It is a cold, icy day in winter and Florian Philippot is strolling through the streets of Forbach, the town where he would like to be elected mayor. People hurry up to shake his hand, a store-owner hands him a cookie and the woman at a café next to the train station offers him a coffee. An old Tunisian man puts his arm around Philippot's shoulders.
Philippot is the candidate for Front National (FN), a party designated as "extreme right" in France, but he is received with open arms on his walk through Forbach. Nobody blocks his path, nobody insults him. Who, after all, should be afraid of this nice young man?
"This is the first time I'm going to vote extreme right," says the slightly over-exuberant woman behind the counter of a shop Philippot visits. "It's not extreme right," says Philippot. "Let's just say it is a coherent choice." A look of dismay falls over the shopkeeper's face. "I didn't mean it derogatorily. I just mean -- it is certainly more extreme than anything that I've voted for before."
Florian Philippot is a calm 32-year-old who is not particularly tall or handsome. His youth, however, lends him a trustworthy appearance. His polished shoes and well-tailored greatcoat makes him look like the elite-school graduate that he is. Philippot isn't just any candidate. He is the deputy head of the Front National, the party's chief strategist and the most important advisor to his boss, Marine Le Pen.
French voters will go to the polls for local elections in March, and Philippot hopes to win in Forbach, a town of 22,000 located on the German border. And his chances are decent. Behind Marine Le Pen, Philippot is the Front National's most visible politician. He makes almost daily appearances on radio or television, where he comments on the political developments of the day and criticizes both the leftist government and the conservative opposition. When he isn't being interviewed, he resorts to Twitter to spread his message.
Until just a few years ago, the Front National was considered to be little more than a collection of unelectable, racist outsiders. Now, though, it is seeking to establish a reputation as a professional movement with friendly candidates and operatives. More than anyone else, Philippot is symbolic of the change. The party has never had a figure quite like him: He has been a high-ranking official in the Interior Ministry's inspector general's office and he is a graduate of the top schools HEC and ENA, where many of the country's elite are educated.
Full of Excitement
No matter where one goes in France these days to visit a Front National office or to accompany a candidate on his rounds, one encounters a movement full of excitement. The year 2014 is a decisive one for the party: It expects strong showings in both the local elections and in the European Parliament elections in May.
The party already won a symbolic victory back in October when it emerged victorious in an essentially meaningless regional election in the southern French city of Brignoles. In the run-off election, the FN contender beat a candidate who was backed by both the Socialists and the conservatives. It was seen as an indication that the alliances of convenience between the left and right, which has long kept the FN at bay in run-off elections, are no longer working.
According to a recent survey, the Front National could end up with 23 percent of the vote in the European election in May, which would make it the strongest party in the country, ahead of both President François Hollande's Socialists and the conservatives. Philippot is also a candidate for the Europe vote, heading up his party's list for the eastern part of the country.
On a recent winter evening, Florian Philippot is sitting in Les Bons Amis, a restaurant in Geispolsheim, a tiny town in the Alsace near Strasbourg, about 90 minutes from Forbach by car. Some 150 people are packed inside, along with a handful of journalists.
He waits patiently for the local party leader to finish her remarks on Kosovars loitering around town and then he takes the floor. "Something great is taking place," he says. "We are experiencing a popular momentum. You can feel it and the powers that be can feel it too. That is why they are so uneasy."
Philippot's speeches are rhetorically outstanding, but his personality isn't particularly charismatic. He presents an image of a country in which immigrants establish parallel societies while the common French are at the mercy of globalization. He says that Socialists and conservatives -- under the diktat of Brussels -- pursue the exact same policies: They favor large companies at the expense of the people. Philippot quotes Marine Le Pen: "Globalization means using slaves to manufacture products that are then sold to the unemployed!"
Talking about 'Real Problems'
Front National, by contrast, would like to withdraw from the euro zone and limit free trade, Philippot explains. It wants to reintroduce border controls and establish a process for holding referenda. "We are the only ones who are talking about real problems: unemployment, security and immigration."
In its campaign platform, the FN promises to limit immigration to just 10,000 per year and to give precedence to the French over foreigners on the job market. But Philippot avoids that issue on this evening. Rather, he demands "intelligent protectionism" and calls for resistance to the austerity policies prescribed by Germany.
Applause erupts at the end of his speech and followers surround him in the hopes of getting a picture with their idol. A welder, who calls himself Eddy, won't let go of his hand. He says he voted for François Hollande and can't believe his stupidity.
There are two major reasons for the current popularity of the long-scorned Front National. The first has to do with the societal and political climate in France. The country is suffering from a widespread despair, with many people having lost faith in the elites. They fear economic decline and their country's slide into political irrelevance. The FN understands these fears, and knows how to profit from them.
Just how explosive the mood in the country is can also be seen in the radicalization of the Catholic right. More than 100,000 people again took to the streets earlier this month to demonstrate against Hollande and gay marriage.
The second reason for Front National's success is that it seems no longer to be the party that it once was. The party's co-founder Jean-Marie Le Pen once shocked people with the statement that the gas chambers were but "a detail of history." Since January 2011, when his daughter Marine was elected party head, the Front National has undertaken a "dédiabolisation" -- a "de-demonization." They got rid of vocal anti-Semites among their members, instead focusing on the fight against the alleged dangers presented by Islam. And they have moved to attract left-leaning voters with welfare chauvinism.
Marine Le Pen is targeting the mainstream as a path to power. The country's voting system makes it unlikely that she will one day become the president of France, but she could soon have control of more French European Parliament delegates than any other party.
Philippot the Riddle
Should the anti-Europeans in France -- one of the two core countries in the euro zone -- achieve such a success, it would be a blow for the already fragile European project. And France isn't the only country where populist, anti-European and anti-immigration parties are finding success. Indeed, the FN plans to form an alliance in Brussels with some of them, such as Austria's FPÖ and Geert Wilders' PVV party in the Netherlands.
On the day after his appearance in Geispolsheim, Philippot is sitting in a flat on the third floor of an apartment block in the center of Forsbach. The flat serves as his campaign headquarters, the center of his efforts to win political control of the city. His staff pores over campaign fliers; a large portrait of Marine Le Pen hangs on the wall.
There is much about Philippot that remains a riddle. Nothing he says is imprudent and he provides no insight into his personal life. He is an introvert who is no doubt good at what he does -- but it is difficult to say what he really believes in and who he really is.
When the first mass demonstrations against gay marriage took place in France in January 2013, Philippot said that he wouldn't take part. As a consequence, a radio station asked him about his sexual orientation. His response: "I never talk about my private life. You will never know."
His hero is General de Gaulle, a man who did all he could to protect French sovereignty. "De Gaulle would never have agreed to the euro and certainly not to the fiscal pact," Philippot says and calls his party the "true successors" to the general. Not surprisingly, his relationship to party co-founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, a life-long detractor of de Gaulle, is considered to be problematic.
Indeed, Philippot likes to recount how he never voted for Le Pen senior -- not even in 2002 when, to the horror of many in the country, he advanced to the run-off in presidential elections. At the time, Philippot was a supporter of the left-wing nationalist Jean-Pierre Chevènement, a former interior minister.