Songbirds flitted among the redbud trees. The wind tickled yellow flowers in fields of rapeseed. The medieval church clock clanged on the hour.

Otherwise all was still in this one-boulangerie town in the French countryside when Marine Le Pen strode to the lectern and, with the unwavering force of a freight train, vowed to save the country on behalf of its forgotten young.

"Our youth are in despair," the 48-year-old thundered. "I will be the voice of the voiceless."

Two-thirds of the way back in an overflow crowd, Adrien Vergnaud knew instantly that the leader of France's far-right National Front was speaking for him. The joblessness, the migrants, the terrorism. She was the only one who cared.


Without her, said the tautly muscled 25-year-old construction worker, his troubled country has "no future". But with the backing of young voters like Vergnaud, Le Pen may become the next president of France.

As the country hurtles toward the election, with its first round tomorrow and the runoff on May 7, Le Pen's once-longshot and now undeniably viable bid to lead France rests heavily on an unlikely source of support.

Populist triumphs in Britain and the United States came last year despite young voters, not because of them. Millennials - generally at ease with immigration, trade and multiculturalism - lined up against both Brexit and Donald Trump. It was older voters who sought to overturn the existing order with nationalist answers to the problems of a globalised world.

But France is a land of youthful revolts, from the 18th century barricades to the fevered university campuses of May 1968. And with youth unemployment stuck at 25 per cent, Le Pen's reactionary call to return the country to an era of lost glory by closing borders, exiting the European Union and restoring the national currency has fired the passions of young voters craving radical change.

"We've been told our whole lives that everything is set. Free trade. Forgetting our borders. One currency for all of Europe. Nothing can change," said Gaetan Dussausaye, the mild-mannered 23-year-old leader of the National Front's youth wing. "But young people don't like this system. This system is a failure."

The National Front was, until relatively recently, a fringe movement, seen by critics as a neo-fascist front filled with racists, anti-Semites and xenophobes and led by the convicted Holocaust denier Jean-Marie Le Pen.

To many older or middle-aged voters, the party's essential DNA remains unaltered, even as it has furiously tried to refashion its image.

"The National Front is trying to make us think they've changed," said Marie-Therese Fortenbach, a 50-year-old who said her half-Congolese heritage has made her a victim of the sort of discriminatory practices the party long preached. "I don't believe it."


But the young - who have only known the party since Jean-Marie Le Pen's generally more calculating and cautious daughter Marine took over in 2011 - have been easier to convince that the National Front's reputation for extremism is overblown.

The party now boasts the youngest member in both the National Assembly and the Senate. Its student activists can be seen on posh Paris street corners, handing out fliers, and Le Pen has surrounded herself with a coterie of 20- and 30-something advisers.

Independent centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron delivers his speech during a meeting in Nantes, western France. Photo / AP
Independent centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron delivers his speech during a meeting in Nantes, western France. Photo / AP

If Le Pen wins, European leaders fear the disintegration of the EU after decades spent trying to bind the continent more closely together. And although she's down in hypothetical second-round contests, Le Pen enjoys a commanding lead among France's youngest voters in the 11-candidate first round, polls show.

One survey has her winning nearly 40 per cent of the vote among those 18 to 24, nearly double the total of her nearest competitor, Emmanuel Macron.

That's all the more surprising because Macron, at 39, is vying to become the youngest president in French history.

But it's consistent with recent results: The last two times voters across France went to the polls - in European elections in 2014, and in regional voting a year later - the National Front triumphed among the young.

"It's a paradox," said Remy Oudghiri, a sociologist with Sociovision, a firm that conducts major surveys of French attitudes. "The young overall are open to cultural diversity, open to immigration. But among the youth, there's a portion that is radicalised, that believes the more we open to the outside world, the more we decline."

The difference between the two groups, Oudghiri said, is that one hasn't bothered lately to cast ballots.

"Since only the radicalised youth goes to vote, the FN wins," he said.

That dynamic could be especially pronounced this year. Polls show that support for Macron is shallow, with even those who say they back him unsure whether they will actually turn out for a candidate with no formal party affiliation and a platform that seeks to please both the left and right.

As a former Economy Minister and investment banker, the pro-EU Macron also struggles with young voters who don't fit the profile of the successful urban cosmopolitan.

France votes

• The first round of voting is tomorrow.
• The top two candidates from the first round go through to the second round, to be held on May 7.
• Four candidates are in with a chance of making it through to the second round, the centrist Emmanuel Macron, the far-right Marine Le Pen, the far-left Jean-Luc Melenchon, and the republican Francois Fillon.