as far back as 2017 by “Les Horaces” – a secretive cabal of former politicians and senior civil servants and businessmen who have played a significant role in shaping the RN’s thinking in recent years. Like much of the deep rhetoric of the RN, the term “Horaces” has its roots in classical antiquity: it is a homage to the legend of the Horatii brothers, who sacrificed themselves to save Rome and are as such models of patriotic virtue. The modern group, which was set up in 2016, has no official status but is organised around André Rougé, an otherwise obscure European deputy who was a paratrooper and then in the 1980s a journalist covering the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua.

Rougé goes to great lengths to keep Les Horaces anonymous for fear of “professional repercussions” for its members, but what is known is that they prepare monthly, and sometimes weekly, briefings, for Marine Le Pen. In recent months, the newspaper Libération has published the names of supposed members, revealing that many of them are, like Emmanuel Macron, “Énarques” – that is to say products of the elite Ecole Nationale d’Administration which has produced generations of civil servants and politicians in France. Les Horaces is therefore the elite project that is ironically – or cynically, depending on how you look at it – driving Le Pen’s anti-elitist agenda. According to Libération, the modern Horaces see themselves as, like their Roman antecedents, fighting “a civilisational war” – a crusade to save France.

The “civilisational war” is also now a generational one. And the strategy has paid off, partially thanks to the so-called Horaces junior, a younger clique of highly placed media-savvy technocrats who operate on TikTok and Instagram. Like their older peers they are bound by ideology rather than formal structures, but their work is still coordinated via briefings and papers. Their network has even taken in the likes of Cyril Hanouna (known as “Baba”), a comedian and TV presenter popular among Gen Z. In the pages of the right-wing journal Valeurs Actuelles, Marine Le Pen publicly thanked these activists for having helped bring such a resounding victory in the European elections, remarking that it was now as important for the RN to capture age groups as territory.  

No one, not even the petulant and cunning Macron, who seems to have played right into the hands of the RN, knows what will happen next in France. What is clear, however, is that a new generation has emerged, led and personified by Jordan Bardella (born 1995), which doesn’t care about the RN’s murky past – which is well beyond their lifetime anyway – and who will be very soon be shaping the future of France. This is a cohort influenced more by recent Islamist terrorism than by memories of the Fourth Republic, and is now trying to restore its own faith in a country which seems to have lost its confidence.

The French lurch to the far right cannot be explained by nostalgia, as many English-language commentators would have it. Instead, theirs is a demographically and emotionally youthful yearning for a new version of France: for order to emerge out of disorder. And while this political sentiment comes with frightening ideological associations, this is something that sooner or later the UK, as it moves to the left against the European tide, may have to accept about its closest continental neighbour.  

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