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France’s far-right ‘graduation school’ trains its leaders of tomorrow


Paris
CNN

The first time he walked through the doors of the Institut de formation politique (IFP), French student Jacques Smith noticed the warm atmosphere and the elite spirit of the place – but above all, that he was “surrounded by people from right and right”. wing speakers,” he told CNN.

As an openly right-wing student, Smith found it difficult to fit in at the university he attended – the University of Nanterre, just outside Paris – which he perceived as ” very, very left” – so he joined the Union Nationale Interuniversitaire (UNI), the right-wing national student union. It was at the start of his studies that one of his mentors at UNI suggested that he consider training at the IFP.

Offering practical and theoretical courses in journalism, politics and business, the IFP has become something of a “finishing school” for young right-wingers in France. After nurturing the networks and community of a new class of right-wing – even far-right – politically minded activists and professionals, the school has nurtured alumni who are serving MPs, organize election campaigns, speak out on CNEWS – the French equivalent of Fox News – or even work as far-right influencers on social media.

In a year when the French far right recorded its best electoral results, the role of the IFP as a breeding ground for its political class is more important than ever.

“The goal of IFP is very clear to me,” Smith said. “It’s about shaping right-wing youth to create a new generation ready to take on the country’s challenges.”

There has already been success there. According to the director of the school, the IFP has trained more than 2,200 students since its opening in 2004, and approximately 40% of them now have responsibilities in political circles.

Among the fifty members of the close entourage of far-right commentator and former presidential candidate Eric Zemmour, identified according to the French daily Le Monde, at least a fifth have links with the IFP – as former students, professors, lecturers, financial supporters or admirers.

“We try to maximize their chances of having positions of high responsibility,” said Alexandre Pesey, director and co-founder of the institute, in an interview with CNN.

Fresh out of his own studies, in 2004, Pesey decided to create the school with two colleagues. The trio felt they lacked “a place for committed young people (…) who are attached to their country, their history, their culture and their identity”, he said.

The headmaster prefers not to politically qualify the teaching provided by the school, but he admitted “on a left-to-right scale, clearly, it’s more to the right”.

Some of his seminars are entitled: “A lawyer facing the Islamist threat”; “Preserving our freedom of expression, a challenge of our time”; “The values ​​of the right”; “Gender, veganism, nativism: deciphering the semantics of the left.

Students can follow a basic program of seminars or take specific training in journalism, politics or entrepreneurship. Classes are held in person either in the evening or on weekends, depending on the students’ university or work schedules. They pay a fee to attend IFP but can obtain scholarships from school donors.

IFP does not offer state-recognized qualifications or degrees, so most students attend formal university studies alongside. “I see it as something more to supplement my education,” Smith said. “It gave me the ideological backbone of the right.”

“Beyond the intellectual and practical dimensions of their training, there is a networking dimension,” Pesey said. The connections students form are both horizontal – among their peers – and vertical – with guest lecturers, mentors and like-minded professionals.

“There are things that have been created because people met at IFP,” says Samuel Lafont, 34. It gives people concrete ideas. Lafont was one of IFP’s first students, having first attended the school’s seminars in 2009. Today, he is best known for his role as a digital strategist for Zemmour’s election campaign.

He was also one of the minds behind the “Manif pour tous” (Protest for All) movement, which organized protests against same-sex marriage in 2012 and 2013. He described it as a key moment when many groups of far-right and conservative young people came together and began to connect, both in person and through online activism.

Supporters of the anti-gay marriage movement

The high-level contacts proposed to the IFP can be media entrepreneurs, magistrates, deputies or directors of prestigious research programs.

It is a powerful opportunity. “I know if I ever need to change jobs…there are plenty of people I know through IFP that I can call,” Smith said.

Schools like the Institute of Political Studies in Paris, known as Sciences Po, or the National School of Administration (now the National Institute of Public Service) – the selective “grandes écoles” of France – are historical institutions, considered an express ticket for the elite. careers in the country.

However, for many on the right, they represent the integration of leftist teaching – and some disparage what they offer.

“It’s a lot more free at IFP,” Lafont told CNN. “Sciences Po really teaches you a one-way way of thinking, it’s very common, some things you can say and some things you can’t,” he added.

Zemmour, who came fourth in the first round of voting in the presidential election, called The IFP the “counter-Sciences Po”, emphasizing the reactionary nature of the education it provides.

“The idea had germinated on the right that one of the reasons for their political defeat was the absence of an elite of intellectually trained cadres,” said far-right researcher and expert Jean-Yves Camus, “and that the cause of this absence was that even if you enter university as a right-handed person, you are shaped by a dominant left-leaning teaching.

IFP alumnus Alice Cordier, pictured in 2021, is the president and founder of the far-right feminist group

“Today, the right is facing a certain censorship,” said Alice Cordier, 24, a graduate of the IFP and now a teacher. “We see a woke ideology and other extreme ideologies that aim to censor people who think like me.” The IFP advised her as she laid the foundations of what became the far-right feminist and anti-immigration collective “Collectif Némésis”, with chapters throughout France and Switzerland.

The IFP, on the other hand, “facilitates the creation of links between politicians and young people, which, on the right, is not necessarily very developed”, estimates Cordier. Furthermore, the IFP encourages students to be more ambitious by showing them that they “all have a role to play, whatever our status”, she said.

Currently, the right is in the majority in France, said Camus, but “despite everything I have the impression that they still feel they are in the minority”. This may have played into the creation of the IFP, he added.

While some analysts are hesitant to credit the IFP with any impact on French politics, the presence of its alumni on the political scene speaks volumes. Chief among them may be Zemmour’s digital strategist, Lafont, as well as some 20% of Zemmour’s inner circle at election time – as identified by Le Monde – with links to the IFP. Stanislas Rigault, 23, a former student of the IFP, founded the youth wing of the Zemmour campaign, Generation Z.

Zemmour’s closest team members even called the IFP directly to recruit young people trained there as the presidential election approached, according to student Jacques Smith. “I think when Zemmour launched the campaign, the IFP was at the center of the game,” he said.

Marion Maréchal, the niece and potential successor of far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen and former member of the French National Assembly, has even created her own school modeled on the IFP, in Lyon.

Both Lafont and Cordier agree that a big part of what makes a school relevant in France is the power its name holds. They recognize that the “big schools” so despised by the right still wield great power in the labor market and the political arena. “If you’re in a good school, you can relax,” Lafont said.

Yet, they say, the IFP brand now has the same weight in French right-wing circles.

“It’s the best school there is right now to really educate yourself on issues that matter to the right,” Cordier told CNN. She often sends young women from her collective to attend seminars at school.

The school says demand for places exceeds supply.

“The right-wing politicians of tomorrow will all have gone through the IFP,” Cordier said. “Of that I am almost certain.”

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