With weeks to go until the French presidential election, the London branch of Marine Le Pen’s Front National are working hard. In the unlikely setting of a room above a pub near Farringdon Station, Le Pen’s supporters meet regularly to discuss their candidate’s chances. Max Bégon-Lours, the organiser of these meetings and vice-chair of the group, is optimistic. For him, the appeal of the far-right candidate is obvious – and he’s far from alone.
Some might say that backing a candidate like Le Pen is ironic for a French voter like Bégon-Lours; after all, he is a man who has benefited directly from the system of globalisation that Le Pen likes to deride. As with many French people in the capital, Max moved here to work in London’s banking and services sectors. A tall, well-dressed Parisian man of good bourgeois stock, he attended the École Polytechnique in Paris, one of France’s top universities, and went on to do a Masters at Princeton. He is 29 and he joined the Front National five years ago. Yet what’s perhaps most surprising about Bégon-Lours is that he’s not that unusual.
Supporters of the Front National are often in the prime of their lives. Despite the relative youth of her rival, Emmanuel Macron, younger French voters overwhelmingly prefer Le Pen. Among French 18-24 year olds, 39 per cent back Le Pen; while only 21 per cent say they intend to vote for Macron’s party En Marche!
At the Front National meet-up in London, it’s a similar story: almost everyone is under the age of 40, while a handful are in their early twenties. Some have said that France’s high youth unemployment level explains the Le Pen phenomenon. The bitter resentment of a forgotten, disillusioned youth in France’s rustbelt, the narrative goes, are looking forward to expressing their discontent at the ballot box. But Le Pen’s London supporters are a rebuke to that story: the supporters who attend these meetings are not struggling to make ends meet. Quite the opposite.
So what is driving Le Pen’s London supporters? ‘It’s not what the FN can do for me, but what I can do for my country,’ says Frédéric, an analyst from Brittany. ‘I work in finance and it’s got nothing to do with me, but my parents live in France, I want to spend my retirement in France. I’ve already got my retirement home, it’s been in the family for 200, 300 years.’
Others share his homesickness. ‘My support for Marine comes from my wish to return home one day,’ says Max. ‘Even though I live in London, I still feel like I belong to the French nation’. ‘All the free time I have, I dedicate to the Front National, because I think it’s worth it for my children, because France is a beautiful country and it’s a shame that it is being wrecked by irresponsible people.’
In fact, everyone gathered in Farringdon is quick to point out the importance of patriotism in casting their vote for the FN. That might not come as much of a shock for supporters of a nationalist party. But Le Pen’s London supporters remain a cosmopolitan crowd. A number of their members in the UK are half-English, according to Max, but still see themselves as French nationalists. As one attendee puts it, French identity is ‘plus tâchant’ – it stains more, dominates other identities.
This certainly goes for a City banker based in London, who was born to Algerian parents in Paris’s infamous banlieues. He is also considering casting his vote for Le Pen. His grandmother fought for the National Liberation Front, the revolutionary movement that kicked the French out of North Africa and established a one-party state in Algeria, but she moved to Paris once the violence had subsided. In 2002, he skipped class at the lycée to protest against Marine’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s, and his presence in the second round of the French presidential election. ‘In the past I thought the Front National were a party of the extreme right, Nazi even,’ he says. ‘All the kids carried signs with swastikas and a big cross through it.’ ‘The type of people we were protesting still vote Le Pen – they’ve got nowhere else to go. But does it bother me that a Vichy nostalgist might vote for Marine? No.’ He approaches the contemporary Front from a different angle. ‘I’m from a gaullist tradition and today the party that is closest to the ideas of President de Gaulle is the FN.’
Of course it’s true that in London, at least, Le Pen’s supporters are still in the minority among the nearly 400,000 French who call the capital home. A speech by Emmanuel Macron, the dynamic liberal-centrist candidate, in Westminster attracted thousands who showed up to cheer him on. Le Pen could never hope for the same. But if winning elections is about appealing to those in the centre ground, then the Front National’s London branch bodes well for Le Pen. If the polls did not already say as much, these meetings of expats in Farringdon is proof that Le Pen is attracting new voters who previously would have dismissed the party out of hand. Her programme of detoxification and soft nationalism has worked. So much so that she might even convince a few more cosmopolitan elites to come on board. A few may be all that she needs.