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France’s National Front Finds Support Among Millennials

Marine Le Pen Rejects All That's Not 'Pure French' 1:04

NICE, France — Sébastien Faustini's decision to skip the firework display at the beach not only potentially saved his life — it steered his politics toward the far right.

The soft-spoken 18-year-old stayed home with his cousin and watched the Bastille Day display on TV, instead of heading to the Nice promenade as they'd planned on July 14.

A truck was driven into the crowd that night, killing 86 people.

Image: Sebastien Faustini
Sebastien Faustini at the National Front's headquarters in Nice, France. Lauren Brigitte Chadwick

"We could have been there," said Faustini, who is now forced to pass by the scene of attack daily on his way to university. "Every day that hits me."

Three weeks ago, he joined France's far-right National Front.

"Certain media organizations stigmatize members of the National Front calling them fascists, insults that have nothing to do with the party's program," Faustini told NBC News.

Faustini is far from alone. Many millennials are embracing the National Front — which boasts a founder who had been fined repeatedly for racism and anti-Semitism. They say recent terrorist attacks across Europe and high unemployment levels validate their personal views and the party's anti-immigration stance.

According to a report released by polling organization Odoxa on Dec. 16, the National Front is the political party with the most support among French people aged 18-34. Roughly one-in-five back it.

The party is currently led by Marine Le Pen, who is one of the country's most popular politicians. She is currently second in the polls to become president in next spring's elections.

Le Pen's platform includes exiting the European Union, stopping free movement at the French border, sending asylum seekers back to their native countries, and introducing tariffs as part of protectionist economic policies to put "France first."

Critics say her platform is fueled by fear and xenophobia, sentiments already on the rise after a series of terrorist attacks.

But young supporters say they feel vindicated by what they call the "wave" — Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and the Italian vote against constitutional reforms — sweeping across the West.

National Front activists call themselves "patriots" who care about French identity.

Bryan Masson, an 18-year-old student who runs the youth division of the National Front in Nice, recalled trembling with excitement as he watched Trump's triumph.

"For us it was a victory too," Masson said over coffee in the center of the vacation destination.

Image: Marine Le Pen
Marine Le Pen visits a Christmas market in Paris on Dec. 8. Francois Mori / AP

He said it was an "extremely positive" sign for Le Pen, because she is also a candidate for the people who is working against the establishment in Paris.

But Le Pen is hardly a new face in French politics.

Her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, founded the National Front more than 40 years ago. Since taking over as party president in 2011, his daughter has set out to separate the party from his anti-Semitic comments.

She insists he no longer speaks for the party — even though he remains the National Front's honorary president.

Marine Le Pen is wooing frustrated supporters of the traditional conservative and socialist parties. The party's campaign logo is a blue rose: a symbol that joins the traditional rose of the left wing with the color blue of the right wing.

Her efforts to "detoxify" the party appear to be working with young people, who didn't experience her dad's legacy.

Young party activists say that they believe many of their friends will vote for Le Pen in next year's presidential election, even though they say it's taboo for sympathizers to admit it.

In Nice, Le Pen's rhetoric on immigration resonates most.

Image: Cyril Martinez and friends at the National Front office in Nice
Cyril Martinez (left) does a Trump impression at the National Front's office in Nice, France, on Dec. 15. Lauren Brigitte Chadwick

Masson and his friends joked around in the city's empty National Front offices after class earlier this month, erupting into laughter as activist Cyril Martinez imitated Trump saying he would build a wall to keep Mexicans out.

They all live close to Italy — which has been one of the front lines as Europe grapples with an influx from migrants from the Middle East, Africa and beyond — and want France to impose stricter controls at its borders.

Michael Payet, another one of the Masson's friends, is voting for Marine Le Pen because his father is a police officer at the border who sees the flow of migrants daily.

"Most are not even Syrian," Payet said.

"We live 20 minutes from the door to France," Masson added. "It creates a real security problem."

They agree that the government should care about the French people before the migrants.

Image: Michael Payet and Bryan Masson
Michael Payet and Bryan Masson at a cafe in Nice, France. Lauren Brigitte Chadwick

Many young National Front activists interviewed by NBC News spoke at length about radical Islam and concerns about religion in France.

They want immigrants to assimilate to French culture, speak the language and even "eat French," eliminating halal as a meal option.

Many of them said they had only recently become interested in politics.

Manon Bouquin, a 24-year-old history student at the renowned Paris-Sorbonne University, joined the National Front two years ago.

Bouquin, who said she doesn't follow any religion, is concerned that mosques are being built in her hometown, in the capital's suburbs.

In terms of immigration, she would welcome Christians from the Middle East.

Bouquin said she was happy that Trump won in the United States; although she disagrees with his statements about women, his international policies are in line with her beliefs.

The day after the U.S. election, she tweeted a picture of herself wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat.

Gaëtan Dussausaye quit studying for his master's degree at the Sorbonne aged 20 when Marine Le Pen named him director of the National Front's youth division.

Two year later, he says that a broader message of change is driving many young people to back Le Pen.

"The failure of the right to do something and the failure of the left to change anything makes Marine Le Pen the person who represents change," he said.

Image: Gaetan Dussausaye
Gaetan Dussausaye. Lauren Brigitte Chadwick

The National Front typically does better among "uneducated young people," according to Jean-Yves Camus, a political analyst who has studied the far right for decades. "They tend to think in terms of black and white: globalization is bad and if we go back to the old borders and old currency everything will change overnight."

The party remains unpopular at universities.

In November, the Paris Institute for Political Studies, also known as SciencesPo Paris, canceled the planned speech of National Front Vice-President Florian Philippot. The cancellation came after students protested what they called a "racist" party.

Philippot compared the protests to Season 8 of "The Walking Dead" — which includes scenes of chaos and brutality — calling the students "fascists" who did not believe in "democracy."

David Masson-Weyl, a 24-year-old masters student, founded a National Front student group last year at SciencesPo Paris.

Image: David Masson-Weyl
David Masson-Weyl Lauren Brigitte Chadwick

He needed 120 votes to receive support from the students to gain official status.

"We really doubted that it would happen." When it did, he said, it was due to students' desire "to have all ideas represented," rather than students' support for the ideology itself.

"Most students are open to debate," he added.

But questions remain about what the party stands for.

Philippot, a 35-year-old gay man, serves as the main inspiration for young activists in Paris who say the National Front is neither right nor left. However, the party's rising star — 26-year-old Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, who happens to be Marine Le Pen's niece — is a social conservative.

Image: Marion Marechal-Le Pen on Nov. 25, 2016
Marion Marechal-Le Pen MAURIZIO DEGL'INNOCENTI / EPA

Philippot and Maréchal-Le Pen recently spent several weeks arguing publicly over the reimbursement of abortion fees.

"There are certainly tensions between the two groups," Bryan Masson said. "Young National Front activists in Paris say they're not left or right. In reality, they're left," he explained. "Here in the South, we're a part of the right."

Overall, political parties are highly unpopular in France. According to the Odoxa poll, most young people do not talk about politics because it seems distant from real life, even though they still intend to vote in the upcoming election.

Odoxa also found that 67 percent of respondents aged 18 - 34 expressed a negative view of the National Front — compared to 69 percent feeling similarly about the Socialists and 65 percent about the Republicans.

Some of those who are not supporting Marine Le Pen say they are considering voting against her rather than voting for someone in whom they actually believe.

Ph.D. students Walid Chaiehloudj and Said Benkhalyl in Nice, France are of North African descent and both consider the National Front's policies to be "xenophobic."

They doubt that Marine Le Pen's plan to leave the European Union will work.

"Without the European Union, France isn't very important," Chaiehloudj said, adding that France would not remain a "major power."

Related: Paris Attacks Inspire Huge Influx in Police Recruits

They agree that recent terror attacks have helped the National Front and driven French politics to the right.

On security, National Front politicians "don't even need to open their mouths," Benkhalyl said. Muslims are the "scapegoats of this time period."

But despite the change message, Jean-Marie Le Pen still casts a long shadow over the party.

Image: Jean-Marie Le Pen
Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of France's far-right National Front, has been convicted repeatedly of racism and anti-Semitism. He also referred to Nazi gas chambers as a "detail" of World War II history. PHILIPPE LOPEZ / AFP - Getty Images

At a Dec. 11 gathering of the nationalist group Terre et Peuple — or Land and People — a Jean-Marie Le Pen surrogate delivered a message that evoked the Nazi-collaborating Vichy government slogan: work, family, homeland.

NBC News attended the event but was accompanied by a security guard and prohibited from interviewing any of the roughly 400 people who attended there.

One man had a Confederate flag stitched onto his jacket. Another carried a copy of Adolf Hitler's autobiography "Mein Kampf."

Terre et Peuple's magazine has included articles on ethnic war, the "horror" of globalization, and "combative" Islam.

The crowd cheered as Le Pen's message was read aloud endorsing their patriotism and trumpeting a message of French identity.

Those factors are driving many French millennials towards the party, despite its history.

Image: Manon Bouquin
Manon Bouquin Lauren Brigitte Chadwick

Bouquin, the 24-year-old history student, wears a medal around her neck that represents Napoléon Bonaparte, a symbol of French power and history for her.

"In public school, we learned about slavery and the Vichy government [which collaborated with the Nazis during World War II]. We only learn about the somber moments of French history … Kids with immigrant parents will hear that and not want to be French," Bouquin said. "We have to teach people to be patriotic."

Nicolas Aslah, a 23-year-old student from Saint-Omer, a northern village in the Pas-de-Calais region, says his ancestors fought in World War II to defend France, not Europe.

"Europe is not something utopian," he said. "It's a betrayal."

Lauren Chadwick is a Scoville Fellow based in Washington, D.C. She reported from Paris, Nanterre and Nice, France.