Discover more from Rebecca Nathanson
“It was to choose my country or to choose my friends. So I chose. I chose my country rather than my friends.”
On a drizzly afternoon at the end of April 2017, I took the train from Paris to Nanterre, a suburb northwest of the city, and walked through the downtown business district to an unmarked building on a residential block. A police van sat across the street; a security guard stood on the other side of a locked gate. He searched my bag and then someone else arrived to lead me around a bend in the driveway, where the National Front logo and a poster with Marine Le Pen’s face became visible above a window, tucked behind the entryway. Inside, I handed over my New Jersey driver’s license in exchange for a visitor pass and a woman pointed me towards the waiting room, where Le Pen looked down at me from pictures on the wall—the person I was meeting was running late.
I had come to Paris to write about how young activists were engaging with the French presidential election, which was spread across two weeks in spring 2017. I’d only ever reported on left-wing movements—only ever wanted to report on left-wing movements—but on a whim a few weeks earlier, I’d emailed Gaëtan Dussausaye, then 23 years old and the national director for the youth wing of the radical right National Front (now named National Rally). Le Pen, the party’s leader, was expected to place in the top two out of a field of eleven candidates. Victory wasn’t off the table, especially as she garnered strong support among young voters. To my surprise, Dussausaye responded with an invite to the party headquarters, where he had an office.
That interview contributed to a short article I wrote about the French election, which came out the morning after the votes were tallied; it also inadvertently kicked off a project that has followed me for over three years, repeatedly pulling me back to Paris from New York, London, and Oxford, where this reporting masqueraded as sociological research for a master’s thesis. Now, it is taking yet another form: a long-form narrative telling the stories of the youth-wing activists I met along the way—urban-dwelling, elite-educated young people whose presence in the National Rally foretells the possibilities radical right parties have in expanding their support to unexpected demographics.
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