PARIS—Five years ago, Davy Rodriguez de Oliveira couldn’t have conceived of voting for Marine Le Pen.
The then-teenager was a staunch young leftist who campaigned for far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the 2012 presidential elections, and proudly posted an image of a vintage Socialist Party poster on his Facebook account. Today, Rodriguez is 23 and the deputy director of the Front National de la Jeunesse (FNJ), the youth wing of Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front party.
We were chatting inside a cafe on the Boulevard du Montparnasse, a broad, Left Bank thoroughfare not far from where Rodriguez just completed a master’s degree in law at the prestigious Paris Institute of Political Studies, commonly known as Sciences Po. Outside, an animated union demonstration was clamoring down the boulevard while riot police looked on, and Rodriguez couldn’t help but note the irony.
"That used to be me," he said, nodding toward the crush of red vests and banners filing past the window. Then we returned to talking about his work for the National Front.
It wasn't long ago that the far-right party was widely reviled in France. Founded in 1972 by Marine's father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, it gained notoriety as a crypto-fascist, fringe party known for a thinly veiled racist, and openly ultra-nationalist, ideology. The elder Le Pen made headlines back in 1987, for instance, when he referred to the Nazi gas chambers as "a mere detail of history"—a remark he’d repeat whenever he wanted to cause a little uproar. Even so, Le Pen père made it into the second and decisive round of presidential elections in 2002—an interim victory that shocked the country and brought tens of thousands out into the streets of Paris in protest. Horrified at the prospect of a Le Pen win, French political parties and their supporters banded together to cast their votes for incumbent President Jacques Chirac, who won by more than 82 percent of the vote, the biggest landslide in French election history.
That humiliating defeat might have marked the end of the National Front, and in a way it did. But as things turned out it only signaled the demise of the party’s old regime, specifically Jean-Marie Le Pen, as any sort of legitimate political force. After his 2002 political earthquake at the polls, the National Front’s aging founder never again made it to a second round of voting. Instead, he continued to make waves with his divisive remarks, and was even slapped with a €10,000 fine in 2004 for “inciting racial hatred” after making disparaging comments about Muslims in an interview with the French daily Le Monde.
In 2011, he handed the reins to his daughter Marine, who embarked on a rebranding mission to soften the party's image and distance it from the anti-Semitism and intolerance associated with her father.
Under the younger Le Pen, the National Front's rhetoric has centered on patriotism and national and economic sovereignty rather than overt racism. Two years ago, Marine Le Pen took things a step further by booting her father out of his own party, further distancing herself from his unsavory image.
And today, while the National Front's key policies, including exiting the euro and the European Union, are more-or-less aligned with Jean-Marie Le Pen's original vision, they are couched in a language that is more palatable to many French voters.
For instance, the party is openly opposed to immigration (Le Pen seeks to cut legal immigration to 10,000 people a year), but cites the country's economic struggles and erosion of national identity as reasons to oppose an influx of foreigners, rather than going on overtly xenophobic tirades à la Jean-Marie.
The evolution of the party’s message may not be quite as sudden as it seems, but the impact has only been appreciated fully since Marine has been in charge.
“The National Front was very clever in the late ’80s and ’90s to try and shift the discourse away from biological racism to cultural racism,” says Aurélien Mondon, a senior lecturer in French and comparative politics at the University of Bath and author of A Populist Hegemony? The mainstreaming of the extreme right in France and Australia. “They reclaimed some important words in French politics and history like ‘republic’ and ‘secularism,’ so instead of being anti-Arab, they became anti-Muslim. Even though it is exactly the same basis of racism, they said, ‘We are against religion, based on French laïcité or secularity.’
"This allows people to express some very racist comments, but at least now they can couch them in a very Republican secular narrative so they don't appear racist. And the National Front has been very clever at that."
In 2014, the National Front scored its biggest victory in a nationwide election since its founding by capturing 25 percent of the vote in polling for the European Parliament, an institution Marine Le Pen deplores.
Addressing supporters from her party's headquarters in Nanterre, Le Pen spoke of national sovereignty in a speech that bore shades of the same populism and anti-globalization that Donald Trump would use on the campaign trail a year later.
“The sovereign people has proclaimed that they want to take back their destiny into their own hands,” she said. “We must build another Europe, a free Europe of sovereign nations and one in which cooperation is freely decided. Tonight is a massive rejection of the European Union.”
Today Le Pen has been surging in the presidential election polls, and it is widely believed that she will win a convincing first place plurality in the first round of voting.
It's hard to say how much of her success today can be credited to good timing and how much can be credited to her National Front rebranding efforts. Her rise coincides with the country's widespread disillusionment with François Hollande's Socialist government, a flagging economy, and a corruption scandal currently dogging her main rival, the right-wing Les Républicains candidate François Fillon. The other major contender is an untested 39-year-old centrist, Emmanuel Macron, who may be a charming wunderkind, but has never been elected to public office.
The emotional aftershocks wrought on France by a recent series of heinous terrorist attacks may also have voters looking to the National Front, which has always positioned itself as the party of law and order.
Whatever the reason for Le Pen’s recent gains in the polls, she has become a viable contender in this year’s presidential election and her appeal among French voters has broadened.
Le Pen's voting base is as diverse as it is growing. Within it, most notably, are defectors who had at one point typically voted center-right or even left, but are now ready to cast their ballots for the National Front.
This would include the country's struggling farmers, who feel abandoned by establishment parties and resentful of EU regulations and global competition, which they blame for their economic hardship. In a February poll conducted by Sciences Po's Political Research Center (CEVIPOF), more than a third of French farmers indicated they intended to vote Le Pen.
“I didn’t vote in 2007 or in 2012, but I am voting for Marine Le Pen, that is perfectly clear,” Yohann Quesnel, who has been farming for a decade, told BFMTV at last month’s Salon International de l'Agriculture—an annual farming fair. “We are at the edge of a precipice.”
In a separate CEVIPOF poll conducted in December, more than half of police officers surveyed indicated that they too intended to vote for Le Pen in April. The survey took place shortly after disgruntled officers had staged countrywide demonstrations to protest harsh working conditions and demand upgraded equipment. Le Pen came forward in support of the protesting police, posting a video message on her Twitter account, praising their work and pledging to improve job conditions.
There are also small, working-class towns like Henin-Beaumont, a former Socialist bastion that elected a National Front mayor three years ago—the first French town to do so in a single round of voting. Like France's farmers, many of the town's residents had become disillusioned with what they saw as a failure of mainstream political parties to improve their lot in life, while at the same time the National Front has worked hard to place local officials to build local constituencies.
“Like a lot of people here I used to be a leftist but I switched camp and I’m not ashamed to say it,” Elisabeth Develter, a retired supermarket worker, told Agence France-Presse.
"We were betrayed, we were robbed. This [National Front] mayor, he does what he says he will do."
The mayor in question is Steeve Briois, the grandson of a miner who has made good on his promises to repair roads and organize a Christmas market in an effort to revive business, which has increased his popularity in Henin-Beaumont. However, Briois also created an association called “My town without migrants” this fall and called on other French mayors to join him. “Opposition to the invasion of migrants,” Briois said, “has become a problem that transcends party lines.”
Modon told The Daily Beast that the diversity among National Front voters acts as both a strength and a weakness for Le Pen.
“There is not really a typical National Front voter, and that is what makes it difficult for Marine Le Pen to progress,” he said. “There is the northeast, which is a bit more working-class and based on more economic issues. And then there is the southeast, near Marseille, which is based on traditional anti-immigration issues and is middle class, lower-middle class. So there is this balance that the National Front needs to play between small businessmen in the south and working-class voters in the north.”
Then there are supporters like Rodriguez: bright young things who bring energy and dynamism to the National Front, while outwardly defying party stereotypes. The son of immigrants—his father is Spanish and his mother Portuguese—Rodriguez is affable and approachable. He sports a French Rugby Federation shirt and his demeanor is one of laid-back friendliness.
Over the course of our interview he quoted Jean-Paul Sartre and made references to philosophical heavyweights like Jacques Lacan, sounding like a typical graduate of Sciences Po, where he, along with four others, founded the National Front's student association.
He told me his ideological shift came in three stages. Growing up in an economically depressed suburb rife with public housing projects, he was disturbed by the effects of what he dubs "mass immigration," namely his perception that religion, specifically Islam, seemed to be prioritized over national identity, particularly the French state's core value of laïcité.
“A friend of mine converted from Catholicism to Islam,” he explained. “And we were talking about refugees, and he told me, ‘Yeah, we should welcome them, they’re good people, they’re Muslims.’” He paused for effect. “And I said to myself, ‘It seems like he feels closer to the religious community than to the national community.’
"I would never say, 'You should welcome immigrants because they are Christian, or Catholic, or Coptic,'" he added.
(One of the misperceptions about Le Pen and the National Front is that it is strongly Catholic. In fact, church teachings on issues like same-sex marriage have little influence on its policies, while the base of support for scandal-plagued former Prime Minister François Fillon is very strongly rooted in conservative Catholicism.)
The second nudge over to the far-right was also related to immigration.
"I noticed that in schools that French is no longer the students' mother tongue," he said. "The teacher needs to teach the students French because it is not spoken at home."
The final tilt toward the right occurred during Rodriguez's travels through Europe in 2012 and 2014 following the global debt crisis and the EU-backed austerity measures.
“I saw the effects of the troika [the European commission, the European Central Bank, and the IMF] on Spain and Portugal,” he explained. “And I clearly saw the effects of the end of social security, the end of public health, of retirement pensions, and it was really devastating.
"If you brought your garbage can outside in Spain, within 20 minutes there would be someone rifling though it."
Rodriguez's negative outlook on immigration and anti-EU stance are emblematic of National Front voters. However, the fact that he himself is the son of immigrants makes his allegiance with the party puzzling to some observers.
“My mom was very young when she arrived, my dad, too, and it was during a time when there were jobs,” he told me. “My mom arrived at 7 years old, she studied here, and as soon as she left school she found a job. And when my grandparents came to France, they already had job contracts before they left their home country. It was different.”
Better job prospects isn't the only thing that distinguished the immigrants of Rodriguez's parents' generation from today's wave, he explained, and as I listened I couldn’t help but think of Marine Le Pen's father.
“With immigration from North or sub-Saharan Africa, culturally there is more distance between a French person and an immigrant from that part of the world, but there is less of a difference between a Portuguese, an Italian, or a Pole and a French person. Culturally, we have a common base,” he said. “But with an Eritrean, for example, it’s not the same region, it’s not the same mores regarding women’s rights… The mores of those who have arrived over the past 30 years are not the same as those of the Spanish, Portuguese, Poles, or Germans who arrived at the beginning of the 20th century.”
Rodriguez insisted that immigration can succeed, but only under certain conditions, including Le Pen's proposal to only welcome 10,000 newcomers a year.
“What is assimilation?” he said. “For us, when you arrive, you are supposed to adopt the mores, culture, and values of the country in which you have arrived. In private you can have your own religion, your own culture, etc., but in the public sphere, you adapt.”
We talked about the recent terror attacks in France, which Rodriguez, like his National Front compatriots, believes resulted from "the scourge of Islamism" in the country. He told me about the town of Pontoise, which sits right next to his hometown of Saint-Ouen-l'Aumône, and is now "unlivable" thanks to a surge in crime, violence, and radical mosques.
"It used to be a nice town," he said. "There are people in this country who are not French."
The solution to these issues is a more cohesive sense of nationalism in the country, and Rodriguez said he would like to see a France that returned to "its fundamental values," specifically laïcité.
"Whether a person is white, black, yellow, green, or blue, they can live beside someone of a different religion or culture because they share the same French culture with common references, a common history, and common ancestors."
He continued: "Not necessarily blood ancestors. Me, for instance, my grandparents aren't Gauls, but I would say my ancestors are Gauls because when I became French, I envisioned my ancestors as Gauls. And together we [French] must share that link in order to successfully move forward."
Over the course of our conversation, it became clear that Rodriguez's vision for his country is one of homogeny, in which a unified national identity trumps religious, ethnic, or cultural diversity. France's famous social programs would be reserved for "deserving" patriotic citizens who embraced said national identity, and businesses would thrive without EU intrusions.
I was reminded a bit of Donald Trump's nostalgic "Make America Great Again" slogan, which also harked back to a simpler era before the onset of globalization. Trump's comments about Mexicans also echoed some of Rodriguez's remarks about Muslim immigrants. And, like Trump's populist message in the U.S., Le Pen's platform of nationalism and her own brand of socialism (with a dose of xenophobic fear mongering) is resonating with a significant portion of the French population, for better or worse.