LA BAZOCHE-GOUET, France – In this quiet one-boulangerie town in the French countryside, 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 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 this spring that could alter the course of European history — the first round is Sunday — 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 globalized 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 percent, 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 Gaëtan 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's strength among millennials suggests the populist wave that's unsettled the West may be more durable than many may assume. Far from the last gasp of closed-society older voters who are demographically destined to be outnumbered by a rising tide of cosmopolitan youth, the populist insurgency could continue to build over years and decades if enough disenchanted young voters can be lured by the promise of something new.
And across Europe, that's exactly what far-right movements are attempting. In Germany — a country where the two main parties are led by political veterans in their 60s — the anti-Muslim Alternative for Germany party is run by a fresh-faced 41-year-old. Scandinavian parliaments, meanwhile, are stocked with politicians in their 20s hailing from parties that just a decade ago were consigned to the extremist fringe.
The National Front was, until relatively recently, a fringe movement itself, 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-Thérèse 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."
If Le Pen wins, European leaders fear the disintegration of the E.U. 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 percent 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.
After Marine Le Pen — a husky-voiced, twice-divorced Generation Xer — the party's most prominent face is that of a millennial — the leader's niece, 27-year-old Marion Maréchal-Le Pen.
To critics, she is the unbridled id to her aunt's disciplined ego. To supporters, she is a modern-day Joan of Arc, defending a country yet again in the midst of a foreign invasion. Her unapologetically hard-line stances have earned her a certain celebrity status in right-wing circles the world over: Sarah Palin confessed a "political crush" on Maréchal-Le Pen, while Trump adviser Steve Bannon anointed her a "rising star." "The main concern for the youth is the question of immigration," Maréchal-Le Pen said. "They have the feeling that they are being deprived of their own identity. The multicultural model defended by our elite is a model that doesn't work."