France's National Front Party Marine Le Pen Draws Youth Voters To The Far-Right : Parallels Among 18- to 24-year-olds, Marine Le Pen is by far the No. 1 candidate, with 40 percent of the vote — a startling shift for a country that's traditionally known for its leftist youth movements.
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France's National Front Party Draws Young Voters To The Far-Right

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France's National Front Party Draws Young Voters To The Far-Right

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

There's a new trend among young voters in France. Historically, young French people have supported leftist candidates. With two rounds of French presidential elections coming up in April and May, polls now show that the top choice for people between the ages of 18 and 24 is the right-wing party of Marine Le Pen. In Paris, Eleanor Beardsley reports on what's behind the shift.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: It's going on 9 in the evening, but a group of young people is still busy at the National Front party's office in Metz in eastern France. They're preparing for a rally for their presidential candidate, Marine Le Pen. Twenty-one-year-old Arnaud de Rigne remembers when he first became interested in the party.

ARNAUD DE RIGNE: I was just 16, and I saw that there was a big problem in France with massive immigration and also globalization with no borders - economic borders. For me, that was a very big problem.

BEARDSLEY: De Rigne knows some people accuse his party of racism. He says it's not about race. He believes all French citizens are equal, but he says France can't take any more immigrants because there aren't enough jobs for French people. De Rigne says Marine Le Pen has the strength needed to turn the country around.

DE RIGNE: When you are in front of her, you know that she's the boss. And for us, it's very, very important.

BEARDSLEY: Two hundred miles to the west in Paris, Gaetan Dussausaye unlocks his office door at National Front party headquarters. The 23-year-old heads the National Front's youth movement. Dussausaye says during the last presidential election five years ago, the youth wing had 10,000 members. It's now swelled to 25,000. The largest of all the political parties.

GAETON DUSSAUSAYE: (Through interpreter) My generation had only known conservative presidents, and we thought the right had failed because of high unemployment, insecurity and social misery. So in the 2012 election, we voted for the left. But President Hollande is exactly like President Sarkozy. Nothing has changed. We see now that only Marine Le Pen will break with 40 years of globalization and savage free market policies that have hurt France.

BEARDSLEY: Dessausaye's office walls are decorated with flyers designed by the party's youth wing - trendy slogans against immigration and free trade and for generous benefits for unemployed French workers. Dessausaye says Le Pen's personality plays a huge role in her popularity with young people. She has three children of her own in their late teens. He says young people feel Le Pen understands them.

Olivier Beaumont is a political reporter and has written a book about the Le Pen family and the National Front party. He says young supporters don't remember the days when the National Front was widely seen as a pariah, fringe party run by Le Pen's father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. He was prosecuted and convicted for hate speech. Beaumont says under Marine Le Pen, the National Front has changed, and it's looking to expand.

OLIVIER BEAUMONT: (Through Interpreter) The National Front is like a small company looking for people to grow nationwide. So if you're young and you want to get involved, you can advance quickly. Whereas with the traditional parties, it takes years to work your way up.

BEARDSLEY: Polls show Le Pen as the front runner in the first round in April to make it to the runoff in May. Her promises to restore French jobs and French pride are met with roars from the crowd. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Metz, France.

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